Failed EU policies have harmed the environment – time to take back control of nature
Brittany is no longer such a green and pleasant land. Nearly half of our species are in long-term decline and 1 in 6 is threatened with extinction. The government has pledged by law to halt nature’s decline by 2030. But getting there will require bold reforms to the way we manage our land and produce our food, making full use of repatriated powers from Brussels.
In a landmark speech in 2017 reflecting the vote to leave the European Union, then-Environment Secretary Michael Gove identified the natural environment as the area that offers perhaps the most great opportunity for Britain to step away from Brussels and do things better.
His zeal to take advantage of this “thawed moment” was taken up by his successors, and the results were astounding: new legislation for agriculture, fisheries and the environment, a new system of agricultural payments and a new approach to regulation of biosciences. starting with gene editing.
Freed from the much maligned EU Common Agricultural Policy, we are taking a different approach to how we support farmers, known as the Environmental Land Management System (ELMS). Farmers will no longer be paid for the amount of land they cultivate, but rather for the provision of environmental public goods such as cleaner air and water. Taxpayers’ money will support sustainable food production and the restoration of our natural assets like soils and hedgerows, providing better value for money.
Next month we will see the next installment of post-Brexit reform. The government should launch a consultation on overhauling the EU habitat rules so that our approach is better suited to UK habitats and species. Ministers will also unveil the National Food Strategy White Paper in response to Henry Dimbleby’s comprehensive review of our farm to fork food system.
Once the backwater of Whitehall, endorsing EU directives and implementing fisheries and agricultural policies imposed by Brussels, Defra is now one of the most innovative and transformative departments in government. George Eustice and his team are determined to reap the benefits of Brexit for British farmers, fishermen and nature lovers.
However, the task is enormous – and we need to look at what more is needed to achieve our environmental goals. That’s why the Conservative Environment Network (CEN) has published a collection of essays with contributions from 12 Conservative MPs and their peers. Green Albion sets out a plan to restore nature and fight climate change while strengthening the country’s food security.
As Agriculture Minister Victoria Prentis MP clarified at the start of the collection, these goals are not incompatible, as some claim. It is possible, as she explains, to “maintain and even increase” our food security while providing farmers and landowners with the opportunity to restore habitats on areas of less productive land. Since the greatest threat to national food production is climate change, land degradation, poor water quality and biodiversity loss, these goals are, in fact, inseparable. This is why the new rural payments system is so important.
But as the CEN collection shows, the government could do more to restore nature. MP Siobhan Baillie calls on the new UK Infrastructure Bank to include nature in its remit. This will unlock private sector investment in restoring wetlands, creating vibrant habitats and protecting communities from sea level rise and flooding.
MP Robert Largan calls for a ban on the use of peat in the professional horticulture sector by 2025 to halt the destruction of our largest terrestrial carbon reservoir, for which sustainable alternatives exist.
To ensure that the government’s race to meet its target of tripling tree planting rates by 2024 does not do more harm than good, MP Michael Fabricator is calling for tougher restrictions on seeds and saplings imported after Brexit to prevent the UK from importing another disaster like ash dieback, which could kill 99% of our ash trees and cost us £15billion. It also calls for a new habitat classification and legal protection for the remaining fragments of temperate rainforest in western Britain – a globally important and endangered habitat.
The UK also has the opportunity to lead the fourth agricultural revolution based on AI, robotics and precision technologies, which will improve productivity without harming the environment. MP Jerome Mayhew is urging ministers to consider a carbon price, with border adjustment, to encourage this low-carbon, biodiversity-enhancing farming and to prevent food imports from undermining sustainable UK farmers.
We must also take advantage of our regulatory autonomy outside the EU. Henry Dimbleby’s Independent National Food Strategy Review recommended that the UK take advantage of its comparative advantages in cell or lab-grown meat to reduce our land footprint.
MP Jonathan Djanogly responds to that call by outlining the steps required by ministers to boost a world-class cellular meat industry. It calls on the government to end binding EU regulations and increase research and development funding for food innovation. A thriving cell meat industry could add £2bn to UK GDP by 2030 and support up to 16,500 jobs.
Given the damage done to our natural environment by failed EU policies, we now have a once-in-a-generation chance to embark on an agenda of renewal. Like Danny Kruger Put the at the recent CEN conference on safeguarding our natural heritage, restoration should be the watchword of modern conservatism. Hope the government is listening.
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The columns are the author’s own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.