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Tom Lancaster – Good for people, farmers and nature: Shaping the future of UK farm policy

Date Published: 04/04/2018

Picture credit: Chris Gomersall

As Defra consults on the future of UK food and farming outside the European Union, OF&G — together with other leading organic organisations — is urging government to recognise the opportunities organic offers to deliver a green Brexit.

As part of building our own response to the consultation, OF&G is asking leaders in food and farming about what the next steps should be to ensure the country’s environment and economy are properly protected, and that our farmers have the support they need to produce safe, quality and nutritious food.

In this blog post, RSPB senior land-use policy advisor Tom Lancaster explains why paying farmers for public goods is critical, and what he thinks Defra Minister Michael Gove’s vision for agriculture should be.


Tom Lancaster, Senior Land Use Policy Advisor, RSPB

Michael Gove suggests public money should support the delivery of public goods. What do you see as Public Goods?

Public goods are generally goods and services that society needs, but which the market doesn’t deliver. The RSPB is interested because amongst these are a basket of environmental public goods, such as species and habitats, that a farmer cannot sell at the till.

We often say public goods are ‘non-excludable’, because if one person benefits from something, another is not excluded from the benefits it offers.

They are also ‘non-rival’, because if they consumed by one person, it doesn’t reduce the amount available to others.

For example, a farm can produce food and create habitats for skylarks. The skylark is a public good: anyone can enjoy it, and this enjoyment does not get used up by other people.

Food, on the other hand, isn’t a public good: the farmer can choose who to supply it to and exclude other potential customers, and once it is eaten it is no longer available to anyone else.

Public goods are rarely marketable. The farmer receives a price for the food but would struggle to charge people for enjoying the skylark, so the market may cause farmers to prioritise food production over skylarks.

Therefore, there’s clear justification to use public money to support the provision of public goods, both for the societal benefits they bring, and because normal market conditions will often act against them.

With farmers managing around three quarters of all land in the UK, they are uniquely-placed to provide these goods and services for society.

We have argued that a public goods focus is an opportunity for farmers to continue to receive public support, in return for profiting clear benefits that people can appreciate and go beyond the food they buy.

If you were Michael Gove, what would your priorities be delivering a fairer, more environmentally sustainable food and farming system?

My starting point would be a replacement for the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) in England that prioritises environmental public goods.

I would create a system which paid farmers and land managers who deliver public goods, such as more wildlife, improved water quality and cleaner air.

On the flip-side, I would introduce regulations to prevent pollution, alongside enforcement regimes which ensure polluters pay and that the most progressive are not undercut.

In all of this, I would work with my devolved counterparts to ensure a high level of environmental ambition across the UK, as well as a common regulatory baseline.

In shifting to a public goods model, there is an implicit understanding that farmers and growers get a better market return for their produce.

Alongside increased public funding for the environmental benefits farmers provide, we therefore also need a beefed-up Groceries Code Adjudicator.

This would ensure more transparency in the supply chain, targeted support from governments and others to provide business and marketing advice, and support to establish producer groups to improve producers’ position in the supply chain.

This is where supply and demand drivers start to interact. Channelling my inner Gove (something I practice every morning in the mirror), I would talk to the Treasury to ensure that the tax system rewards the good, whilst dis-incentivising the bad, and I would look to ensure that public procurement locally and nationally prioritised environmental sustainability alongside value for money.

There is also a significant role for others to play, such as the RSPB, in promoting the choices that people can make to improve the sustainability of their weekly shop.

Organic certification schemes are a great example of this, and should be in the vanguard of promoting more sustainable options to the public.

Finally, I would fight for a trade policy that maintained high environmental standards, fostering a race to the top by which UK producers were not undercut by lower quality imports.

What’s your vision for food and farming in the next 20 years?

We need to create a food and farming system that is good for people and good for nature, where farming sustains and restores biodiversity whilst producing safe and healthy food.

We need farming that protects and stewards our shared natural resources at the same time as providing employment for farmers and other workers in rural areas, contributing to a diverse and prosperous rural economy.

To get there, we need stable policies that provide long-term certainty that public money for public goods is here to stay, and not just a flash in the political pan.

In the transition from the current policy framework, we also need to ensure that we don’t lose the good we have now, and that any change that we see within the sector contributes to a process of renewal for farming and the environment.

The UK is famously bad at managing industrial change; we need to learn the lessons of the past from other sectors if we are to get to the future that we need.


– OF&G is publishing a series of interviews with leading figures in food and farming to find out how we can protect our environment and produce good food post-Brexit. To read more in the series, follow the OF&G blog here.