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The fight over rewilding

The fight over rewilding

Brexit was meant to transform land management. Some MPs have other ideas

Makers of agricultural chemicals have funded a group of MPs that is campaigning against the rewilding of the countryside and has pushed back against efforts to restrict pesticide use.

MPs and peers from the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Science and Technology in Agriculture promote “sustainable intensification” of agriculture, which they argue means producing higher yields from farming while managing environmental impacts. 

Campaigners warn this is often a way to preserve industrial farming, with high inputs of fertilisers and pesticides. The parliamentary group has resisted efforts to restore the UK countryside to nature at a time when the government is preparing its post-Brexit plans for farming.

Julian Sturdy MP, chair of the APPG, a Conservative MP and farmer in west Yorkshire, said in parliament he is “fundamentally against the principle of wilding productive farmland” because he fears it would lead to a food security crisis. Mr Sturdy has also criticised EU attempts to restrict the use of the “irreplaceable” weedkiller glyphosate.

Sir Geoffrey Clifton-Brown MP, a Conservative MP,  partner in an arable farm in Norfolk and another member of the APPG, told the Commons last year: “As more and more land is taken out of food production for environmental schemes, we face the dangerous consequences of becoming reliant on importing larger and larger amounts of food.

He added that he didn’t think the public wanted the countryside “going to waste growing brambles and shrubs”.

A third member of the group last year supported the temporary lifting of a ban on the use of a type of pesticide that harms bees – and is made by a company, Syngenta, that indirectly helps fund the APPG.  

Under the Environment Land Management Scheme (Elms), shaped by Michael Gove when he was environment secretary, farmers were to be paid for creating “public goods” such as space for wildlife as well as restoring peatlands and other habitats that absorb carbon.

But the government is now expected to drop “local nature recovery” – an ambitious part of Elms which would have seen large swaths of the landscape restored to nature – in favour of the existing “countryside stewardship” scheme. Campaigners warn this will accelerate the decline of wildlife while the loss of woodland will threaten the UK’s net zero targets.

Farmers have also been told by government officials that discrete payments for “integrated pest management” (IPM) – a scheme which encourages natural methods for managing pests and only employs chemicals as a last resort – may no longer feature in the government’s proposed reforms to farming. 

The Science and Technology in Agriculture APPG’s secretariat is run by a company called Front Foot Communications.

Front Foot’s paying members include:

  • the National Farmers’ Union;
  • the Agricultural Industries Confederation, which represents feed and fertiliser manufacturers;
  • CropLife UK, a trading association whose member companies include the agrochemical companies BASF and Bayer, which makes Roundup, a glyphosate-based weedkiller; and
  • the Agricultural Biotechnology Council, an industry group that promotes GM technology and brings together companies including Syngenta and the agricultural chemicals maker Corteva.

Front Foot has paid £102,006 in benefits in kind to members of the APPG since 2016.

The environmentalist, peer and former MP Zac Goldsmith said there had been “pushback from vested interests” to reforms of land use subsidies, adding this was “not surprising as a select few have had it extremely good under the old system.”

CropLife UK and Front Foot said the APPG was a forum for parliamentarians and others to debate the contribution of agricultural innovation to addressing global challenges. 

Mr Sturdy did not respond to a request for comment. Sir Geoffrey also declined to comment “as a very minor participating member of this APPG”. At least 20 of its members own or run farms.

Read the next story: Meet the parliamentarian who’s taken 13 expenses-paid overseas trips with his wife – who is also his assistant – as a member of 16 all-party parliamentary groups.