Horticulture well placed for food-production role

Horticulture is ideally positioned to play a much bigger role in a post-Brexit food-production policy if the Government takes notice of recommendations by the Environmental Audit Committee (EAC) and landscape and environmental experts, the Landscape Institute president has said.

Merrick Denton-Thompson called for Government to take a fresh look at rural land management following the publication of the EAC's report The Future of the Natural Environment after the EU Referendum. The report outlined the risks to the heavily subsidised UK farming industry and warned that protection for wildlife and habitats could be weaker after the UK leaves the EU if the Government does not take action before or in the early stages of the Article 50 process. At the same time the committee recognised opportunities in leaving the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP).

EAC chair Mary Creagh MP said: "Any new farm subsidies that the Government introduces to replace CAP should provide a better balance between support to agriculture and environmental protection. New subsidies should have clearly defined objectives linked to the delivery of public goods, like the promotion of biodiversity, preventing flooding and storing carbon, rather than simply providing income support to farmers."

The Landscape Institute has joined with the British Ecological Society, the Chartered Institute for Ecology & Environmental Management and the Institution of Environmental Sciences to write to the environment secretary calling for new land management funding to replace CAP, outlining the need for a collaborative approach to boost climate change mitigation, soil restoration, air and water improvement and horticulture for health.

"There has been no clear policy for rural land management for 50 years and now after the decision on Brexit we can at last start having a new ambition for our countryside that defines our nation. I think the report is to be strongly welcomed," Denton-Thompson told HW. He said it is "completely daft" to continue to invest £3.5bn per year in UK agriculture for a food-production system that is not producing a resilient landscape to meet the challenges of a changing climate and that has damaged water with phosphorous and nitrates and soils through over-chemicalisation.

He added: "Fifty-one per cent of profits from the arable sector come from public investment. That is staggering. For the first time we must attain a national land management strategy. If we can do that we can once again see a countryside that is teeming with wildlife, highly productive and viable. The horticultural industry really understands the power of natural systems. I see it playing a much bigger role in the future."

Denton-Thompson said agriculture needs a transformation, with the nation's health central to sustainable food production, something on which the horticulture industry is "way ahead of the farming industry". He added: "We need to see fewer animals, more horticulture, more vegetables, fruit and salads. We've got to eat less meat and if we do so our chances of producing what we need as a nation are much greater. I think it's very exciting for the horticulture industry."

But while he said the report raised many valid issues, he regretted it had not come forward with "a clear coherent recommendation to Defra", something that the Landscape Institute laid out in its evidence to the committee's inquiry. The institute recommends starting with Natural England's mapping of England into 159 character areas, each with its own landscape, biodiversity, geodiversity, history and cultural and economic activity. But "the signs are good", Denton-Thompson added.

"The committee recognised that clean air and clean water are absolutely critical but the committee didn't give any emphasis on the restoration of soil, which I think is a mistake," he said. "Let's celebrate Brexit by seeing the UK's soils restored."

Joint letter - Expert 'asks' put to the environment secretary

- A shift in the balance away from income support for farmers towards investment in the delivery of ecosystem services, based on a principle of "public money for public goods".

- A strategic, systems approach to land management, integrating agriculture and the delivery of environmental benefits at a landscape scale that enables managers to fine-tune interventions to suit local circumstances.

- A recognition of the connectivity between rural and urban systems and the impact of land management beyond the immediate locality.

- An evidence-informed approach, drawing on our extensive knowledge of what makes an effective agri-environment scheme.

- A focus on targeted outcomes and payment by results, rather than a prescriptive approach to environmental land management.

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