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The Absolute Bog

 

Years ago, I used to teach economics. One of the starting points in economics are the four ‘Factors of Production’ – the things you need to make or produce something – which are land, labour, capital and enterprise. I’m a big fan of land, and so last week went to the Oxford Real Farming Conference, which brings together advocates and practitioners of progressive farming from around the UK and the world.

Whilst a refreshing Personal Resilience workshop took place, I instead went to a talk on taxes on agricultural land… If you want to make a talk on land-tax interesting, radical tea towels (used throughout to illustrate this article) and then a sing-song, from the brilliant Three Acres and a Cow does the trick!

During the land tax workshop Molly Scott Cato Green Party MEP made an interesting link between the party policies and the factors of production – that typically, Conservative policies are made to protect capital, Labour policies to support people and that Green Party tries to protect and enhance land and the natural environment.

Of interest to the Green Party last week will have been the long awaited publication of the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs’ 25-Year Environment Plan. There’s some interesting individual bits to it, but somewhat unsurprisingly there is a lack of detail - for instance our friends at Sustain (The Alliance for Better Food and Farming) have pointed out there was a lack of detail in the launch speech on food and farming generally, and as many hits as misses across a number of specific food policy areas. The team at Shared Assets (a think tank aiming to make land work for everyone) share similar concerns on use of Green Belt and Green Infrastructure.

What might be particularly disappointing for Ethex investors is the lack of detail covering smallholder farming approaches for enhancing the environment. Given the appeal of two of our recent offers Ecological Land Co operative and Stockwood Community Benefit Society, this plan would have provided an ideal opportunity to give some encouraging policy signals to the sector of it’s importance to the future of the UK. However, in reality out of 150 pages, smallholders are only mentioned three times and only then in relation to the Department for International Development (DfiD) and rest of the world practices.

So what is in the plan that social enterprises in the food and farming sector can help to support?

What seems arguably clear from this plan, is an increasing role, but also increasing measures for business and enterprise in delivering environmental improvements. On the scrutiny side are increasingly strong policies relating to peat bog resources; “ending peat use in horticultural products by 2030”. However, peat bogs aren’t used exclusively by horticulture – conventional pasture, arable, forestry farmers, domestic gardeners, allotment holders and local authority landscapers are all users of this important natural resource. In any case, the direction laid out in the plan provides an opportunity for entrepreneurs to start developing enterprise models, structures and infrastructures that can supply an equivalent resource for those who produce our food, as well as other land-based crops such as fibres and crops providing ingredients for pharmaceuticals, animal feed and biofuels. These emerging businesses – or at least the ones demonstrably contributing to sustainable management of natural resources – are likely to need support from Ethex investors.

On the ‘increasing role’ side is a commitment to establishing a Green Business Council and to explore the potential for a ‘Natural Environment Impact Fund’. The Green Business Council will apparently have a role in advising the government on the conditions government can set to encourage innovation in green enterprise. There is a danger here that those on this new Council may advocate for frameworks that deregulate to enable simply greater profitability, undermining important environmental protection measures. However, it’s early days and the Council has not been established yet plus it will have just an advisory role, so let’s watch with interest or get involved in consultation on shaping their remit and accountability.

The Council will also have a role in “exploring how more revenue streams could be generated to make natural capital assets investable” … or to slightly unpack and provide a possible interpretation on this, ‘green agencies might be able to generate revenue and once we’ve found out how, they will need investment’. On all these actions, expect an outcome to be green businesses to develop, with investment from Ethex investors a very useful way to support this.

Of interest as well is the Natural Environment Impact Fund which is envisioned to be a facility blending capital from a range of sources (e.g. public, private, philanthropic) to provide repayable finance to projects with the potential to improve the natural environment and generate revenue. We’d hope that a facility like this would be accessed for enterprises raising monies through Ethex and add credibility and assurance to their enterprise and business model.

However, all this policy comes with an important caveat; those four traditional inputs are called the factors of production. The policy space - from whatever ideology - is often about producing something, otherwise known as a “productionist paradigm”. But is simply producing more really what is needed to restore ecological systems and the environment? Production isn’t everything! A glaring omission from Defra’s important 25 Year Plan is people – social justice and opportunities for everyone to thrive. That’s surely not too radical to put on a tea towel?!

Tom Carman is part of Ethex’s Business Development team. If you would like an informal discussion about developing an offer or the issues raised, please call 01865 403 236 or email tom@ethex.org.uk

https://www.ethex.org.uk/savings--investments_16.html

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