I am eternally optimistic that one day, everyone involved in the land sector will share my view that in order to bring about a thriving countryside, both economically and ecologically, farmers and conservationists need to come together in discussions as to how to manage rural Britain. We have a governmental department that supposedly seeks to represent the interests of all and is responsible for food security as well as nature conservation. However, the reality is that conservation and farming interests are represented by interest bodies who rarely see eye to eye and when a particular policy is passed it is often seen as a ‘victory’ for one ‘side’ and a defeat for ‘the other’. Take the neonics debate for instance, or badger culling, or glyphosate, or rewilding. All of these issues generally result in each camp opposing each other. You rarely see them in a conference hall together discussing mutual interest and when you do they are placed on opposing sides. This needn’t be and shouldn’t be the case. The way we see the narrative of rural and environmental affairs needs to change to bring about greater unity and therefore greater cohesion of effective policy.
I am calling for a conversation involving all players; a conference, seminar or networking session whereby all countryside interests are represented and discuss issues together, without social media slamming or fisticuffs. Vigorous and diverse debate between people of different views is often far more valuable than debate within a room full of mostly shared interests. We need policy that is broadly favoured by all, not policy that works for some but ignores the interests of others. I believe that Brexit provides the context for this debate to happen. A new Agriculture and Environment Policy will need to be created as we leave the Common Agricultural Policy behind. We have an opportunity to create a cohesive policy that will be supported by all sides; one that emphasises food security and good standards of living for farmers as much as nature and environmental protection and improvement. However, if the policy is created in an atmosphere of division and bickering then the policy will not work. If you speak to someone in rural Britain they will no doubt have an opinion on the RSPB or the NFU and usually this opinion will be swayed depending on thier interests or other affiliations. Automatically, these associations create a division of interest, even though in reality they probably want to support a healthy environment at the same time as sustainable food production. We need to move away from this division and focus on the issues at hand. If we come together and speak together then we may have a chance of success. The idea is not original or groundbreaking. I have discussed it with others before and I know that a certain rural commentator from south Wales has ambitions to bring it to fruition. What I am arguing is that now provides a good moment for such a conference to happen.
It has been announced that various interest groups from the red meat sector will be meeting next month to begin formulating a post-Brexit plan for the food and farming sector. Stakeholders who will be present include the Livestock Auctioneers Association, the National Beef Association, the National Sheep Association, The Tenant Farmers’ Association and the Farmers’ Union of Wales. It appears that the NFU will not be joining them as they are undergoing a consultation with their own members and apparently are not in a position to have any further discussions with anyone else until this consultation is complete. Their final policy document will not be available until 11th October. I understand their position, but they must understand that the new policy must not just work for their members; it must work for all of rural Britain and the entire food, farming and environment sectors (as well as the natural world).
I applaud the Livestock Auctioneers Association for bringing together the few groups that will be attending their meeting next month. However, I would argue that what is more telling is the groups who will not be present. The discussions are likely to take a certain line, due to the interest groups present. Certain topics may or may not be on the agenda. There is a need to challenge views and scrutinise from the very beginning, otherwise we risk a disunited rural Britain. If we only talk to those who share our views, personally and professionally, we risk generating policy ideas that favour ourselves over other interests.
If there is one thing that we should have learnt as a result of the EU referendum is the danger in dividing the country. Division never helped anybody and has only ever, in the history of the world, resulted in negative action, backwardness and aggression. Unity is needed and this can only be garnered through all groups putting past disagreements aside and coming together to draw up a new policy.
It should be said that this message is meant to be targeted as much to conservation organisations as to farming organisations. The recent Vision for Nature report has shown the appetite of young people for a thriving natural world in years to come. Likewise some research I am currently writing for an article on Young Farmers and Brexit, that will be published by the Sustainable Food Trust in a couple of weeks, is showing how young people, whilst hopeful and generally optimistic, still have serious concerns for the future of the industry in a post-Brexit environment. Uncertainty can only be driven out by leadership, clarity, cohesion and strong decision making. We need to rebuild our cohesive society and mend the cracks that have formed but we also have an opportunity to generate a more cohesive rural Britain where the bickering between conservationists and farming organisations disappear and instead they work together as a united front.
As a simple blogger and rural commentator I do not have the influence to bring about such a meeting of diverse interests; of farmers, conservationists, policy makers, teachers, walkers, vets, rural entrepreneurs, auctioneers, shepherds, government officers and politicians. However, I hope that somebody with such influence may take hold of the idea. I would be the first to support them.