UK Government launches sustainable agriculture indicators

The UK Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Fisheries (MAFF) has published a report setting out 35 pilot indicators it intends to use to assess the UK's progress towards sustainable agriculture.

The indicators, which cover such issues as populations of farmland birds, average earnings of agricultural workers, area converted to organic farming and greenhouse gas emissions from agriculture, will be used to create an overall view of British agriculture, to monitor the effect of policy measures and to assess the sustainability of farming in the UK.

Environmentalists were quick to criticise the indicators for failing to measure the full environmental and social costs of agriculture and to call for more cash for farmers in order to protect vulnerable wildlife areas – Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSIs) – and biodiversity.

Launching the report Towards Sustainable Agriculture: A Pilot Set of Indicators Countryside Minister Elliot Morley said: “Combining information from the different indicators makes it possible to get an overall picture of the progress we are making towards sustainable agriculture. Of course this is a set of pilot indicators and there is still a lot to do. So we will be reviewing and updating these indicators on a regular basis. Where we need more information to get a clearer picture we will look at undertaking further research.”

MAFF is also to undertake a large-scale survey designed to provide detailed information on current farming practices. More than 1,000 farmers have been canvassed for information about the way they manage their farms. MAFF intends to use the survey to support the indicators and to provide a baseline with which progress towards sustainability can be compared.

Towards Sustainable Agriculture: A Pilot Set of Indicators overlaps with and is intended to complement the UK Government’s recently published set of 150 sustainable development indicators for the UK as a whole, Quality of Life Counts: a Baseline Assessment.

The indicators provide information on five aspects of agriculture in the UK:

  • economic and rural impacts of agriculture. Examining agriculural structures and financing, the report says the subsidies for farmers under the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy are not sustainable, and calls for a shift towards a rural development policy that includes a greater emphasis on so-called agri-environment measures. The indicators also measure agricultural productivity, how farms use resources and rural employment
  • the use of environmentally friendly farm management systems, ranging from MAFF’s own Farm Waste Management Plan to schemes which assure the quality of produce or provide environmental auditing
  • input use. The report includes a number of indicators measuring the use of pesticides, the impact of nutrients such as nitrogen and phosphorus on water quality, greenhouse gas emissions, and agricultural energy use
  • resource use. Information on water use is provided by Environment Agency figures on agricultural abstraction from rivers and boreholes. Two projects are underway to develop new soil management indicators. Indicators for the amount of land used by agriculture are also provided as are figures on the cultivation of bioenergy crops
  • conservation value of agricultural land. These indicators cover the area of land under environmental conservation, the type of landscape features related to farmland and the habitats provided by modern farming. This category includes indicators dealing with the populations of key farmland birds

According to the report, the indicators show there are both positive and negative trends in current agricultural practice. For example, the use of environmentally-friendly farming systems has been rising as has energy efficiency in the sector. On the negative side, the numbers of species of farmland birds are in decline.

Although welcoming publication of the report, the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) said it ignores certain sets of figures which would clearly demonstrate the environmental damage caused by current agricultural policy and would help to outline ways to improve the situation.

Matt Rayment, an RSPB economist, said: “Over the past three decades, changes in farming have had a directly damaging impact on the environment and the RSPB is disappointed these fundamental changes have not been measured in this report.”

Planting cereals in the autumn instead of spring, livestock grazing pressure on hill and upland farms, and the loss of mixed arable and livestock farms, have all been cited by the RSPB as major causes of bird declines and the Society is urging the government to include measures of these changes as well.

Sarah Fowler, the RSPB’s water policy officer, said: “The report includes an indicator on the amount of pesticides entering groundwater and rivers but there is no reference on how the government intends to lessen this figure now it has dropped the proposed pesticides tax. Currently, every householder in the UK spends around £5 in their annual water charges to remove pesticides and nitrates from water supplies.

“Even worse, the Ministry of Agriculture Fisheries and Food has announced an expected 52% increase in the quantity of water taken for the irrigation of agricultural land. This figure, however, runs contrary to the forthcoming Water Bill, which will expect the public, the manufacturing industry and the water companies to drastically cut down on their use of water.”

Both the RSPB and Friends of the Earth (FoE) have called on the Government to help farmers and wildlife by putting extra money behind the new Countryside Bill, due for debate in the Commons next week.

RSPB admits that the new sustainability indicators could improve the targeting of public money for agri-environment schemes, but says there is still not enough available to persuade farmers to take part.

The result, say FoE, is that more than a third of English SSSIs are in an unfavourable condition, and are lacking positive management.

Ultimately, an RSPB spokesman told edie, UK agriculture’s best hope rests with reform of the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) (see related story). “Under the CAP most money for farming goes to production with only about 3% going to agri-environment schemes. RSPB would like to see that increase.” Ironically, help may come from the World Trade Organisation (WTO) which sees European farming subsidies as giving European farmers an unfair advantage over farmers in the rest of the world. The WTO would welcome more subsidies that encourage environmentally friendly farming methods. “Farmers could be paid for growing crops in a more environmentally friendly way, such as not growing winter wheat” says RSPB’s Grahame Madge. “The CAP has been seen by environmentalists as a very damaging mechanism. But the feeling is now that it could become a saviour because it contains a massive amount of funding that could be redirected, particularly for small farms.”

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