The movement to make factory farmers take more responsibility for protecting the environment was ratcheted up a notch last night with a demand for ambitious minimum standards to be set down in law.
A pressure group within the farming industry called on the Government to establish an independent regulator with the power to enforce rules on water, soil and wildlife protection and on animal welfare.
The Nature Friendly Farming Network, which was launched a year ago, says long-term food security will be at risk if the measures are not put in place.
It wants to amend the post-Brexit Agriculture Bill put forward by the Environment Secretary, Michael Gove, who is expected to praise the role of farmers as food producers when he sets out the Government’s plan for agriculture at an industry conference in Oxford this morning.
The draft Bill already sets out plans to pay farmers for providing “public goods” such as habitat for wildlife and planting trees to curb flooding, after the UK leaves the EU-wide Common Agricultural Policy subsidy scheme.
But the farmers’ network wants him to go further by forcing industrial firms who practice intensive farming methods to keep their land in “good heart”.
Its call for statutory minimum standards comes after a review on farm regulation for the Government, which estimated that some of the most productive land would be lost within 40 to 60 years.
The organisation, which has more than 2,000 members, said soils had become depleted, water courses degraded and populations of birds, butterflies and other species reduced significantly – undermining the land’s ability to produce food in the future.
It said targets would serve as an incentive to those who were currently failing to deliver public goods alongside food production.
The group’s chairman, Martin Lines, an arable farmer from Cambridgeshire, said: “It is the Secretary of State’s duty to establish an independent regulator before it’s too late.
“We can only guarantee long term food security by protecting and managing the natural assets which enable food production.”
He added: “If the Government does not amend the Bill to include minimum standards – and put a stop to the environmental degradation caused by intensive farming – British farmers will be in danger of losing their livelihoods.”
David Sandford, another member of the farming network steering group, said that as custodians of nearly three-quarters of the countryside, farmers and landowners were uniquely placed to produce food while restoring habitats to help wildlife.
“Sadly, previous policies have hindered this progress,” he said.
“There are examples of farmers taking the initiative to restore the numbers of yellow-hammers, barn owls and grey partridge and these projects should and could be the norm if proper funding was available.”