UK farming’s cost to society

According to the Sunday Times a Treasury committee has found that farming is responsible for £700 million per year of net external costs to society and taxpayers.

The Natural Capital Committee (NCC) – made up of economists and environmentalists – has highlighted that farming, whilst “only accounting for 0.7% of GDP, utilises 75% of total land area . . . and can produce large external costs to society in the form of greenhouse gases, water pollution, air pollution, habitat destruction, soil erosion and flooding.”

These costs are not covered in the price of food and are in effect a free gift from society to the food and farming industry.

The Sunday Times claims that the NCC was due to report last summer but ministers held back because of fears of the adverse impact it would have on the farming industry.

The report is said to recommend a “25-year plan for nature” where UK uplands will be allowed to revert to forests and wetlands and it is likely to raise more questions over the role of farm subsidies.

Jonathan Leake, the Sunday Times Environment Editor, points out that Dieter Helm, professor of economics at Oxford, who chairs the NCC, believes that “farming subsidies are a key factor in environmental destruction — and should either be abolished or linked to environmental benefits.”

The role of the NCC is to explore the idea that natural capital such as “mountains, rivers, fields and forests, can be given a monetary value and incorporated into a country’s national accounts.”

This is a controversial issue; it can be  argued that putting a financial value on natural assets will give them a measure of protection, the contrary view is that putting an artificial price on essentially priceless natural features will create a trade in them and facilitate their destruction.

Lawrence Woodward