Nearly a year ago now, Euan wrote a great post discussing Michael Gove’s first six months as Environment Secretary (read it here). At the time Gove had backed a few small but encouraging changes to legislation, addressing plastics, urban air pollution and a few other hot topics. Euan concluded – correctly, I think – that there was reason for cautious optimism, small signs that this might be a government that is serious about making positive change. Now, sixteen months after the general election that put him back into the cabinet, Gove has just overseen his department’s most significant act yet. Last month parliament passed a new agricultural bill into law, the first of its kind in 70 years, setting out the Conservative vision for the post-Brexit future of farming subsidies.
Gove’s appointment in 2017 was met with a mixture of scepticism and fear from most environmentalists. However, this bill, like his earlier projects, has been met with widespread support. The key change it makes is to phase out the current system of agricultural subsidies in which the government pays landowners by the square foot, in favour of new ‘green subsidies.’ These will reward responsible farmers who make efforts to support high biodiversity, improve air and water quality, combat climate change or maximise the health of the natural world in general. Such incentives should help to scale back the use of damaging agrochemicals and reduce the carbon footprint of agricultural practices. This is a long-term plan, and will take a decade to implement, but it represents a clear attempt to modernise an industry that has a defining impact on the environment.
Of course, the new legislation is not without its critics. Catherine Broomfield, writing in the Guardian, highlights its failure to recognise and disrupt the stranglehold of retailers and big corporations on producers, which prevents the spread of sustainable and more diverse farming practices. The move away from area-based rewards will, however, help to challenge the dominance of a small number of individuals and companies that own a majority of British farmland, drawing the largest taxpayer funded subsidies for years. But the consequence of this may not be to encourage better land management practices, as the bill intends, but rather to force these parties into pushing for greater productivity in order to maintain their profit margins. Elise Walch, Coventry University, worries that the law will accelerate the rise of ‘megafarms’, hyper-productive farms using minimal land area with heavy environmental costs. Without proper access to training and direct incentives to learn high-diversity high-yield methods like polycropping and agroforestry, farmers may move naturally towards more damaging practices, despite the new green subsidies.
All of the discussion on the consequences of Gove’s landmark bill is only speculation at the moment. The relationships between land-use, the environment and business are complex. This leaves me in much the same position as Euan last year. While my head remains unsure about the future of the shifting landscape of UK environmental politics, my heart leaps to learn that the more tangible landscapes of the British countryside could be greener and more diverse in years to come.
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