The NFU, the EU and you: what can ecologists learn from the National Farming Union’s stock take?

By Amy G. Fensome, Policy Intern

In preparation for what should be a particularly lively period for British politics in the run-up to the EU referendum, expected before the end of 2017, the House of Lords Select Committee for Science and Technology have launched an inquiry to assess the influence of EU membership on UK science and ask “what did Europe ever do for us?”

To answer this, the British Ecological Society is currently gathering and collating evidence including information provided by its members. This will feed into a wider response from the UK’s bioscience community, overseen by the Royal Society of Biology, which will be submitted to the Lords Select Committee Inquiry.

The National Farmers’ Union (NFU) has been quick off the mark with its own response to the prospect of an in/out referendum releasing their guide to “UK Farming’s Relationship with the EU”. Topics covered include the influence of labour availability, EU legislation and the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) scheme as well as an overview of other “relationships” the UK could negotiate if it were to leave the EU such as being part of the European Economic Area.

The NFU points out that they will not, and cannot, take a particular stance on the in/out debate but that they can assess what they know and help their members make an informed choice come 2017.

And what they know is this:

  • 7 of the top 10 export countries are within the EU
  • In 2014, UK farmers received €3,084bn in CAP basic payments
  • Between 2014 and 2020 farmers also have access to an additional €5.2bn for rural development projects
  • Between 2007 and 2014 the UK received €6.8 Billion in research funding

So what can we, as ecologists, learn from the NFU’s response and what questions should we be asking in terms of policy and conservation?

1. The Common Agricultural Policy determines how 75% of the UK landscaped is managed

Most of the UK is agricultural land and how this land is managed is to an extent determined by incentives built in to the CAP and Rural Development schemes.  So these payments, and the regulations they are contingent upon, determine the fate of much of the UK’s landscape and biodiversity. As ecologists we should engage with the farming industry and discuss both the in and out scenarios and ask: how might farming practices change without CAP incentives and what impact on biodiversity might these changes have? Are there other ways, including incentives, that might enable farmers to feed a growing population, to be profitable, whilst minimising (or even reversing) the damage done to the UK’s biodiversity? What is the relationship between financial stability and profitability, and farmers making “green” choices above and beyond those required by the CAP?

2. It’s not all about the EU

It is not only a question of “what does Europe do for us?”,  we should also be thinking about how the UK Government interprets or adopts any agreements or laws made in Brussels. The example of “modulation”, whereby the UK Government allocates funds away from direct payments to farmers (or pillar 1) into Rural Development schemes (pillar 2) is one way that the UK Government mediates the relationship between the UK and the EU.

3. An opportunity to take stock and plan ahead

The NFU have produced a very clear, concise and useful document which is essentially a stock-take of what the EU means for farmers. Leading up to the referendum similar stock-taking practices are, or will soon be, taking place across various organisations, charities and governmental bodies. Whether the UK opts to stay in or leave the EU, these stock-taking exercises are extremely valuable outside the discussions about the referendum and beyond 2017. In terms of UK conservation, this is a fantastic opportunity for diverse organisations to take a good look at existing practices and legislation (whether home-grown or Brussels-sprouted) that either directly or indirectly affect biodiversity and together assess how effective they are at protecting biodiversity, how coherent or contradictory they might be, and to consider the views and experiences of those who put policy into practice, including farmers. The ongoing REFIT “fitness check” of the Birds and Habitats Directives has already highlighted the need for better implementation to support well designed legislation.  By asking “what did the Europeans ever do for us?” we could go some way to answering the questions “what are we doing and what can we do better?”.

We would welcome members’ views on any of these areas before 16th October

  • How does the EU influence your work? How would your work be affected if the UK were to leave the EU? What impact do EU regulations have on your research?
  • Funding: Do you currently receive EU research funding? How significant has EU funding been over the course of your career?
  • Collaboration: Do you participate in any EU collaborations? What role has the EU played in facilitating collaboration? What impact does EU membership have on staff and student recruitment?

If readers are aware of any other organisations, charities or bodies preparing similar documents for their members, please contact Amy G. Fensome at