Part of an article concerning the continuing adverse hold of power of the National Farmers Union over UK governments and the environment.
George Monbiot, Wednesday 23 March 2016.
“It’s simple,” a civil servant at the government’s environment department, Defra, once told me. “When we want to know what our position should be, we ask the NFU [National Farmers’ Union].”
There are not many organisations in Britain – though this country is infested with lobbyists of every persuasion – with a grip on policy as tight as the National Farmers’ Union. Vast conservation bodies (the National Trust, RSPB and Wildlife Trusts have a combined membership of some 6 million) are locked out, while the NFU seems to get everything it wants.
It looks to me like a champion of bad practice. On one issue after another it has demanded that the protections for people, places and wildlife are diluted. And in almost every case it has succeeded.
It insisted that the agricultural wages board, which protected farm labourers against exploitation, should be abolished. The last government gave it what it wanted.
It lobbied for an exemption from the ban on treating flowering crops with neonicotinoid pesticides, that are ripping through our populations of bees and many other animals. Not only did the NFU succeed, last summer, but the government also gagged its own expert advisers, perhaps to prevent us from seeing that they had counselled against the exemption. The government also refused to reveal the basis on which the NFU had lobbied it, claiming, preposterously, that this was “commercially confidential”.
The NFU demanded a badger cull, though a £49m government pilot programme demonstrated that it was not only useless, but counterproductive. It won, and badgers are being killed at the cost of £7,000 an animal.
It insisted that there should be no cap on the amount of money a landowner could receive in farm subsidies – and won.
It campaigned, with the help of successive British governments, against the European Union’s proposed soil framework directive, which sought to minimise soil erosion and compaction, to prevent landslides and to prevent soil from being contaminated with toxic substances. Once more, it won, and for the first time in the European Union’s history, a legislative proposal was abandoned.
In January, just after the Christmas floods had abated, the environment secretary, Liz Truss, announced that she would allow farmers to dredge watercourses crossing their land, without regulation or coordination. This is a perfect formula for catastrophe downstream, as it speeds up the flow of water to the nearest urban pinch-point.
It was as if she had got together with her officials to devise the most perverse possible response to the flooding. In reality, however, it seems that she was simply responding to the NFU’s lobbying. As its president, since 2014, Meurig Raymond, explained, “The NFU has pressed Defra and the Environment Agency to enable farmers to undertake minor works for many years.”
But this is not the only influence the National Farmers’ Union has sought to exert over the state of our rivers: a state that is frankly shocking. Figures from the Environment Agency suggest that just 0.08% of rivers in England are of high ecological quality, while only 17% are judged “good”. One of the principal reasons is diffuse agricultural pollution: the constant seepage of slurry, fertiliser and pesticides from fields and farm buildings.
It’s hardly surprising, as the Environment Agency has more or less stopped enforcing. When I came across a severe case of pollution in a Devon river last year, and reported it to the agency’s pollution hotline, the only action they took was to produce a list of crap excuses for looking the other way. After I wrote about this scandal, I was contacted by one of the agency’s staff, who told me that, as a result of pressure from the government and the massive cuts imposed by Truss, the staff there have been instructed to ignore all reports of grade three and grade four pollution, which accounts for the great majority of water poisoning in this country.
This puts the government in a difficult position, as all rivers in this country – not just 17% – were supposed to have been in good ecological condition by the end of 2015, under the European water framework directive. The government is now in danger of a massive fine, which ultimately will come out of the pockets of taxpayers.
It has now published a consultation on diffuse water pollution. The NFU has made its position clear, objecting to the government’s proposal to “maximise reductions in diffuse pollution and benefits to the wider environment”. Instead, it says, protecting our rivers should be left to “voluntary measures”.