Diffuse pollution from farming could reverse improvements in drinking water quality, the condition of rivers and the quality of bathing waters, despite the billions of pounds invested by water companies.

Brexit brings uncertainties about agricultural policies and subsidies that mean more farmers are focusing on the short term. As financial pressures increase, farmers’ interest in environment stewardship schemes is declining. There is likely to be greater consolidation of farm ownership, especially in the dairy sector, and more intensive models of farming.

New research by Indepen, Eunomia Research & Consulting and WWF (UK), funded by Anglian Water, South West Water and Wessex Water, has confirmed that most Brexit scenarios for agriculture have potentially negative impacts on water quality. Speaking with people involved in agriculture, and reviewing a range of recent studies, the researchers found that farmers are reluctant to make new investments in measures to boost productivity, while many of the costs they face, such as feed and fertiliser, have increased. Labour costs will likely increase for many farming sectors.

As Government looks to shape post-Brexit environmental and agricultural policies, it therefore faces an increasingly urgent choice between more water treatment and higher water bills or promoting approaches that encourage integrated management of land and water.

The interim report from the research highlights the need for future UK agriculture policies to look after farmers, biodiversity and the water environment.  One of the key means of achieving all three outcomes is to encourage farmers and water companies to strike ‘catchment management deals’, in which water companies offer financial support to farmers in return for water-friendly land management practices. However, if such deals are to become widespread, there are a number of issues around assurance of farm environmental performance and incentives for water companies to pursue catchment management that need to be addressed.

Speaking at the Oxford Farming Conference to launch the interim report, David Baxter, Eunomia’s Head of Natural Economy and co-author of the report, said:

“Water customers need to know what they are paying for. Trustworthy assurance of environmental compliance may not sound like a key ingredient to help farmers across the Brexit divide, but it is. The funding pressure on the Environment Agency and the increases in farm-related pollution incidents are causes of concern. Water customers seem happy to support their water companies to invest in good value catchment management schemes, but only if they’re funding farmers to go beyond the ordinary legal obligations.”

The interim report can be downloaded here.

Photo: Lynn Betts/Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons