Blog: Voluntary initiatives work for farming and the environment

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Sam Durham

Sam Durham, NFU chief land management adviser, explains more about the support the NFU gives to farming's voluntary environmental initiatives.

He writes:

The NFU supports the industry’s voluntary environmental initiatives. We believe that they work; that they help farmers to farm and to protect their wildlife, their soils and their water courses.

A recent survey by the NFU (see results below) showed that 63% of members were taking voluntary action to benefit the environment. The annual survey of the Campaign for the Farmed Environment (CFE) showed that farmers have addressed the challenges of the government’s Pollinator Strategy by voluntarily establishing over 8,500ha of habitat for pollinators this year.

Survey Results: Members continue to support the Campaign for the Farmed Environment (CFE):

  • Excluding upland areas where CFE does not operate, 58% said that they are aware of CFE.
  • 63% said that they are supporting CFE by taking action to benefit the environment outside of an agri-environment scheme
  • 73% think NFU should continue to support CFE (only 5% said that the NFU shouldn’t support CFE in the future)
  • Only 29% said that when their current stewardship scheme finishes they will remove the environmental options: 19% said that they will continue all of this environmental management, 41% said they will continue some of this management for the environment.

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But the success of voluntary initiatives in farming cannot be measured by area of land alone. Good quality environmental management requires farmers to manage the unproductive areas of their farm in the best way possible to encourage wildlife such as birds. 

As Yorkshire farmer Richard Bramley states (see recent blog): “You’ve basically just got to understand what you have and know how to utilise it to provide those habitats that farmlands birds thrive in.” 

Research has also shown that the location on-farm of the environmental measure is much more important than the area of land. Voluntary measures frequently complement agri-environment options by providing additional nesting or feeding areas for all wildlife.

Every industry has its voluntary initiatives and they can cover issues as diverse as press complaints and food labelling. A voluntary approach can provide a number of benefits; by saving tax-payer money (as the cost of getting the same outcomes through government regulation could be astronomical) and by supporting businesses (as they allow a more flexible approach).

But they can also provide more long term benefits by bringing about real and sustained changes in behaviours and attitudes.

Farmers have a clear responsibility to protect the environment, as Richard Bramley states again here: “As farmers we have a responsibility as 'custodians of the countryside'. What we have to do in a sustainable way is make sure we continue to deliver on our food needs but also deliver conservation needs as well.”

A good farming business will produce food profitably in harmony with the local environment.

There is opposition to the voluntary approach in agriculture, with some campaigners suggesting it doesn’t work and the only way to bring in true environmental protection is to regulate. 

They will refer to their own analysis that will point to trends in loss of wildlife. As always, the picture is never clear and the complexity of the issues means that the true impact of a voluntary approach may be impossible to measure. 

No approach to environmental concerns can be perfect but we would urge the voluntary approach to be given a chance, partly because alternative approaches may deliver a double whammy: providing no environmental benefits while unnecessarily impacting on farm businesses.

A farmer-led voluntary approach has to be the solution to embedding environmental management within productive farm businesses, sustainably and for the long term.

Last edited on: 06:11:2015

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