Ben Goldsmith: Next Prime Minister must support farm subsidy plan to protect nature | Green Policy

The next Prime Minister must push through changes to farm subsidies that prioritize nature and environmental protection, despite political attacks within the Conservative Party, prominent Green Tory Ben Goldsmith has urged.

“Environmental land management contracts must be defended at all costs,” he told the Guardian. “They would tie agricultural subsidies to stewardship and the restoration of soils and nature. They encourage the transition to more regenerative agriculture. It’s about making room for nature. They are a huge win for the natural environment of this country.

Environmental Land Management (ELM) contracts are the centerpiece of the government’s post-Brexit overhaul of farm subsidies. Offering “public money for public goods”, they are supposed to reward farmers for actions such as tending the soil, planting and conserving trees, providing wildlife habitats and maintaining trees. waterways, which help to protect the natural environment.

But they have recently come under attack from the National Farmers Union, Labor and the Liberal Democrats, as well as sections of the Conservative Party. Farm leaders have argued that rising food prices mean more effort should be put into food production, rather than regeneration or other environmental programs.

Goldsmith said this was a false choice because ELMs could exist alongside growing and more efficient food production, if less food was wasted and less land devoted to feeding livestock. “The idea that we can’t create trails and wilderness areas in this country is madness.”

Ben Goldsmith: “The main problem is psychological, about our need to control nature. We must let go, to allow nature to recover. Photography: David M Benett/Getty Images

The two remaining Tory leadership candidates – Rishi Sunak and Liz Truss – will face farmer lobbying on ELMs, and may wish to distance themselves from some projects identified with Boris Johnson, questioning green policies.

Goldsmith, who has interests in rewilding, warned farmers against abandoning ELMs. “The NFU stands to win the battle and lose the war,” he said, because if the ELMs were removed, a future chancellor could decide to end all farm subsidies. “You risk the entire rural payments budget being canned.”

Goldsmith, the UK’s most prominent Green Tory outside parliament and brother of politician Zac Goldsmith – a minister in the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) in the Lords – is a venture capitalist and president of the Conservative Network for the Environment (CEN), a group of more than 100 MPs.

CEN has been instrumental in persuading most leadership candidates, including the last two, to commit to maintaining green policies, including ELMs and the UK’s legally binding target of achieving net zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. However, there are still fears that the new prime minister will weaken green policies or fail to give them the necessary impetus to achieve the government’s goals.

A Johnson supporter, Goldsmith said he was stepping down from his current post as non-executive director of Defra, but not in protest.

He has held this position for almost five years, overseeing a period of intense change, including three major new laws – the Environment Act, the Agriculture Act and the Fisheries Act – and the largest overhaul of the agricultural policy in 40 years. His term was due to end within six months, but he said he decided to leave early to ease the transition to a successor and pursue his interests in rewilding.

Johnson, according to Goldsmith, was a champion of environmental issues. “Despite all his faults, he has a sense of the sacred. He grew up in Exmoor, he sees the beauty of nature and recognizes the importance of nature, it comes naturally to him.

The next Tory leader would face a backlash if he abandoned Johnson’s green policies, Goldsmith said, as opinion polls show people support action on the environment. “It would be reckless to roll back the [green] policies of this government. There is a growing understanding in this country that we live in one of the most nature-poor countries on Earth. It’s very important to stay active on this.

Truss and Sunak proposed environmentally beneficial policies while in cabinet, according to Goldsmith. As chancellor, Sunak set up the £750m nature fund for the climate, while Truss, as foreign secretary, oversaw an expansion of overseas development aid for the recovery of climate and nature. “Sunak’s record on nature is not bad. Whether he gets it individually I’m not sure, but I’m optimistic based on his record as Chancellor. With Liz Truss, all major nature politics have taken place since her time [as secretary of state] at Defra, but as Foreign Secretary he dramatically accelerated the international recovery of nature.

But as he refuses to be fired at who he would prefer as prime minister – ‘I don’t know enough to vouch for either of them’ – Goldsmith is vitriolic over the potential appointment of Mark Spencer, the Leader of the Commons and former Chief Whip, as Secretary of State for Defra if Sunak wins. “He would be a terrifying prospect. It would be a disaster.

Instead, Goldsmith hopes that the current environment secretary – George Eustice, whom he credits, along with his predecessor Michael Gove, with successfully spearheading major environmental legislation and policy change over the past five years of his tenure on the Defra Board – remains in office.

Goldsmith, son of financier and founder of the Eurosceptic UK Referendum party, Sir James Goldsmith, said the changes to the ELM were a benefit of Brexit. “Under the old system [the EU’s common agricultural policy], taxpayers paid wealthy landowners only based on the amount of land they farmed… The richer you are, the more tax dollars you get. How can you justify this?

If the ELMs are successful, Goldsmith believes private sector companies will also offer farmers cash for the environmental goods and services they provide. For example, water companies and flood insurers could pay farmers to maintain water catchment areas and keep waterways in good condition, and farmers could also be paid for carbon storage.

Goldsmith plans to use similar deals with private companies to prove that rewilding can be a commercial success as well as an environmental success, with projects partnering with Charlie Burrell of Knepp, the West Sussex country estate that passed from agriculture to rewilding.

Sign up for First Edition, our free daily newsletter – every weekday morning at 7am BST

He said reseeding could give city dwellers access to nature, improving their health and well-being. “Something has changed in society since the shutdowns, this demand for the natural world. [Rewilding can] helping people reconnect on a visceral level with nature.

Too much of Britain’s attitude towards nature in the past was one of “control and domination”, he said. Highlighting the cull of badgers and opposition to the reintroduction of beavers, he added: “The first thing a lot of people do is pick up a gun.

When it comes to reseeding, you have to help people see the benefits, he says. “The main problem is psychological, about our need to control nature. We have to let go, to allow nature to recover,” he said. “There is this fear that [if we rewild] we will starve, or those who do not starve will be devoured by wolves. But the idea that we cannot make room for nature in our landscapes is absurd.

Comments are closed.