Gone are the days when the UK was known as the ‘dirty man of Europe’.
The water industry has largely addressed the effects of dumping poorly treated sewage into our rivers and streams that earned that label.
But now subtler, yet still damaging, pollution has an enduring presence.
Farmers often face criticism for poor environmental practice, particularly when it comes to allowing fertilisers and soils to enter waterways. Yet this is not a wilful action.
For years, the Common Agricultural Policy encouraged the industrialisation of land to boost production. This results in the increased use of fertilisers and chemicals to optimise yields, which often find their way into rivers, contributing to excessive plant growth and damaging habitats.
As a consequence, Ofwat allows utility companies to increase bills to pay for additional water treatment.
Instead of perpetuating this unsustainable cycle of pollution and treatment, we need to use subsidies to break it.
With Brexit looming, we have an opportunity to reform the framework of subsidies so it works for both farmers and the environment. We should be using subsidies to pay farmers to undertake good environmental practice, and reduce the need for higher water bills to clean our river water.
Michael Gove’s proposal to allocate subsidies based on good environmental practice is a start, but it needs to work for farmers.
Subsidies should be more closely linked to specific activity, such as storing and treating slurry properly on site, so farmers know what good practice looks like and what action attaining the subsidies requires.
Defra’s announcement of the new Farming Rules for Water is also intended to bring about substantial change. It is hoped this heralds a more joined-up approach to policy, by helping to prevent pollution occurring in the first place.
However, there is an opportunity to more closely align the farming and water industries. Instead of only addressing the problems through water treatment, we should apply the same logic to the farming community as Ofwat applies to utility companies, and harness subsidies to help promote good practice. This should mean less public money being pumped into treatment.
If deployed correctly, the environmental components of agricultural subsidies and water bills represent a huge financial resource. This can be used to break the cycle of pollution and treatment, and enhance the rural economy.
A more imaginative and co-ordinated use of these sources of funding can create a win-win for farmers and the environment.
This article first appeared in the Farmers Guardian.