Select Committee on Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Ninth Report



122. The impact of agriculture on the natural environment is a matter of contention. The National Farmers' Union told us that it "very firmly believes that with very few exceptions modern agriculture is environmentally sustainable". It argued that most indicators demonstrated that environmental performance was good and improving.[221] Many of our other witnesses, however, took different views.

123. The language used in debating agriculture's impact on the environment is very important. All farming has an impact on the environment. However, even the most die-hard environmentalist would accept that agricultural production is necessary, and so that environmental change - or damage - is inevitable. The debate is really about finding a balance between farming and protection of the existing environment. It is therefore important to put into context discussion of environmental 'degradation' or 'damage'.

124. In this Chapter we begin by reviewing the evidence that agriculture is in part responsible for some environmental degradation in the countryside. We then review the steps that have already been taken to try to improve the countryside environment. The introduction of schemes such as the Environmentally Sensitive Area scheme has led to a debate about what society wants from its rural areas - and so from farmers. Participants in this debate make great play of the demand for 'public goods' to be provided in the countryside: but defining and valuing public goods, let alone assessing demand for them and deciding how they should be provided, has proved difficult. The Government has acknowledged that it wants to see "expanding resources available for targeted support for rural development and agri-environment schemes".[222] At the present time much attention has been devoted to proposals for a 'broad and shallow scheme' of payments to farmers on agri-environmental grounds, as has been proposed by the Policy Commission on the Future of Farming and Food. We end this Chapter by reviewing that proposal, and then by assessing mechanisms for funding any new environmental scheme.

The environmental costs of agriculture

125. The Countryside Agency was one of many organisations to tell us that "people ... look for food to come from an attractive and accessible countryside with diverse wildlife".[223] Similar views of what the public expected were expressed by, among others, the RSPB, the Ramblers' Association and the Council for the Protection of Rural England.[224] However, we received a great deal of evidence that the reality was that farming had done great harm. The Environment Agency, for example, claimed that agriculture has significant environmental impacts affecting soil, water and air.[225] On 18 June 2002 the Agency published a report which estimated that the "annual costs of agriculture to the environment amount to £1.2 billion, offset by benefits of up to £0.9 billion".[226]

126. The charges laid at the door of farming are numerous, and cover a range of environmental factors. For example, Water UK provided details of the effects that farming had on the water environment in particular. It noted that land management affects groundwater and surface water levels, and can increase the likelihood of flooding, that high stocking densities can cause soil erosion, increased flooding risk and diffuse pollution and that biological contaminants from livestock farming and crop protection products and fertilisers can all adversely affect water quality.[227]

127. English Heritage was concerned about other matters. Stressing the importance of links between cultural heritage, the landscape and economic development, it reported that

  • since 1945 agriculture has been the single biggest cause of unrecorded loss of archaeological sites;

  • a combination of erosion and dessication induced by cultivation and agricultural drainage has irrevocably damaged or destroyed over 13,000 historic sites in our wetlands; and

  • one third of hedges were lost between 1984 and 1993 - older hedgerows have far greater historic interest and biodiversity value.[228]

On a similar theme, the Institute of Historic Building Conservation told us that "in some parts of the country over a third of the historic building stock is at risk as a result of disrepair or lack of use".[229] The Council for British Archaeology described the rural historic environment as "a non-renewable resource", and said that "evidence indicates that intensification and increasing industrialized approach to farming, particularly over the last fifty years, has caused a dramatic decline and degradation in the quality of the rural historic environment and a very serious erosion of historic landscape character and diversity".[230]

128. Taking up that point, the Council for the Protection of Rural England told us that the problem has been the response of farmers to Government policies since the Second World War. Policies have been intended to increase agricultural productivity and promote self-sufficiency in food. It argued that a "chronic inability to reform these policies as conditions changed, or [to] respond to problems as they arose, has resulted in [inter alia] major damage to our landscapes, wildlife and natural resources". It cited the following specific instances of damage:

  • the loss of more than half of England's hedgerows since 1947;

  • a 40 per cent reduction in the number of farmland birds since the mid 1970s; and

  • the loss of an area of permanent grassland the size of Bedfordshire since 1992.[231]

129. The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds said that European Community price support mechanisms had encouraged the pursuit of higher yields through intensive, high-input agricultural systems. It claimed that environmental damage was the result, pointing out that, "for example, high yields are closely correlated with farmland bird declines in the European Union".[232] English Nature identified a similar trend, which it described as "a massive decline in diversity of wildlife, the loss of natural features and the erosion of distinctive local character".[233] It blamed "United Kingdom and European policies to 'modernise' agriculture after the Second World War",[234] and described three specific examples of ways in which the CAP encourages unsustainable land management: livestock subsidies causing overgrazing; the loss of England's species rich grassland to crop production; and the overuse of inputs.[235] The Game Conservancy Trust told us that for millennia farming and wild flora and fauna had co-existed until the middle of the twentieth century, but that "since then the progressive increase in the use of pesticides and artificial fertiliser has hugely depleted this wildlife, and farm crops are now monocultures which support little or no biodiversity".[236]

Agriculture and the Environment - The view of the Policy Commission on the Future of Farming and Food

"We believe it [the farming and food industry] is also unsustainable environmentally - without substantial change.

"Farming and food production have got to be reconnected with the countryside.

"This may seem like an odd thing to say. Over three-quarters of the landmass of England is still a farmed landscape. The English countryside was largely created by farming.

"But in the last 50 years a lot of that countryside's diversity and character has gone. Two thirds of England's hedgerows were lost between the 1950s and the 1990s.

"Once familiar farmland wildlife has experienced serious decline. Other changes are no less serious if not so easily noticed. Soil organic content has declined and phosphorus levels in topsoils have increased. Agriculture is now the number one polluter of water in the country. Land use changes have contributed to increased danger of extreme flood events, affecting thousands of homes.

"Beyond any doubt the main cause of this decay has been the rise of modern, often more intensive farming techniques. Agriculture was once environmentally benign, and a healthy and attractive countryside was a relatively cost-free by-product. The practices that deliver this benefit for society are often not now economic. Farming practice and the familiar English landscape have diverged".[237]

130. It is widely accepted that the way in which agriculture has developed over the last fifty years has not been beneficial for the environment. Blame has been attached both to the practices of farmers themselves, and particularly to the direction in which farmers have been pushed by both domestic and European agricultural policy. However, although there has undoubtedly been environmental damage in the past, there is now some evidence of improvement - or at least a slowing of the decline - in the state of the rural environment.[238] Such a trend is discernable from the Countryside Agency's assessment of the state of natural resources and of biodiversity, set out below.

Rural environmental policy

131. Some of the improvements observed are the result of policy decisions. In 1987, the United Kingdom introduced its first agri-environment scheme, the Environmentally Sensitive Areas (ESAs) Scheme. It identified landscapes of particular value, and set out to offer incentives to farmers to manage them in a sensitive way. The scheme now covers a tenth of all agricultural land.

The Environmentally Sensitive Areas Scheme

The Environmentally Sensitive Areas Scheme offers incentives to encourage farmers to adopt agricultural practices which would safeguard and enhance parts of the country of particularly high landscape, wildlife or historic value. ESAs cover important landscapes ­ upland, wetland, moor, coastal marsh, river valleys - which offer protection for some of our rarest plants (eg. orchids, cornflower) and establish a suitable environment for the recovery of native species (eg. brown hare, otter, water vole).

Under the ESA scheme, farmers and agricultural land managers with land in a designated ESA are able to enter 10 year management agreements with the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (with an option of termination after 5 years). In return, farmers receive an annual payment on each hectare of land entered into the scheme.

There are now 22 ESAs in England, covering some 10% of agricultural land. In 2000, there were a total of 10,915 ESA agreements and 532,000 hectares of land were under an agreement.[239]

There are a few overarching conditions but each agreement is tailored to the features of individual farms entering the agreement. Farmers are required to choose how to manage their farm for the environment from a range of options.

For example in the Pennine Dales ESA, the following clause appears in the guidelines for meadows, pastures and allotments:


In order to maintain the variety of plants found in meadows it is important to delay cutting until most plants have flowered. Later cutting also benefits birds nesting in meadows by reducing the risk of accidental destruction of nests. You are asked not to cut any meadows before 8 July. In addition you are also asked to cut some (20%) of your meadows after 22 July every year. These fields can be the same ones each year or you can rotate them.[240]

In the wet grassland tier of the Broads ESA the following conditions must be adhered to:


Lapwing and redshank will be disturbed by early grazing. Animals can also cause poaching, so grazing is only permitted after 15 May and the stocking rate must be kept low until the end of June.[241]

Since 1987 the number of schemes to tackle agri-environmental issues and the funding given to them have increased considerably (see Figure 15, at the end of the Report).

Countryside Stewardship Scheme

132. In 1991, the Countryside Commission (now the Countryside Agency) launched the pilot Countryside Stewardship Scheme, responsibility for which was later passed to the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food.[242] Under the Scheme farmers and land managers are paid to "enhance and conserve English landscapes, their wildlife and history and to help people to enjoy them". The Scheme operates outside Environmentally Sensitive Areas. The Scheme allows farmers and land managers to enter ten-year agreements to manage land "in an environmentally beneficial way". In return they are paid annually, and can also claim grants for capital works such as hedge laying and planting.[243] 14,000 farmers and land managers are now participants in the Countryside Stewardship Scheme.[244]

The Countryside Stewardship Scheme

"The Countryside Stewardship Scheme aims to sustain landscape beauty and diversity, to protect and extend wildlife habitats, to conserve archaeological sites and historic features, restore neglected land or features, create new habitats and landscapes and improve opportunities for people to enjoy the countryside. By adapting land management practices, the farmer/land owner can enrich the countryside and give enjoyment to the public

"It operates outside Environmentally Sensitive Areas.

"Farmers and land managers enter 10­year agreements to manage land in an environmentally beneficial way in return for annual payments. Grants are also available towards capital works such as hedge laying and planting, repairing dry stone walls, etc.

"Payment depends on how much and what type of work is entered into the Scheme ­ each item of work attracts a set payment. Land management payments are made annually, and capital payments on completion of work.

"Anyone who owns or manages suitable land may apply. The Scheme is open to farmers and non­farming land owners and managers, including voluntary bodies, local authorities and community groups.

"The Scheme is discretionary and not all applications will be accepted".[245]

The booklet describing the Countryside Stewardship Scheme states that:

"All types of conservation work are involved - such as restoring an old orchard, rebuilding a dry stone wall, regenerating a hedgerow, managing a hay meadow, creating an uncropped margin alongside a field of growing crops and providing wildlife habitats. Stewardship also provides new opportunities for walkers, schools, etc to visit farmland. Payments depend on the type of land management agreed and range from £4 to £525 per hectare".[246]

221   Memorandum submitted by the National Farmers' Union, Ev 283, para 12. Back

222   Memorandum submitted by Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, 307. Back

223   Memorandum submitted by the Countryside Agency, Ev 347, para 4. Back

224   Memorandum submitted by the RSPB, Ev 130, para 1.1; Memorandum submitted by the Ramblers' Association, Ev 127, para 3; and Memorandum submitted by the Council for the Protection of Rural England, Ev 152, para 2. Back

225   Memorandum submitted by the Environment Agency, Ev 408, para 2.1. Back

226   Environment Agency, Agriculture and Natural Resources: benefits costs and potential solutions, see:

http://www.environment­ Back

227   Memorandum submitted by Water UK, Ev 398-Ev 399. Back

228   Memorandum submitted by English Heritage, Ev 392, para 8. Back

229   Memorandum submitted by the Institute of Historic Building Conservation, Ev 353. Back

230   Memorandum submitted by the Council for British Archaeology, Ev 375, section 4. Back

231   Memorandum submitted by the Council for the Protection of Rural England, Ev 152, para 9. Back

232   Memorandum submitted by the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, Ev 131, section 3.3. Back

233   Memorandum submitted by English Nature, Ev 447, para 12. Back

234   Memorandum submitted by English Nature, Ev 447, paras 8 and 9. Back

235   Memorandum submitted by English Nature, Ev 448, para 13. Back

236   Memorandum submitted by the Game Conservancy Trust, Ev 469. Back

237   Farming and Food - a sustainable future, p.67-68. Back

238   Countryside Agency State of the Countryside 2002, see: Back

239   Details of the ESA scheme were taken from Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs's website: Back

240   Pennine Dales ESA - Guidelines for Farmers, see: Back

241   Broads ESA - Guidelines for Farmers, see: Back

242   The Countryside Stewardship Scheme - Traditional Farming in the modern environment, see: Back

243   See Back

244   The Countryside Stewardship Scheme, see: Back

245   Details of the Countryside Stewardship Scheme were taken from Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs's website:  Back

246   Countryside Stewardship Scheme - Traditional farming in the modern environment, see: Back

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