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Jordan Lee: Cut red tape to back British farmers efforts to go green

Back British Farming Day provides an opportunity to reflect on the important role farmers play as both food producers and custodians of our green and pleasant land. Today should also be a time to think ahead to the future of farming, the challenges we face, and the means through which we can continue to support hard-working farmers.

Jordan Lee: CEN Nature Programme Manager

The government has rightly seized the initiative with a range of announcements, including backing calls to help shoppers buy British at the supermarket, boosting farmers’ cashflow with earlier Environmental Land Management scheme payments, opening up public procurement contracts to smaller businesses and food producers, and providing new grants to install solar panels on farm buildings.

This last measure could be an important step toward achieving our target of net zero by 2050. As the largest single users of land in the UK, farmers will be key to hitting this target and halting the decline of nature by 2030. But too often red tape ties farmers up, preventing them from taking responsible decisions to generate their own renewable energy or restore the natural world. For instance, outdated health and safety rules and bureaucratic planning processes prevent many farmers from installing new solar panels or small wind turbines.

The inflexibility of our planning system has also exacerbated seasonal water shortages. On-farm reservoirs can help to reduce the risk of flooding, stave off drought, and improve irrigation. But overly burdensome requirements from the Environment Agency have inflated costs and prevented many farmers from building them. To keep the taps running in people’s homes, while ensuring sufficient water for nature and crops, the government needs to speed up the planning process.

Water quality remains high among voters’ priorities. Agriculture is the largest single contributor to water pollution and the government has rightly acted: introducing new rules for farmers using water and providing grants for slurry stores. Unfortunately, despite the grants available, many farmers have fallen at the first hurdle. To build new slurry stores, farmers first have to navigate through the complex planning system and many are refused permission. This cannot go on.

The government should grasp the nettle and extend permitted development rights to energy efficiency improvements on farm buildings, new solar panels or small-scale wind turbines, and the construction of new slurry stores. To further boost farmers’ finances and encourage consumption of more sustainable locally produced food, the government could extend permitted development rights to farmers wishing to convert farm buildings to shops selling their produce.

A more flexible regulatory approach is also needed to enable farmers to make the most of emerging technologies. For centuries Britain has been at the forefront of scientific innovation. Outside the EU, the UK is free to establish an independent agricultural and life sciences policy. With the right regulatory framework, the UK could lead global innovations in agri-tech. This is good for British farmers, businesses, and the environment.

Drones, for example, have been shown to be an effective tool in agriculture. Using machine learning and camera technology, farmers can monitor their crops remotely, helping to increase yields and cut food waste. However, existing regulations prohibit the use of drones outside of the operator’s line of sight and the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) has prohibited drones from being used to spray crops.

This red tape needs cutting to improve crop yields, reduce soil compaction from heavy farm machinery, and free up farmers’ time, allowing them to devote more time to nature conservation projects.

Farmers make countless sacrifices to produce the food we eat and care for their land. It’s right that we recognise this and the government supports them. Whether producing their own renewable energy, improving water quality, or using innovative technologies, by cutting red tape we can help farmers to go green.


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