Everyone loves Britain’s countryside and everyone in Britain needs the food it produces. But managing the link between the countryside and food is complicated.
Little of Britain’s landscape is truly natural. The vast majority has been managed by man for centuries and how people have chosen to use the countryside at a micro- and macro-level has changed it.
For some sixty years the dominant factor governing how British farmers managed their bit of the planet was a national, political imperative to produce more food. A post-war Britain made painfully aware of its reliance on imported food by Hitler’s U-boat packs was determined to improve its self-sufficiency.
Later, Britain’s entry to the European Community strengthened that drive and provided financial and other incentives to farmers to increase the intensity of production and to enlarge and modernise their farms.
This model of agriculture was not without cost.
Europe’s Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) was accused of degrading the natural environment and landscape and of generating huge food surpluses that, when sold on international markets, distorted trade and damaged the food and farming industries of other countries -especially the poorest. It was time for change.
In recent years, under a variety of influences, political and economic, Britain’s farming, and with it the countryside, has been changing. Agreements with Britain’s international trading partners, through the World Trade Organisation (WTO) and the European Union (EU), have reduced the capacity to support farmers simply to produce more food.
Instead, they are being encouraged to become more commercially self-sufficient. This, in part has meant fewer farmers and fewer people working on the land. The gap this has left in the rural economy is gradually being plugged by other activities, such as rural tourism, speciality foods, the recreation of habitats and a raft of other diverse business activities.
This type of rural development, if undertaken in sustainable ways, UK Government and the EU can and does support.
The subsidising of agricultural production and intervention in markets for agricultural produce was the first pillar of the CAP. Sustainable rural development is the Second Pillar.