Looking through a glass darkly: Public goods and agricultural policy

This blogpost highlights some of the points raised in a policy brief, New Directions: A public goods approach to agricultural policy post-Brexit, which also features on our website.

Following the Brexit referendum, the mantra “public monies for public goods” has been increasingly heard, especially in relation to agricultural and environmental policy. This public goods agenda represents, in part, a reaction against the well described failings of the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP), which despite greening reforms continues to oversee declines in European environmental quality.

The launch of the UK Government’s long awaited 25-year Environment Plan and the consultation on the Future of UK Farming Policy have lent extra weight to the public goods agenda. Both demonstrate the Government’s commitment to a sustainable approach to the development of future agricultural policy. Indeed, in his first substantial speech as Secretary of State for the Environment, Michael Gove called for a “green Brexit”, and has highlighted his desire to move to a farmer support system of public money for public goods, with the principal public good being environmental enhancement.

What are ‘public goods’?

The movement towards an agricultural policy that seeks to provide public goods is a significant and potentially transformative step. However, despite the growing momentum behind that agenda, there has been little exploration of what the term “public goods” means, how we value them or how we seek to deliver them.

The language of public goods originates from economics and is used to describe resources that are available for everyone to access (i.e. they are non-excludable) and which are not diminished through their consumption (i.e. they are non-rival). Typical examples usually include national defence and lighthouses. However, the current discussion requires us to move beyond this narrow economistic definition.

Instead, what is needed is a broader social-ecological interpretation that attaches greater significance to human-nature relations and aligns more closely with currently used policy frameworks such as ecosystem services. However, and perhaps to the irritation of the farming lobby, this reinterpretation of public goods still exempts “food production” as food is a market good that can be traded.

Where does food production fit in?

When it comes to food production, there has been a tendency to conflate the notion of public goods with that of the common good, and to suggest that subsidies or support payments provide the only route to guarantee food security, combat market volatility and ensure a stable and sufficient income for producers. Whilst food security and food sovereignty are entirely reasonable political arguments for advancing a self-sufficiency agenda, on their own they are not credible arguments for including ‘food production’ in the definition of public goods.

However, many public goods are in fact ‘complex social goods’ – that is, the products of social and cultural processes. It is consequently consistent to broaden the narrow characterization of food beyond the confines of a commodity, and to acknowledge that there are cultural, heritage and traditional dimensions to food and its provision that could be considered public goods.

Incorporating the concept of public goods into future policy

Incorporating this public goods agenda into future agriculture and land use policy requires four key steps:

  • First, an open dialogue, or public conversation, involving all interested stakeholders that can come to a common understanding of public goods.
  • Second, the development of a new vision for agricultural policy based on an agro-ecological model that stresses an integrated vision of ecological and social sustainability, acknowledging the influence of social, environmental, economic and political factors in shaping the future of farming.
  • Third, a pragmatic approach is required to understand the social complexity and practices that underlie value formation and valuation processes. This is especially important given the emphasis in the 25-year Environment Plan on adopting a natural capital approach. Without the presence of a strongly pluralist value foundation, this approach may result in an overly economistic view of the agri-environment and human-nature relations.
  • Fourth, the best means of delivering a public goods-based agricultural policy is through a payment for ecosystem services approach, based on adopting a payment-by-results or stewardship model, or a combination of both. This national-level programme could provide funds to stimulate locally organized schemes, comprising multi-stakeholder and cross-sector partnerships formed to deliver local and regional-level priorities.

Click here to download the associated policy brief on a public goods approach to agricultural policy post-Brexit.

About the authors

Dr Adam Hejnowicz and Prof Sue Hartley are based at the University of York’s Environment Sustainability Institute (YESI) and the Centre for the Evaluation of Complexity Across the Nexus (CECAN).


One Comment on “Looking through a glass darkly: Public goods and agricultural policy

  • Dominic Moran
    21st June 2018 at 5:38 pm

    However, despite the growing momentum behind that agenda, there has been little exploration of what the term “public goods” means, how we value them or how we seek to deliver them….

    Umm, really ? I think you’ve missed about 80 years of literature on the topic in your review…. I’m also not sure I (or you) know what a “narrow economistic” (sic) definition means.

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