The environmental costs of agriculture
125. The Countryside Agency was one of many organisations
to tell us that "people ... look for food to come from an
attractive and accessible countryside with diverse wildlife".
Similar views of what the public expected were expressed by, among
others, the RSPB, the Ramblers' Association and the Council for
the Protection of Rural England.
However, we received a great deal of evidence that the reality
was that farming had done great harm. The Environment Agency,
for example, claimed that agriculture has significant environmental
impacts affecting soil, water and air.
On 18 June 2002 the Agency published a report which estimated
that the "annual costs of agriculture to the environment
amount to £1.2 billion, offset by benefits of up to £0.9
126. The charges laid at the door of farming are
numerous, and cover a range of environmental factors. For example,
Water UK provided details of the effects that farming had on the
water environment in particular. It noted that land management
affects groundwater and surface water levels, and can increase
the likelihood of flooding, that high stocking densities can cause
soil erosion, increased flooding risk and diffuse pollution and
that biological contaminants from livestock farming and crop protection
products and fertilisers can all adversely affect water quality.
127. English Heritage was concerned about other matters.
Stressing the importance of links between cultural heritage, the
landscape and economic development, it reported that
- since 1945 agriculture has been the single biggest
cause of unrecorded loss of archaeological sites;
- a combination of erosion and dessication induced
by cultivation and agricultural drainage has irrevocably damaged
or destroyed over 13,000 historic sites in our wetlands; and
- one third of hedges were lost between 1984 and
1993 - older hedgerows have far greater historic interest and
On a similar theme, the Institute of Historic Building
Conservation told us that "in some parts of the country over
a third of the historic building stock is at risk as a result
of disrepair or lack of use".
The Council for British Archaeology described the rural historic
environment as "a non-renewable resource", and said
that "evidence indicates that intensification and increasing
industrialized approach to farming, particularly over the last
fifty years, has caused a dramatic decline and degradation in
the quality of the rural historic environment and a very serious
erosion of historic landscape character and diversity".
128. Taking up that point, the Council for the Protection
of Rural England told us that the problem has been the response
of farmers to Government policies since the Second World War.
Policies have been intended to increase agricultural productivity
and promote self-sufficiency in food. It argued that a "chronic
inability to reform these policies as conditions changed, or [to]
respond to problems as they arose, has resulted in [inter alia]
major damage to our landscapes, wildlife and natural resources".
It cited the following specific instances of damage:
- the loss of more than half of England's hedgerows
- a 40 per cent reduction in the number of farmland
birds since the mid 1970s; and
- the loss of an area of permanent grassland the
size of Bedfordshire since 1992.
129. The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds
said that European Community price support mechanisms had encouraged
the pursuit of higher yields through intensive, high-input agricultural
systems. It claimed that environmental damage was the result,
pointing out that, "for example, high yields are closely
correlated with farmland bird declines in the European Union".
English Nature identified a similar trend, which it described
as "a massive decline in diversity of wildlife, the loss
of natural features and the erosion of distinctive local character".
It blamed "United Kingdom and European policies to 'modernise'
agriculture after the Second World War",
and described three specific examples of ways in which the CAP
encourages unsustainable land management: livestock subsidies
causing overgrazing; the loss of England's species rich grassland
to crop production; and the overuse of inputs.
The Game Conservancy Trust told us that for millennia farming
and wild flora and fauna had co-existed until the middle of the
twentieth century, but that "since then the progressive increase
in the use of pesticides and artificial fertiliser has hugely
depleted this wildlife, and farm crops are now monocultures which
support little or no biodiversity".