How agricultural drones are rising above environmental problems

There was a time when unmanned aerial vehicles, or drones as they are now more commonly known, were the preserve of military generals – with their first recorded use taking place in the First World War. Since then, they have become a more familiar part of everyday life, having found favour amongst photographers, and even catching the attention of multi-national delivery companies. One other industry in which their use is gathering pace is the agricultural sector, and it could spell good news for our natural environment.

Solving problems with flying colours

A worrying environmental problem – but one thankfully now receiving much more attention – is the deteriorating condition of the world’s soils. A report from the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation indicates that a third of all of the world’s land is moderately to highly degraded, owing to erosion, compaction, salinisation, acidification, and toxification from industry. In addition to this, there have been ominous accounts of there being only 60 or so harvests left if we continue to abuse soils in the way which we have historically done so.

One issue in particular with soil is compaction, which is often linked to heavy agricultural machinery such as tractors and quad bikes being used on farmland. Compacted, less porous soils not only make it more difficult for plants to take root, but they also struggle to retain water, which can increase susceptibility to flooding and increase fertiliser and pesticide run-off (leading to eutrophication and toxifying watercourses). Soil can also be a valuable carbon sink, which helps mitigate climate change, but the ability to sequester carbon diminishes when compacted. Though still in the early stages of development, drones, which can aerially sow seeds, for instance, have been proposed as a novel way to remove heavy equipment from farmland, therefore minimising the extent to which soil compaction occurs.

One area of agriculture in which drones are already quite established is administering pesticides to crops – indeed, the Japanese have been using drones to do so on their rice paddies since the 1980s. Drones are far less indiscriminate than conventional methods of spraying pesticides, which has environmental benefits. By virtue of being able to fly close to crops, drones can spray only the plants which farmers want to target, which lowers the amount of pesticide used.

Although civilian drones are perhaps most commonly known to be used by photographers and alike, shrewd farmers have also come to understand the advantages of combining photographic equipment and aerial units – a development which should benefit the natural environment. Specifically, farmers are using camera-equipped drones to monitor the health of crops and orchards, as they can more easily spot diseases from a higher vantage point than would be the case otherwise. The most advanced drones can also gather images of farms with different multispectral lights, such as infrared, which can further reveal hitherto unknown information to farmers about the health of their crops. By being able to better identify problems, such as fungal diseases, farmers can take evasive action more quickly – in some cases up to ten days more quickly – and remove stricken plants from their fields, therefore stopping pathogens in their tracks and preventing them from causing damage further afield.

A final way in which drone technology in agriculture can reduce the sector’s impact upon the natural environment is simply through how they can boost yields. Higher yields mean less land needs to be sacrificed to growing food, thus preserving more vital habitats for native wildlife. In addition to reducing pesticide and fertiliser use and bolstering biosecurity, drone monitoring of crops can boost yields by providing farmers with information on, for instance, how well parts of their farm are irrigated and soil nutrient compositions. Farmers can then respond to this information to make changes to their land, or better distribute the fertiliser they put onto it. One technology company which operates in the agri-drone market claims that yields on certain crops can increase so much as a result of using drones that the return on investment can exceed $15 per acre of land farmed. 

The sky’s the limit

Agriculture is a science, and as such it has been constantly innovating. Despite having been in existence for some time now, drone technology looks set to make inroads in the industry – and revolutionising it as it does. Indeed, Bank of America Merrill Lynch anticipates farming to be accountable for four-fifths of the commercial drone market in the future, generating tens of billions of pounds of economic activity in the process over the next decade.

Drone technology in the agricultural sector will almost certainly bring about vast productivity increases, with one estimate claiming that drone-planting systems can achieve an uptake rate of 75%, and reduce planting costs by 85%. As agricultural productivity has started to plateau in recent years and decades – total output from UK farms has changed fractionally since the 1980s – the farming community is beginning to look to new technologies like drones which could prove to be the next revolution in the industry.

But these robots in the skies could also be a blessing for the environment below. As the technology is finessed, we can call upon drones to be gentler on our precious soils, less intensive in our use of harmful pesticides, become better at spotting potentially devastating diseases, and lower the overall footprint of our farming operations.

And it would seem that the Government is on board, too. Only this year, both the Environment Secretary, the Rt Hon Michael Gove MP, and the Chair of the House of Commons Environment, Food, and Rural Affairs Select Committee, Neil Parish MP, have indicated their desire to see Britain become a world leader in agricultural drones and other labour-saving, environment-improving technology. Indeed, drones look increasingly likely to be a clever solution to some of the environmental challenges currently associated with the agricultural industry.

Eamonn Ives is a Researcher at Bright Blue


Reflections on Bright Blue's Green conservatism conference

On Wednesday 1st November, Bright Blue hosted its inaugural Green conservatism conference – a day-long event of panel discussions and keynote speeches, all feeding in to some of the most pressing debates currently taking place in the environmental sphere. Specifically, we endeavoured to examine four distinct areas of interest: agriculture, conservation, the role of markets in energy, and energy security.

The day began with a keynote speech from the Minister of State for Climate Change and Industry, Claire Perry MP. She struck an optimistic tone about the economic and industrial opportunities the UK has going forward as a cleaner and more environmentally sustainable nation – citing the Government’s work in pioneering the Contracts for Difference reverse auctions which have led to a blossoming, and ever cheaper low-carbon power sector, and unprecedented investment in renewables like solar and wind since 2010. Perhaps most interestingly of all, the Minister acknowledged that current policy does not allow onshore wind projects to bid for low-carbon contracts, and that this inconsistency is something the Government is actively seeking to address.

Agriculture and CAP reform

The first panel of the day sought to explore the current and future status of agriculture in Britain, particularly in the context of Brexit. A vigorous debate ensued, with the panel divided as to what the future status of rural payments to landowners and farmers ought to be in the coming years.

Arguments were advanced both for and against maintaining large-scale state support for the agricultural sector. Those backing a continuation of payments made their case for doing so largely on the basis of food security and food standards, as well as to remunerate farmers for the various aspects of environmental stewardship they provide.

On the other side of the argument, however, the contradictory nature of CAP payments vis-à-vis environmental sustainability was advanced, along with the economic inefficiency which some believe they have encouraged in Britain’s agricultural sector. Regarding the stewardship role of farmers, it was argued that this could still be retained, albeit through a more targeted system of commissioning public ecosystem services where they are demanded.

The future of conservation

There was consensus on our second panel about the need to be doing a good deal more conserving. Each panellist, however, contributed a unique perspective on just what, exactly, the focus of conservation ought to be. Suggestions ranged from raw materials to soil quality, and ancient woodland to native species of flora and fauna.

One point of contention among the speakers was over the use of targets within conservation policy. Arguing against targets, some vocalised how they can give conservation efforts ever narrower focuses, whereas it can be more effective to examine issues of this kind holistically. The risk that a plurality of targets can quickly become contradictory of each other was also raised.

Nonetheless, other panellists defended this approach, largely on the basis that targets can serve as a spur to much needed action – for example, as we have seen with the phase out of petrol and diesel cars, or recycling rates. Furthermore, it was argued that targets may also usher in better data collection which can be crucial to understanding what elements of conservation policy are going right, or, importantly, wrong.

The panel also touched upon question of rewilding. Again, all broadly agreed that a degree of rewilding could be agreeable, yet there was debate around how far it should go. Some favoured the reintroduction of species like the lynx and beaver, but others drew the line at restoring native habitats, such as rewetting peatlands and reforesting upland woodlands which have been lost to agriculture, for instance.

Strengthening the role of markets in energy

Among the third panel of the day (and the first on energy), there was a general recognition that markets can and should be strengthened to deliver better outcomes for consumers. Different panellists highlighted the role that different technologies could play in revolutionising how we consume energy, such as big data, blockchain, connectivity, interconnection, and also demand flexibility services. As these cost-effective technologies develop and expand in the market, there will be greater scope for reducing government intervention.

Whilst there was broad praise for the Contracts for Difference reverse auctions which the Government has been conducting to drive down the costs of low-carbon power subsidies, the panel was split on the efficacy of large-scale nuclear projects like Hinkley Point C backed by now seemingly exorbitant strike prices. Some saw them as a necessary price to pay to ensure a secure supply of low-carbon energy, others as overly expensive and incompatible with a more decentralised, flexible electricity grid.

Energy security in the UK and Europe

Much in the same way as some members of the first panel on agriculture questioned the need for food security, so too was there scepticism on our fourth panel about the idea that the UK should be worried about energy security. Indeed, the panellists drew an important, under-appreciated distinction between self-sufficiency, which means that all energy is produced and generated domestically, and security, which means that energy supplies are secure through having diverse and reliable sources.

The panel was quite clear that we should not overstate the importance of Russian energy imports in the context of UK and European energy security, citing the maxim that “Russia needs Europe more than Europe needs Russia”. There was also significant optimism that improvements in renewables like wind energy will make domestic production easier, while new technologies such as electric vehicles and advancements in batteries will also help to bolster our storage capacity.

If there was one outstanding note of caution raised by the panel, it was that as our energy networks become increasingly interconnected and convergent, the potential danger of a successful cyber-attack on the system escalates. This, more so than conventional energy security fears, seemed to be where the panel thought resilience in our energy sector would be most needed.


The final two speeches were delivered by two former Environment Secretaries from the Major Government. While divided on the question of the UK’s membership of the EU, they are united on the imperative of protecting our environment.

First, the Rt Hon Lord Deben, Chair of the Committee on Climate Change, spoke of how business needs to assume a greater responsibility for tackling climate change, especially now that the science so clearly supports anthropogenic climate change. He stressed the idea of doing more to internalise hitherto externalised costs of pollution associated with consumption – in basic accordance with the ‘polluter pays’ principle. Furthermore, he highlighted how much more energy efficient everyday living has become as a result of EU regulations.

Second was the former Leader of the Conservative Party, the Rt Hon Lord Howard. Speaking with reference to his role as Secretary of State for the Environment during the Rio Summit of 1992, Lord Howard raised how, contrary to popular assumption, rising living standards and decarbonisation need not be antithetical – citing evidence that the UK has witnessed both the greatest decline in carbon emissions and greatest rise in per capita economic growth of all G7 countries over the past 25 years. He argued that Brexit would allow the UK to become even more environmentally friendly than it currently is.

In summary, the Green conservatism conference successfully brought together a range of policymakers, experts, and practitioners, particularly on the centre-right, with the shared ambition to realise a greener, more sustainable world, yet with different perspectives on how to achieve that desire. The debates which took place were testimony to the long-standing, but underacknowledged conservative commitment to environmental stewardship and conservation.    

Eamonn Ives is a Researcher at Bright Blue

Gove’s green guarantee: reforming the Common Agricultural Policy

On the Andrew Marr Show last weekend, the new Environment Secretary, the Rt Hon Michael Gove MP, offered some succinct and unambiguous answers on the outline of agricultural subsidies post-Brexit. Of particular note, he confirmed that wealthy landowners could expect to receive less money in the form of subsidies after the current Parliament.

The Common Agricultural Policy and its problems

At present, the regulatory and funding systems which govern the British countryside are dominated by the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy (CAP). This regime sees the UK receive over £3 billion per annum, which is allocated to farmers and landowners alike. Underpinning the CAP are two ‘pillars’, which dictate as to where public money is directed. Pillar I funding consists of measures such as income support (money awarded per hectare of land owned), and receives three quarters of the total CAP budget. Pillar II funding, which is paid out through each EU member state’s Rural Development Programme, is supposed to encourage environmentally sustainable farming practices in return for cash payments.

Unfortunately, this system has a number of perverse unintentional environmental implications. Firstly, the strict requirements for Pillar I payments mean that farmers have a fiscal incentive to avoid agri-environment practices. One instance of this playing out in reality is reports of some farmers felling trees under the justification that it will increase the amount of land on which they can farm, and thus claim subsidies for.

Secondly, by subsidising inefficient farming operations, the CAP has allowed agriculture to take place in areas it otherwise would not. Hill farming, for instance, is rarely economic, as the market price received for produce cultivated on hillsides would not cover the costs of production – it is only thanks to subsidies that the practice persists. Without subsidies, therefore, this land would go unfarmed, potentially allowing more afforestation in the uplands, and increased biodiversity as a result.

The future of agricultural subsidies after Brexit

With woodland coverage in the UK having shrunk to just 13% of the total land area, society is missing out on a wide range of benefits that trees offer. A report from the Forestry Commission cites how trees purify the air, serve as natural flood defences, and are even associated with improving mental health amongst individuals. It is for exactly these reasons that Bright Blue launched its campaign earlier this year for the Government to improve tree planting incentives for farmers after Brexit.

But what other funding priorities should the new post-Brexit agricultural policy have? The National Trust has called for taxpayer money to be paid out to farmers only where clear public benefits are delivered. They have also pointed out the fact that there are certain aspects to agriculture which degrade the natural environment, such as through the excessive use of harmful fertilisers, and which currently are actively rewarded by the CAP. Thus, a more targeted system of granting funds to farmers would allow the Government to remove or reduce payments from those who engage in such detrimental practices.

Echoing this perspective is Professor Dieter Helm of the University of Oxford, who argues that the problem is not that farmers receive public money per se, but rather the ends to which it supports. Further, he argues that farmers should be regulated to maintain the land to a certain level in a way that avoids harming the wider environment and that public funds should be earmarked to directly purchase public goods from farmers.

The consequences of Brexit on the agricultural community will be pronounced, perhaps more so than for any other sector of the economy. Many farmers are anxious that the end to subsidy payments could imperil their businesses and livelihoods. Yet such fears may be premature and unwarranted. In 1973, New Zealand’s farmers faced a comparable situation when Britain – one of its then major trading partners for foodstuffs like lamb and dairy – joined the European Economic Community and thereby adopted its external tariffs.

New Zealand responded by removing all of its agricultural subsidies in 1984 for food production and fertiliser use. These subsidies had been blamed for environmental degradation, low productivity, and inducing a lack of innovation within the sector. Once withdrawn, some smaller farmers who lacked the requisite economies of scale went out of business. But many others successfully embraced innovations in science and technology as the means to realise increasing yields, and began to utilise the differing types of land more effectively and more efficiently. Accordingly, New Zealand’s agricultural sector enjoyed average real terms growth of 4% for the next 15 years and has since established itself as a key component of the global food supply network.

In terms of the environment, the results have been mixed. With the lucrative subsidies scrapped, farmers found it less affordable to purchase artificial fertilisers and pesticides, and their use declined accordingly. Moreover, rates of afforestation increased, and the total number of hectares of land dedicated to pasture fell. However, critics of New Zealand’s approach have cited concerns about how the rate of conversion of indigenous grassland to exotic pasture increased in the South Island by 67% between the period 1990-2001 and 2001-2008. In addition, by excessively focusing on its comparative advantage in livestock production – a highly greenhouse gas-intensive activity – New Zealand has become the largest emitter of livestock emissions per capita.


In leaving the EU, and by extension the constraints of the CAP, Britain has presented itself with an historic opportunity to review the relationship between the Government and the agricultural sector. The substantial sums of money which are currently sent to subsidise inefficient, and at times environmentally injurious, farming operations can be redirected to finance projects and farming practices that improve the environment.

During the debates which took place in the run up to the 23rd June 2016, there were only cursory mentions of the implications of Brexit for the environment, with the Remain side highlighting the potential loss of environmental regulation, and the Leave side promoting the opportunity to relinquish the EU’s unwieldly CAP. We now have a Government re-committed to “being the first generation to leave the environment in a better condition” than it inherited. Certainly, Gove’s comments this weekend indicate his desire to use Brexit and the UK’s departure from the CAP to further that ambition.

Eamonn Ives is a researcher at Bright Blue

Why solving the global wildlife crisis could help build a stronger, healthier Britain

Data released today by WWF and the Zoological Society of London sends a shocking message about the health of our planet: global populations of fish, birds, mammals, amphibians and reptiles have declined by 58% since 1970.  The Living Planet Report shows that without urgent action to reduce humanity’s impact on species and ecosystems, vertebrate populations are projected to decline by a staggering 67% from 1970 levels by the end of this decade. 

Human activity including agriculture, pollution and hunting has eroded populations of African elephants in Tanzania, maned wolves in Brazil, leatherback turtles in the tropical Atlantic, and orcas in European waters.  We lose an area of forest equivalent to a football pitch every two seconds, we have overfished our oceans, and through over abstraction and dam building some rivers no longer reach the sea.  This is not just a faraway problem: the RSPB’s recent State of Nature report showed that almost 60% of our native species, from kingfishers to hedgehogs to turtle doves, have declined in recent decades.

We ignore the decline of other species at our peril – for they are the barometer that measures our impact on the world that sustains us.  We are entering an era where climate change, floods and health costs from pollution threaten our economic prosperity, resilience, and wellbeing. This is arguably the greatest challenge humanity has yet faced - but great challenges can be the catalyst for great progress.  By basing all future policy decisions on the understanding that a healthy natural environment is a crucial underpinning to our economy and society, Ministers could not just help save the global environment, but also markedly improve the lives of millions of people. 

Laudably, the Government says it wants this generation to be the first to leave the natural environment in an improved condition.  So as we prepare to leave the EU, Ministers must jettison any temptation to erode the environmental rules and standards their predecessors worked to shape.  Instead, they should build on these achievements.  

Post-Brexit, there is no reason why the UK should not lead the world in running a successful, low-carbon economy that respects and nurtures precious wildlife and wild places, at home and abroad.  The promised 25-year environment plan, due for publication in draft form later this year, could start this process.  It should be explicitly backed by the Prime Minister, boast strong proposals for reform, and apply to every corner of government.

What should this plan contain?

It should set ambitious goals for restoration and improvement of our natural resources - including forest cover, urban green space, air, water and soil quality - and put in place a transparent monitoring system so our natural capital can be managed as prudently as our financial resources.  

It should hold all government departments and public bodies accountable for how their policies and actions will affect nature for generations to come. For example, the impact of any new housing, transport or energy infrastructure should be assessed against rigorous environmental standards – including on carbon emissions.  

Nature doesn’t recognise borders - and our actions at home can also impact wildlife on the other side of the planet.  So the plan should set out provisions to measure and manage the UK’s impact on nature in other countries, so that unsustainable supply chains, for example in food and raw materials such as wood, palm oil and soy, become a thing of the past.  Savvy businesses – many of which already take advice from WWF in order to decrease their environmental impact – would have every reason to back sensible regulation that levels the playing field and helps preserve essential resources over the long term. 

There are precedents to build on here.  The Paris agreement on climate change (which British Ministers played an active role in shaping, and which Theresa May is committed to adopting) has been ratified by over 50 nations.  The Government is a signatory to the UN’s sustainable development goals and has a proud record in fighting the illegal wildlife trade, recently backing new restrictions on the international trade in threatened species including pangolins and African grey parrots. December’s conference of the UN Convention on Biological Diversity is a vital forum for the Government to reiterate that it is serious about helping tackle the global loss of species.  And a 25-year plan that tackles our international footprint and provides inter-generational accountability would allow the UK to show international leadership.

A lot can change within just one generation.  So allow me to imagine what life could be like in only 25 years’ time. Flooding in towns and cities could be reduced with restored wetlands and rivers which, now brimming with wildlife, provide us with beautiful places to spend our free time.  Farmers will be paid a decent income to create beautiful, wildlife-rich habitats, using natural methods to improve productivity and contribute to societal benefits such as clean water and reduced flooding.  Our seas will be full of life, supporting a restored and sustainable fishing industry. Housing and infrastructure developments will be located where they will do minimal environmental damage, working with nature rather than against it. Children will be healthier both mentally and physically as they play in green space in all our cities, towns and villages, and their future will be more secure as our carbon emissions fall to almost nothing.  

And new industries – boosted by a low-carbon Industrial Strategy - will create jobs in an increasingly resource-efficient, circular economy in which materials get reused and recycled, we consume in ways that do not leave a footprint internationally, and the value of nature is incorporated into business plans and government policy.

Sensible stewardship of the natural world is not an alternative to enterprise; on the contrary, it is now a prerequisite for the economic and social health of communities and nations.  As a global green industrial revolution gets underway, the Government should not be afraid to use its power to ensure the UK leads rather than lags behind.

Mike Barrett is Director of Science and Policy at WWF-UK

The views expressed in this article are those of the author, not necessarily those of Bright Blue.

A post-liberal approach to the natural environment

As Brexit approaches, too many public figures seem determined to stress what divides rather than what unites us; yet the great majority of people outside Westminster simply want to get on with building a country we can be proud of, with a fairer economy and healthier environment. 

Luckily, the further away from SW1 you travel, the more possible it is to imagine a politics that could make this happen.  From Brixham to Birmingham, Sutherland to Stoke, people tell us that they value relationships and the bonds within communities, as much as individual rights and freedoms.  They are sceptical about allowing the state to dominate their lives, but recognise its role in making things better.  They don’t think of people or nature as commodities; but embrace the role of businesses in building economies that flourish.

Theresa May seems instinctively to understand this politics, which has loosely been called post-liberalism. If she were to put it to work to restore Britain’s natural environment, she could begin a project of remarkable national renewal. 

Our wildlife has suffered horribly since the war; our soils are in poor health; and we are facing the impacts of climate change without the resilience we need.  The last Government showed what can be done, by securing wide-reaching reforms to European fisheries policies, and creating a magnificent over-seas network of marine nature reserves; but we need more of that ambition, if we are to turn Brexit into a moment of opportunity for the natural world.

The first step will be to re-think the role of the state in protecting and restoring our environment.

As the Government has already shown through its welcome ban on microbeads, emphatic state action is sometimes simply the right thing to do. But truly effective regulation should act as a spur to innovation, creating dividends for those able to produce cleaner, more efficient and safer products.  At its best, regulation is dynamic. Its job is specifically to render itself redundant.

A similar story can be told about public funding.  State support can help drive down the costs of new products or practices, and in doing so, become an agent for change.  Governments around the world have helped reduce the costs of solar power, for example. The trick is to taper such support in a way that works for consumers and builds markets, rather than demanding an open ended commitment to subsidy.

In an ideal world, the active state would be an environmental problem-solver, not a nanny.  But in many cases the best solutions don’t come from the centre, but from local people working to improve the places where they live.  Their ‘ask’ from Government is to be given more power to do better. 

This is certainly the case for many farmers trying to do the right thing for their businesses and for nature.  A staggering proportion of today’s farmers say they aren’t profitable without the under-pinning support of the single farm payment.  Yet many also acknowledge that this payment, and the rules that come with it, have done little to incentivise innovation; and that they feel trapped in unsustainable patterns of business that demoralise them and their families. 

The remarkable thing is that in many cases, the route to a more profitable farm is also the route to a better environment. I recently met a farm owner and his young manager in Devon who have dedicated years to developing a machine to turn sea-food waste into high-grade fertiliser. Outside Banbury, I met a young business man who is turning his farm around by matching inputs to outputs with passion and precision.  Producers of the highest quality food tell me that they could sell at prices lower than those of the supermarkets, if they could build shorter supply chains. 

The best food needn’t cost the earth – for nature or customers.  But we desperately need an agricultural policy that supports positive change, rather than underpinning the status quo – through capital grants, advice, and backing for smaller farms (the core of our rural communities and our biggest pool of innovators); rather than static payments and moribund rules.

Once we have this foundation, we can encourage farmers to form partnerships locally to deliver more ambitious projects of environmental renewal.  This might include restoring endangered species and habitats, reducing flood risk or cutting the cost of clean drinking water.  It might even see rural communities offering new ways for children from towns and cities to spend time in the countryside – making a real difference to their development and mental health.

Let us imagine that by the end of this parliament, the Government had committed itself to making the UK a world leader in environmental recovery, with bold plans for restoring nature, reducing pollution, and rebuilding sustainable farm and fishing businesses up and down the country.  And let us imagine too, that the engines for this project were local communities and thriving businesses committed to making great places - with the support of an active but enabling state.  Who would care then, which of us (or them) had voted leave or remain?

Ruth Davis is a senior associate at E3G

The views expressed in this article are those of the author, not necessarily those of Bright Blue.

Future farming policy: putting all our asks in one Brexit?

Politics is finally emerging from the shock and awe of the Brexit decision and frameworks for policy development for a new post-EU future are beginning to emerge. An abiding question is whether the political and economic realities of our impending separation will mean damage limitation is required or whether Brexit presents opportunities, not least for innovation and dynamism in business and in policy.

The risks of damage are perhaps nowhere clearer than for farming. The Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) has taken the lion’s share of the EU budget for decades. Though it has fallen recently, it’s doubtful HM Treasury will want to continue funding farming in the way the CAP has done. George Freeman MP, chair of the PM’s policy board, has recently suggested as much.

Not least the Brexit debate set many hares running about where our ‘repatriated’ EU contributions could or should go and farming wasn’t at the top of the list. If we add in the risk that the trade deals finally settled upon are likely to meet the needs of the most influential industries – perhaps financial services or engineering – then farming could face both cuts to a stable source of funding and more intense competition from often cheaper imports.   

These challenges are faced by an industry that is already in a precarious economic position. Despite turnover of nearly £24 billion in 2015, little short of half of the ‘income’ from farming came from public funding, not farmers producing food. In 2014-2015, farms in the cereals and grazing livestock sectors upland and lowland were on CAP life-support: they made losses. Overall, the farming industry is struggling from a combination of interrelated economic pressures despite public funding: long-term falls in farm gate prices, volatility on world markets, a de facto cheap food policy in the UK and supermarkets driving food prices down as they compete for customer loyalty and market share.  

Brexit hasn’t changed all these factors but it offers the chance, unparalleled in 40 years, to reshape farming policy to better address them and other pressing needs. Within the new frameworks of its 25 year plans for farming and the environment, the Government has a signal opportunity to be progressive. It’s also a moment for all those who care about the countryside and the future of farming to support an ambitious agenda.   

A first goal must be to agree on how to create a resilient, financially stable and dynamic farming industry for the long term. Without it food production will be less secure and the rural economy weakened.

A second and equal goal must be to agree on how farming can be made to work for the wider community and the environment. We should take it as understood that a farmer’s vocation is to produce food. Although food production depends on environmental assets, we can’t rely on farmers’ benevolence and voluntary action on the environment when they face tough markets and a fight to survive in the short term. But equally, if substantial amounts of public money are to keep going into farming, we can’t rely either on public benevolence to fund farmers for business as usual.

This means farming fit for the future has to engage with a wider set of issues as a norm: it must address unsustainable use of natural resources and the damage caused to wildlife, water quality, soils and landscapes. So a central goal for future policy post-Brexit – which the Government’s new plans for farming and the environment must help achieve - should be to recognise its multipurpose role: we need to farm for food and beyond food too.

In a country with a relatively small land area and growing population we don’t have the space or freedom for farming to do otherwise: farming must continue to feed us and provide cherished landscapes, clean water and effective flood management, healthy soils that soak up carbon, thriving ecosystems that support abundant wildlife, all of which benefit the public in myriad ways. These are benefits that the market poorly rewards, if at all.

These are benefits that, if farming is oriented towards them by policy with proper levels of funding, should bring greater efficiencies – for example, by ensuring fewer nitrates enter water bodies, that pesticides are targeted precisely - and cost savings to farmers. They will avoid costs to the public too: for the clean-up of water polluted by run-off, for the dredging of eroded soils, insurance bills for flood repair and the unpredictable fall out costs of global warming.

The case to fund multipurpose farming should and can be based on strong principles: demonstrable public benefits for public funding, accountability to those who pay, a holistic approach to link farming with nature across the landscape and fewer costs, more efficiency and better value for money.  Framed this way there is a strong case to be made to Government to win the first battle in the post-Brexit debate: to maintain public funding into farming at the high levels we will need to create the resilient farming sector that can do what we need for food, for communities and for the natural environment.

Graeme Willis is senior rural policy campaigner at the Campaign to Protect to Rural England. You can read more about these ideas in their new report, New Model Farming: resilience through diversity

The views expressed in this article are those of the author, not necessarily those of Bright Blue.

Creating a buzz about pesticides

Earlier this week, the Centre for Hydrology and Ecology provided the latest twist in the ongoing debate about the impact of pesticides on bees. Their study concluded that half of the decline in the bee populations they observed over 18 years could be attributable to the use of a controversial type of pesticide, neonicotinoids (neonics).

Campaigning organisations like 38 degrees and Friends of the Earth have mobilised significant public support for an outright ban on neonicotinoids. In 2013, a YouGov poll found that 71% of the population would support an outright ban on neonicotinoids.

Given the importance of bees for sustaining our natural environment and our domestic farming industry, the concern is well-placed. The stakes are high for the agriculture sector, as 30% of crops globally depend on natural pollinators such as bees, which are worth an estimated $360 billion to the industry.

The decline of bees

There is a widespread perception that bees are in decline. There has been an observable loss of wild bumblebee species, with two out of 26 species from 80 years ago no longer present in the UK and a further six now found in much smaller areas of the country. Similarly, since the Second World War, the number of honeybee colonies has fallen from 400,000 to around 130,000 in 2013.

However, thankfully, there does seem to have been a very recent recovery in bee numbers: between 2008 and 2012, government figures show an increase in the number of honeybee colonies.

The decline in honeybees has been observed around the world, and is often referred to as ‘Colony Collapse Disorder’. A range of causes have been adduced for this: the Varroa mite, poor nutrition, urbanisation, agricultural intensification, habitat degradation, and climate change.

But some have attributed part of the loss of bees to the use of certain pesticides and, in particular, neonics. First used in the 1990s, neonics are coated on to the seed of crops, such as oilseed rape. The pesticide is then absorbed and transported throughout the plant. This prevents pests, like flea beetle larvae, from destroying the crop.

There is now a significant body of academic evidence showing harmful effects of neonicotinoids on bees. A 2015 study found that the bumblebees’ pollinating services are reduced by exposure to neonics. Another 2015 study, which carried out a large field trial of honeybees that came into contact with neonics, found a correlation between honeybee colony losses and the use of neonics. A 2016 study observed a decline in brood production in colonies exposed to neonics. 

Government response

The regulation of pesticides is currently an EU competency. Depending on the outcome of the Brexit negotiations, the responsibility for pesticides may be returned to the UK government. In 2013, the EU imposed a moratorium on the use of neonicotinoids, on the grounds that they posed a threat to bees. An EU review on whether to lift the ban on neonicotinoids will be concluded by January 2017.

The UK Government is opposed to the EU ban of neonics. It has published two literature reviews, one from 2012 and the other from 2013, assessing the link between pesticides and the decline in the bee population. They found no unequivocal evidence of ‘sub-lethal’ effects on pollinators. They criticised some of the studies as failing to accurately recreate real-life conditions in the field with laboratory experiments.

In 2013, the UK Government was forced to implement the ban on the use of neonics. But, while they have no choice but to enforce the EU regulation, UK ministers have the powers to grant emergency authorisation for the use of neonics in limited circumstances. They did so in 2015 for around 5% of the UK’s oilseed rape crop, following the advice of their scientific advisory body, UK Expert Committee on Pesticides.

The Government, nevertheless, has shown concern about the bee population, with the publication of a ‘National Pollinator Strategy’ in 2014. The strategy does acknowledge potential adverse effects of unregulated pesticides on pollinators. But its response is only to keep the scientific evidence on pesticides under review. The majority of the proposals involve government working in partnership with farmers, landowners, and beekeepers to improve land management and husbandry practices on a voluntary basis.


There is growing evidence of a causal link between neonicotinoids and bee decline. This week’s study by the Centre for Hydrology and Ecology further strengthens the case. But whether the harm is yet sufficient to merit a ban, or whether the trade-off is acceptable in order to improve crop yields, is a matter of judgement. It is also hard to assess whether it is primarily neonics driving the decline in bee numbers.

Oilseed rape cannot be grown without some kind of pest control mechanism. A vital issue that policymakers must consider is whether the risks of neonicotinoids outweigh the risks of the alternative pesticides. For this reason, the best hope of a solution lies in further research and development of alternative, more sustainable pesticides.

Sam Hall is researcher at Bright Blue