LEARNINGS FROM THE RECENT TALK FROM DIETER HELM AT THE CLA LONDON BRANCH EVENT
by GEORGINA SANKEY
Professor Dieter Helm – Oxford professor, chair of the Natural Capital Committee and one of the most influential voices in the debate on agriculture’s post-Brexit future – presented at the CLA London branch event earlier this month. His presentation was lucid and insightful and set out his views on the proposed new Environmental Land Management Scheme (ELMS) as set out in the recent Environment and Agricultural Bills. There was a clear call to arms to policy makers, farmers and landowners.
Professor Helm highlighted what he views as the inefficiencies and ineffectiveness of the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) and the subsidy system which has meant that, simplistically, payments have been made to landowners based on the area of land owned as opposed to how that land is managed. Professor Helm noted that this regime effectively underpins a system in farming whereby the ‘pollutee pays’ the price for pollution – not the polluter, and as a result, he believes this system is one of the reasons we are seeing net environmental losses.
The UK proposes to replace CAP with a new system which seeks to ameliorate these losses by establishing an environmental baseline without subsidy connected to land holding based on agricultural production, but rewards landowners and managers for providing environmental goods – natural capital and the ecosystem services that it supports.
The proposals for ELMS is built around three main principles:
- Public money for public goods;
- The polluter pays principle; and
- Net environmental gain.
Professor Helm considers that applying these principles to agriculture would be revolutionary in environmental terms, and a lot more economically efficient. Farmers and landowners need to build in ways to enhance natural capital into their management of the land. The idea of ‘polluter pays’ is well established in other industries and governed by appropriate regulation, however for agriculture this is quite a change and there remains much work to be done to establish the detail of how the schemes that support this change in policy and associated subsidy will be implemented. Greater clarity is needed to define what public goods mean and there are a range of views on this – Professor Helm for example argues perhaps controversially that producing food is not a public good.
As part of enhancing Natural Capital, Helm iterated the value of soils. He advises, soils contain four times the amount of carbon than in the atmosphere – therefore, soils are a huge carbon sink, and we need to maintain soils from a both a carbon sequestration and biodiversity perspective. However, discussion in the press and media tends to focus on planting trees, which is crucial, but the value and importance of soils needs to be equally voiced.
Professor Helm’s presentation provoked a common question in the audience and that was how to monetise natural capital. For example, we know that there is great value in green spaces in terms of public health and mental wellbeing – this is one of the ‘ecosystem services’ the natural capital provides – but the exact amount or price to put on this is hard to quantify. Helm argues that it is less about quantifying how much individual assets are worth and more about the relative value of the benefits derived from natural capital.
Professor Helm at CLA London, Wednesday 22 January 2020
It would have been interesting to hear more discussion on diet and the relationship with climate change and agriculture, although Helm did cover the topic of cattle farming and methane. His view is that methane production is not enough of a reason to cease or reduce cattle farming due to the limited life span of methane in the air. Thus, although a greenhouse gas, it is relatively short lived (14 years) and, as long as the stock of livestock maintains constant, it is believed that it will level out. A valid and reassuring point for many livestock farmers to hear, although notwithstanding the imperative of sustainable and ethical livestock production. At the consumer end, food choices are personal but what is clear is the value attributed to buying local, seasonal and sustainable produce.
Professor Helm has the ear of Government and his thoughts will influence policy in the rural sector. The recently released Agriculture Bill and indeed the Environmental legislation proposed in this session of parliament has all his hallmarks.