Caroline Spelman speech at Cereals Show, 'Biodiversity – The canary in the mine'

Thank you Alan, and thank you to everyone I've met so far for a warm welcome and a fascinating experience.

This was published under the 2010 to 2015 Conservative and Liberal Democrat coalition government

The Rt Hon Caroline Spelman

Thank you Alan, and thank you to everyone I’ve met so far for a warm welcome and a fascinating experience.

I’m delighted to have been given the job of ensuring this Government gives the British farming and food industry the consistent backing it needs to become even more resilient and competitive in the years ahead.

Farming and food contribute around £86 billion to our economy - you are an absolutely indispensible part of the green economy we are putting at the heart of our economic recovery.

Increasing sustainable food production, adapting to - and mitigating climate change, and delivering so many of society’s environmental benefits - you know better than most that business needs to recognise why a healthy natural environment and the efficient use of our natural resources are intrinsically linked to your long term economic success.

It is an education to find out more about the enterprise and innovation which characterises this industry - particularly in these challenging economic times.

The stands I visited this morning show how very far science has come since my time with the NFU in the ‘80’s.

Developments in crop breeding and precision agriculture that might then have been viewed as science fiction are now clearly science fact; a science you are harnessing to meet the challenges of one of the oldest of human activities - growing the food we eat.

For thousands of years, science in its widest sense has been key to evolving the way in which we farm. And throughout that evolution, one thing has remained constant - the unbreakable link between the health of our environment and the health of our crops.  We simply will not reap the latter if we don’t protect the former.

I have been struck today by one exhibit in particular. It is the stand which shows the wheat yields of 25 years ago, those of last year and those we will need to feed our growing population in 25 years time.

The difference between last year’s yield and that needed by 2025 is an arresting reminder of the food production challenges that lie ahead for farmers, and governments, both at home and internationally. We are going to require much, much more from our land in the years ahead. It is crucial that we step up our plans to nurture our soil health, protect the purity of our water and encourage our biodiversity to thrive and grow.

Defra’s report on the health of the UK’s biodiversity, which covers this cropping year, was published last month. It shows winners and losers. Many specific species and habitat types are making a comeback. But farmland bird populations are not winning. Their numbers and diversity continue to decline in both the short and - worryingly - the long term.

Stewardship of the environment is the key to unlocking biodiversity growth in this country. 75% of the UK’s land is farmed and 68% of English farmland is in an agri-environment scheme. Farmers have always told me that they are the best stewards of the land. You are currently making your Autumn cropping decisions with the help of your advisers and consultants. And many environmental stewardship agreements are coming up for renewal in the next few weeks too. It is now that a crucial window exists for farmers to take the decision to actively commit to the Campaign for the Farmed Environment.

Two-thirds of farmers already know about the campaign, thanks in no small part to the efforts of the farming press - here today - and the work of the NFU, the CLA and all the Campaign’s partners in spreading the word.

Imagine the impact we could achieve if every one of those farmers translated that awareness into action on their land. Providing fallow plots to create breeding sites for skylarks, linnets and corn bunting. Overwintering stubble to give food and shelter to non-migratory birds, insects and wildflowers. Or creating uncropped, cultivated margins in which rare arable plants can grow and insect-eating birds thrive. The Campaign for the Farmed Environment is an initiative which genuinely has the potential to transform our countryside, protect local ecosystems and increase our native biodiversity.

So, for farmers who were waiting to see if a new Government would remain committed to the Campaign, I’m happy to tell you that we very definitely are. With significant savings to find, Defra and its delivery bodies will have to find efficiencies and cut back on things that aren’t priority. But our commitment to making the Campaign for the Farmed Environment a success remains. Your commitment to action is essential to its success.

Because protecting our environment is one of the best illustrations of grassroots action - what we call the Big Society. We all have a responsibility to shape the future of that environment. For farmers that may involve renewing your Entry Level Stewardship agreement, or deciding to enter into one for the first time. For advisers and agronomists it might be delivering added value by suggesting the right ELS options - particularly in-field - for every farm they work with. And taking up the new training opportunities which underpin the Campaign.

And for every single farmer in the industry - whether in an agri-environmental scheme or not - I hope it will be the decision to carry out at least one, if not more, of the voluntary measures the CFE suggests. This Government wants to give farmers back the freedom and flexibility they need to make the right decisions for their farms.

Because if managing the land is your responsibility, then providing you with the right regulatory environment to do so is ours. That means helping you find solutions, not hindering you with red tape. Yesterday, the Agricultural Minister, Jim Paice, announced that we are setting up a Task Force, chaired by Richard Macdonald, specifically to look at ways in which we can reduce the burden of regulation on farmers.

Farmers should be trusted to do the right thing - it’s in your interests after all. We want you to be free to demonstrate to all that you are indeed the best stewards of the land. So we will look at moving, and moving swiftly, to a system of risk-based regulation that makes the use, and implementation, of regulation relevant to the realities of farming today.

The Task Force will make its first recommendations as early as possible next year.
I know that many of these regulations were born in Europe and I know that some of them don’t always make much sense when translated to our shores. That’s why providing a strong and persuasive voice in Europe is critical to ensuring that the knowledge and experience of our farmers is used to get the right regulations for our industry.

And, in the two trips I’ve already made to Brussels, I’ve been keen to lay the early foundations for a CAP which delivers value for farmers, consumers, taxpayers and the environment alike. But our international commitment to leading the way on biodiversity goes much further than Europe. It is the subject of a major global conference this Autumn, in Japan.

Because the loss of biodiversity, the degradation of the environment and ecosystems and the need to adapt to, and to mitigate, climate change are the global challenges of our age.

And how we meet them - at home and abroad - will determine our collective future
You, of all industries, know that the heart of farming is the health of the land.
And you know, too, that biodiversity is this industry’s canary in the mine when it comes to measuring that health. If it is in trouble, then so are we all.

The Campaign for the Farmed Environment gives you the opportunity to do things today to protect the health of your land for the future. I encourage you to grasp that opportunity with both hands.

Thank you

Published 10 June 2010