Re-shaped Defra vows to make Britain a global leader in farming

Environment Secretary Liz Truss has today (6 January) vowed to make Britain a global leader in sustainable farming by announcing improved flood defences, increased agricultural investment and greater risk-response capabilities as part of a shake-up for the Department for Food and Rural Affairs (Defra).

Speaking at the Oxford Farming Conference, Truss announced that Defra will undergo a ‘re-make’ to create a more efficient platform to combat environmental challenges. The makeover will include an extra £2.7bn funding in agricultural investment and flood defences as she looks to shift more control to farmers and communities.

Speaking at the conference, Truss said: “Defra is reshaping itself to help Britain be a global leader in farming.

“We are making efficiency savings of 15% at the same time as putting more money into capital funding – a 12% increase to £2.7bn over the next five years. That means we can invest in technology and digital systems, growing our exports, world-leading science, protection against animal and plant disease and, of course, flood defences.

“In the past, the department and its agencies have been accused of operating in silos – looking just at flood protection, just farming or just the environment. This is going to change.

“We have been criticised for taking too much decision-making out of local hands. While it is right that we manage major national risks, it does not mean we should seek to micro-manage everything. In the future, we will be more integrated and less siloed.”

More control

The Environment Secretary also planned for improved collaboration between agencies like the Environment Agency (EA), APHA and the RPA to cut back on administrative issues.

The re-shape will also see more decentralised decision-making by giving farmers more control over removing debris in ditches – currently not allowed without permission – and simplifying environmental permit applications.

Defra claims that the new plan will protect more than a million acres of prime farmland by 2021 due to improved flood defences.

Around £65m will also be invested into new livestock centres and precision engineering to increase farmers’ resilience to animal and plant based diseases.

Planting seeds

Defra’s announcement comes just days after a new study claimed that increasing the UK’s tree cover from 12% to 30% and restoring 700,000 hectares of wet peatland would allow the farming sector to meet its required contribution to the legally-binding target of 80% emissions reductions by 2050, against 1990 levels.

The study, published in the journal Nature Climate Change, looks at how the UK’s ‘spare land’ could be coupled with other strategies to reach this goal for the agriculture sector.

It states: “We find that a land-sparing strategy has the technical potential to achieve significant reductions in net emissions from agriculture and land-use change.

“Coupling land sparing with demand-side strategies to reduce meat consumption and food waste can further increase the technical mitigation potential—however, economic and implementation considerations might limit the degree to which this technical potential could be realised in practice.”

Defra’s flood defence commitments have come under heavy criticism this winter after Storm Eva and Storm Desmond wreaked havoc across large parts of the UK. Earlier this week, Prime Minister David Cameron unveiled a new package of more than £40m to help repair breached flood defences in Yorkshire.

Matt Mace

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