Brexit must unite Britain’s farming and environment policies, says FDF

The Food and Drink Federation (FDF) has called on the UK Government to provide "leadership" on environmental policies post-Brexit, claiming that the two 25-year plans to strengthen environment and food and farming policies should be combined alongside energy legislation.

Speaking at an FDF-hosted Sustainable Supply Chains conference in London yesterday (23 November), the FDF’s chair and regional chief executive of food company McCain Nick Vermont, said that the Government’s plan to implement new policies regarding the environmental and farming in isolation from each other was creating a “battle” over UK farmland.

“We definitely need to join together environmental and food policies,” Vermont said. “It is an absolute necessity and we need to seize that opportunity. The other aspect of this is energy policy. Right now, there is a battle in the fields of Britain for the best farming land and whether it should be producing maize for digesters, raising cattle or producing crops.

“Some of the food and energy industry may have their heads in the sand, but we need some leadership from a government level to bring that together, so we can all understand the rules of the game.”

Defra Secretary Andrea Leadsom has confirmed that the frameworks for the two separate 25-year environment and food & farming plans will be launched on separate pathways, while also confirming that around three-quarters of European Union (EU) environmental legislation will be transferred across into UK law in the immediate aftermath of Brexit.

The Government has also established that it is committed to matching the €5.8bn that the UK currently receives from the European Regional Development Fund. In total, the EU pays British farmers up to £3bn a year, of which around 20%, or £600m, is paid to farmers to protect the environment.

Chalk and cheese

Also speaking at the event was Matthew Orman, the managing director of policy advisors Harcourt Public Affairs. Orman warned that even if these financial commitments were met, both environmental and farming funding would be left with a “gaping hole” after 2020.

Orman claimed that reconnecting environment and farming policies was the potential “lining in the cloud of Brexit”, but that these hopes had been dashed be the Government’s affirmations. He suggested that it would fall on the shoulder of businesses to influence farming and environmental policies going forward, but that they would have to be comfortable operating between “two different narratives”.

“The cultural question of how we approach Brexit and risk has two dimensions,” Orman said. “Organisations can influence the process of environmental policy post-Brexit. I’ve worked in Brussels and Westminster and they are like chalk and cheese.

“Westminster is much more based on public opinion and harnessing it to develop a sense of fear and outrage on certain environmental issues to drive political interest. Brussels is built around fairly dry paragraphs of text, essentially out of the view of the media and public opinion.

“After Brexit, these two world’s will have to combine, there are a lot of devils and a lot of details coming up and anyone who looks to influence this going forward is going to have to become comfortable with these two separate approaches.”

Orman suggested that the European Circular Economy Package – which could come into force next year – would provide insight into how the relationship between the UK and the EU develops. There have already been calls from organisations for the UK to embrace the package in order to boost trade opportunities.

Ambition amidst uncertainty

Vermont was at the event to discuss the FDF’s recent launch of Ambition 2025 – a new framework aimed at getting members to deliver a more sustainable food chain. Among the headline goals of the new Ambition is a 55% absolute reduction in CO2 emissions by 2025 against a 1990 baseline. Zero-food waste targets and packaging requirements are also included in the framework. In total, FDF account for around 16% of the UK’s total manufacturing turnover (£81.8bn) and consists of more than 6,600 members.

The FDF chair was also joined by FDF’s director general Ian Wright, who provided a more positive outlook on the current political uncertainty. Wright claimed that decisions arising from Brexit and president-elect Donald Trump may threaten environmental policies in the short-term, but that they couldn’t derail the sustainability movement.

“I think many people are concerned about the impact of Brexit on our environmental policies,” Wright said. “I know many are deeply concerned about the election of Mr Trump and the way America behaves environmentally and sustainably going forward.

“I’m more optimistic that the progress that has been made, which has been painful and incremental, in the direction of sustainability is actually not going to be set back by these different political movements because it is ingrained in the business psyche. The direction of travel is established, it’s not irrevocable and it can be threatened, but it is established.

“There are a generation of business leaders in place who have lived with nothing else [but sustainability], and they believe it is the way to do business. It doesn’t mean that short-termism won’t affect decision making on a fairly regular basis, but I’m confident in our journey going forward.”

Matt Mace

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