Sarah Hendry, Director General, CLA

Sarah Hendry CBE is Director General for the CLA. Before joining the CLA in 2018, she spent nearly 30 years as a UK government official working across national, EU and international policy. A senior Director in Defra and the Department of Health for twelve years, her experience covers a wide range of areas relevant to CLA members’ interests, including farming, environment, rural development, climate change, forestry, water and floods. Alastair Chisholm sat down with her to discuss agricultural impacts and solutions for the water environment.

There’s a degree of tension between the farming sector and the water industry over who has most impact on river health. Campaigner and media focus has been squarely on water companies in recent years but the declining condition of rivers like the Wye is moving that back towards agriculture and in particular intensive livestock production.

Beyond that, farm runoff of slurry and soil remains a major contributor to rivers not achieving good status under the Water Framework Directive. Defra recently announced upgrades to payments offered under the Sustainable Farming Incentive (SFI) and Countryside Stewardship (CS) tiers of the Environmental Land Management Schemes (ELMS), including on those which will deliver beneficial outcomes for water.

But there is widespread concern – expressed through A Fresh Water Future’s research – that the Farming Rules for Water are not being applied and enforced robustly enough, allied to a view that the scope for delivering beneficial outcomes for water through better land management (whilst maintaining food production) is huge.

I start with the simple question: How well does Hendry consider water to be managed in the land management and agricultural sector?

“There are some really good practice examples where people are delivering good outcomes on soil, natural flood management, hedgerow management and so-on. But, on the whole we recognise at CLA that water management isn’t as good as it should be on most farms.” Hendry says.

The roots of this lie in a long legacy of not investing significantly in both water resources and on the pollution impacts. Hendry says she started working in the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, as Defra was back then. The UK was dragged “kicking and screaming” into recognising the issue of nitrate pollution when the Nitrates Directive was drafted.

“That reluctance to grasp the nettle has endured for the last 35 years or so – perhaps it’s not surprising not enough farmers take good practice working seriously enough and the necessary investment in it hasn’t happened.”

Hendry says you could probably argue compellingly that if we’d had that investment in the right things we wouldn’t be seeing the pressures we are now. At the same time, she says we are where we are now, and need to move forward. There was the Farm to Fork summit last year, the Environment Agency has some more resource to put into driving better on-farm water management and there are now those higher SFI payment rates. There are steps in the right direction.

Pollution on the river Wye has raised the profile of the impacts of poorly-regulated intensive livestock units
Evolution of ELMS

Previously CLA has been frustrated by the pace of the development of policy detail within ELMS and the opening of application windows, which they feel has undermined farmer confidence to enter the schemes. With updated rates that situation could be set to change.  

On this issue of pace, Hendry acknowledges that ELMS is a big shift away from the EU Common Agricultural Policy and it will take time to get right: “We do recognise that this is trying to do something different and there’s a lot of learning-by-doing involved. More collaborative, group working which is more sensible but does take time. Everyone will have different views on issues like simplicity and accessibility, but the difference here is we have the freedom to tweak it, evolve and improve it as it goes along.”

Hendry points out that this needs a cultural shift on the part of government, who must have greater trust in people (farmers and landowners) who are going to be delivering actions on the ground so there can be some experimentation in what works and what doesn’t. More trust will give people more flexibility around how they can deliver environment and food production outcomes. Government will need to take things in good faith but at the same time be quite nimble in changing and evolving the schemes where necessary.

There is widespread concern amongst campaigners at agricultural impacts on water so greater trust feels like it may be difficult to justify to some. Hendry argues that the purpose of trust is to enable wider partnerships with land managers on positive actions and outcomes. Of course there is a need for regulation but conventional approaches and regulation won’t reach certain parts of the problem, and they can be high cost for what they achieve.

“We can’t afford not to make this investment and shift – we have to do it. We’ve revolutionised agriculture before and we need to do it again”

Funding improvement

CLA have argued that farm payments will need to increase with inflation and be attractive enough to encourage sufficient uptake. I ask whether given the balance of cause of poor water health, the amount of money set to be spent by the water industry on improving performance and infrastructure is out of whack with that available in agriculture?

Close to £20bn a year is set to be spent in the next water industry investment period to 2030 if the regulator approves company plans, compared to roughly £4bn a year in agriculture assuming things stay about where they are at the moment. Water is critically important – that goes without saying – but so is food and striking a sustainable balance between food production and nature recovery warrants proper investment.

Yes, the figures are out of whack, Hendry opines. Water industry money comes from bill payers though, whereas agriculture subsidies rely on the public purse. “That’s quite a profound difference especially in an economic downturn”.

“Look at where the market failure is. In farming it’s the supply chain and the poor reward for farmers and growers. If more of that came through from the consumer side, that could supplement public money.”

Hendry points to the National Food Strategy and says Henry Dimbleby looked in detail at these dynamics. But despite the extensive benefits – for climate, nature, health and long-term cost reduction – of moving to a more sustainable model of farming at scale, the political reluctance to get people to pay the true cost of what they’re eating (more for meat, but not for plants) is an ongoing barrier.

A Fresh Water Future’s polling hinted that the public might be willing to pay a small amount more for more sustainably-produced food. I ask whether better assurance on food sustainability would be enough to convince consumers.

Hendry is cautiously sceptical over how widely people will really choose the sustainable option because experience shows food shoppers are very price sensitive. There’s also a view that those kinds of issues are for the supermarkets to sort out and reflect them in their brand. There is always pressure to raise public awareness on issues but commonly people want supply chains to take responsibility for sustainability issues.

I say there are extensive arguments – and evidence – that they’re not doing this, take intensive livestock production as an example. Hendry says there is some internal corporate social responsibility pressure within supermarkets, but warns the food and farming sector needs to be aware they could (and increasingly seem to) be the next target of large-scale activism. “Producers need to invest in the research and innovation to improve things and stay ahead of that risk. They need to incentivise their growers and transition production systems to a more circular economy footing.” She argues that these probably don’t need huge amounts of money in the grand scheme of things.

Food security vs nature?

There seems to be a perennial tension between achieving better environmental outcomes from land management and concerns over food security. Climate and geopolitical factors are increasing those concerns at the moment. Where does CLA see the balance?

Hendry argues the National Food Strategy was compelling. She says that what people mean by food security is a contested area but CLA are clear that it isn’t, and can never be a case of one or the other. Dimbleby’s argument to take the least productive areas of land out of production and put that into ELMS, then farm the remainder through a combination of agro-ecological and at-scale regenerative approaches with the most productive land farmed in a high-output but still sustainable way is really the only way forward.

To make that happen, there needs to be a lot of investment in advice and support to embed the right methods, cropping and so-on. “We can’t afford not to make this investment and shift – we have to do it. We’ve revolutionised agriculture before and we need to do it again”.

Would a land use framework – one of the growing pile of environmental measures promised for 2023 but seemingly in stasis now in the run-up to a general election – help set out the best opportunities for achieving that mix of approaches?

People need to know what the potential of their land is and what the different options could be for its management, Hendry says. CLA stop short of any notion of land designations and telling people what they must do. “Rather, it’s about showing them the options and giving them the information they need so they can understand the potential and unlock it.”

Critical to being able to do that is some kind of baseline natural capital assessment which would inform the picture of potential. This would need to be funded by Defra with guidance on how to interpret the results. It needs to be affordable to farmers and land managers – this kind of measure would be a real investment in future good land management practice. Hendry says she is hopeful that Defra are listening to these arguments.

Peer-to-peer learning and support has been a common theme in A Fresh Water Future’s discussions on agriculture. Hendry considers that whilst people have different ways, and preferences, for getting advice and information, when it comes to water outcomes they seem to gravitate towards farm clusters (often facilitated) so they can work with and learn from each other. This can make it easier to access the advice needed, over and above the free advice that comes with farm products.

“We mustn’t go back. We have to get behind the new system of payments for public goods which will also enhance the reputation of farming”
Hendry cites Spains Hall Estate as an exemplar of good practice. Photo credit: Spains Hall Estate
Low-hanging fruit

I ask if there is any low-hanging fruit in all of this: Something a new government could grab hold of and unlock quickly?

“It’s the stuff we’ve been talking about for a very long time. If we could get the people blatantly not following good practice in terms of soil management and runoff working properly then there are big wins there” says Hendry.

She welcomes the Environment Agency’s putting more resource into farm monitoring and enforcement. For those farmers who are doing the right thing, Hendry says they do feel undermined by those who aren’t. The Agency are starting to put out statistics on number of inspections and the message will start to get out there that it’s being taken more seriously. This is vital to establishing a level and fair playing field.

Logic says that to drive better practice you identify the bad practice and take an advise-then-enforce approach. It seems to work, but the resources haven’t been there historically to strike the right balance. And of course the enforcement should work in tandem with incentives. Hendry believes the underpinning logic of ELMS is right: With no more old-school basic payments there should be more incentive to go for the voluntary schemes as long as it’s economically viable for farmers to do so.

Hendry thinks the low uptake of SFI was partly a phase in the gestation of ELMS. Updated rates look likely to improve things. She is clear though: “We mustn’t go back. We have to get behind the new system of payments for public goods which will also enhance the reputation of farming and land ownership and help protect the sector against some of the current criticism so it’s an attractive and sustainable sector for people to come into.”

As a final question, I ask where she’d recommend I look for exemplary practice. Hendry is a native of Essex so proudly points close to home. “Spains Hall near Finchingfield. There are the beavers of course, but they’re going much further. Agroforestry, water balance. All kinds of great things. There are beacons out there and we need those enthusiasts to learn from.”

The CLA have recently launched their six missions for unlocking the potential of the rural economy after the next general election, including on Profitable and Sustainable Farming.