Should consumers have more say over environmental work on farms?

Royal Norfolk Show 2018. The RNAA food and farming debate: From left: Jake Fiennes, Rob Ward, Anna H

Royal Norfolk Show 2018. The RNAA food and farming debate: From left: Jake Fiennes, Rob Ward, Anna Hill, Jon Duffy and Neil Punchard. Picture: Chris Hill. - Credit: Chris Hill

Should consumers and local community 'hubs' be given more say over how public money is spent on environmental work on farms?

That was one of the questions raised during a debate at the Royal Norfolk Show, where panellists discussed how farming can show it is 'being kind to the countryside'.

The debate, chaired by BBC Radio 4 Farming Today presenter Anna Hill, featured Jake Fiennes, estate manager at Raveningham Estates, Neil Punchard, Broadland catchment partnership officer at the Broads Authority, Jon Duffy, chief executive at AF (Anglia Farmers) Group, and Rob Ward, co-founder at Grocery Accelerator.

With farm funding expected to be redirected away from land-based subsidies to a system of 'public money for public goods' like environmental work after Brexit, Mr Ward said there was an opportunity for emerging policies to create a radically new system of public involvement.

The consumer insights specialist said: 'If we are going to pay a farmer for looking after the environment, that concerns me. The farmer is also a businessman. That is a conflict of interests, so it does not make sense to me.

'I say let farmers farm but, within that farm, let consumers run the environmental part. Change the decision-making to the consumers, rather than the farmer being the gatekeeper. Create regional hubs where consumers debate what the environment should look like around them. Let the farmer be the hero of that, to curate the environment that the community wants.'

Among the audience was Norfolk farmer and journalist David Richardson, a co-founder of LEAF (Linking Environment and Farming), who said: 'It is naive to think we can get people off the streets of Norwich to take control of part of the farm, and do it in a way that does not conflict or cause more problems between themselves and a farmer trying to run the farm.

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'It is also silly to think farmers don't appreciate the environment or are not doing the best they can on their farms.'

Mr Ward responded: 'It is about enabling people to be a part of something, rather than telling them what it should be. I am not saying that farmers cannot do it, my issue is that people don't know about it.

'It might be naive, but if we are expecting taxpayer's money to pay for it, then it needs to be something different.'

Mr Fiennes, a conservationist who described himself as a land manager rather than a farmer, added: 'We all need to engage with the public. But do I want volunteers on my farm, cutting my hay meadows? Can you imagine getting a risk assessment for that? I don't think that's workable.

'There are some wonderful examples [of conservation] out there. But first and foremost farmers produce food and we must never forget that.

'Environmental delivery can only be delivered by economic farming. On our farm we have taken 20pc of land out of production that was not economically viable, and our yields have risen from 8t to 10t per hectare by not farming land that is not productive. That land has gone into the environmental farm.'