A deputation from the Ulster Farmers’ Union (UFU), headed up by the organisation’s president Barclay Bell, has briefed Department of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) officials in London on the need to develop future farm support policies that deliver in terms of food production, sustainability and environmental protection.
Speaking after the meeting, Mr Bell said as far as the union was concerned “each of these core principles can go hand-in-hand with the other”.
Mr Bell said: “Farmers can deliver in term of improved water quality, soil quality and biodiversity, while still having a strong production focus.”
The union is conscious that DEFRA policymakers are coming under increasing pressure from non-governmental organisations (NGOs) to opt for environment-driven, farm support policies post Brexit.
“We have been told that tax payers’ wishes must be respected when it comes to defining the principles that will guide future farm support measures,” Mr Bell explained. “And we accept this. But there must also be a fundamental recognition that food production will always be at the very heart of the farming practises carried out in the UK.”
The UFU visit to London follows the unveiling of plans by Environment Secretary Michael Gove to consult on a new, independent body that would hold government to account for upholding environmental standards in England after the UK leaves the European Union.
There is also an intention on Mr Gove’s part to discuss this matter with the devolved administrations in Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales.
According to some policymakers in London, leaving the EU gives the UK an opportunity to put the environment at the heart of policy making, while ensuring vital protections for our landscapes, wildlife and natural assets are not only maintained but enhanced.
To help deliver a Green Brexit, ministers will now consult on a new independent, statutory body to advise and challenge government and potentially other public bodies on environmental legislation: stepping in when needed to hold these bodies to account and enforce standards.
“We will deliver a Green Brexit, where environmental standards are not only maintained but enhanced,” said Mr Gove.
“We are setting out our plans to ensure the powerful are held to account. We will consult on creating an independent body, encouraging transparency and preventing careless or irresponsible behaviour damaging our natural environment.
“We will consult as widely as possible on these proposals to ensure we get this important decision right for future generations.”
Mr Gove pointed out that environmental decisions currently made in the UK are overseen by the European Commission, which monitors targets, scrutinises new legislation and takes action against illegal behaviour.
“This current system is underpinned by a number of environmental principles, which put the onus on polluting individuals or businesses to pay to repair damage.
“Although these principles are already central to government environmental policy, they are not set out in one place besides the EU treaties. The proposed consultation on the statutory body will therefore also explore the scope and content of a new policy statement to ensure environmental principles underpin policy making.”
Meanwhile, DEFRA Minister George Eustice has recognised the vital importance of soil health and fertility. Courtesy of a message recently delivered to members of the International Federation of Organic Agricultural Movements, he stated that soil health will sit at the heart of a future agricultural policy focused on environmental improvement.
Locking carbon, reducing ammonia emissions and making efficient use of manures were cited as some of the benefits of reviewing soil management.
Eustice also announced that DEFRA will be looking to the organic sector for knowledge and techniques that can inspire agricultural policy and influence a wider approach to soils.