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Farmers have now been given clarity on what will be expected of them if they apply for government incentives called environmental land management schemes (ELMs), worth £2.4bn a year for this parliament.
Under the reformed scheme, farmers in England will be able to receive government funding for up to 280 different actions that protect the environment, from conserving hedgerows to maintaining peatlands, as part of a comprehensive overhaul of farming subsidies.
Failing to give farmers confidence
While the farming industry has been eagerly awaiting clarity on post-Brexit reforms, the announcement hasn’t given the sector the confidence it needs to protect the environment during a tumultuous time.
According to David Exwood, vice president of the National Farmers Union (NFU), “For farmers and growers making crucial long-term decisions that are essential to running viable and profitable food-producing businesses, it’s vital they have the full scheme details as soon as possible and know how the different schemes will work together. A speedy application and payment process will also be key to giving farm businesses some much-needed security.
“If ELMs is to be successful, we’ve always said that it needs to be simple, provide certainty and fairly reward farmers for taking part. This means schemes being developed that are inclusive and available to every farm business – whether upland or lowland, tenant or owner-occupied.”
In fact, Martin Lines, the chair of the Nature-Friendly Farming Network (NFFN), said the announcement simply did not go far enough. “Individual actions on their own won’t achieve our climate and nature targets. There remains the need for join-up between actions to avoid a piecemeal approach”, he commented.
Gareth Morgan, head of farming policy at the Soil Association, added, “The government is failing to make clear how they will give farmers confidence to invest in the radical changes needed for a resilient and sustainable agroecological farming sector.
“We are facing a climate emergency and ecological collapse – there are welcome elements in today’s announcement but we must stop tinkering around the edges.
“Government must provide a long-term vision to help farmers do more than make small changes. They need a package of guidance and incentives that spark a shift to nature-friendly farming across their entire farms.”
Lack of recognition for organic farming
According to Roger Kerr, CEO of Organic Farmers & Growers (OF&G), one key aspect of nature-friendly farming that the announcement fails to provide clarity on is organic.
“It is extraordinary that despite policymakers’ talk of sustainability, biodiversity, climate, resilient food production, water quality and net zero, there is zero recognition of the significant contribution that an organic whole farm system approach already delivers to achieve these goals.
“Instead, the ELM update published today is more of a pick-and-mix approach where organic farmers will be able to choose between SFI options and with organic practices incorporated into a re-packaged Countryside Stewardship scheme option.
“OF&G had previously been optimistic about the development of Countryside Stewardship Plus, but this appears to be a backward step since there is no coordinated support for organic systems – proven to deliver on Defra’s environmental objectives. This glaring omission is detrimental and short-sighted.
The Soil Association agreed, as Gareth added, “Much that is set to be rewarded in this new policy was already part of existing Countryside Stewardship policies, and it remains unclear as to which scheme farmers should choose or how the policies will work together.
“The new incentives for agroecological and organic farming practices – like avoiding insecticides and using legumes for soil fertility instead of chemicals – are welcome. But information on the promised organic standard or any clarity for our sustainable farming pioneers is still missing.”
As Roger concluded, “Thérèse Coffey says that ‘farmers are at the heart of our economy’, OF&G respond by saying that ‘organic needs to be at the heart of farming policy.’”