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Farmers are to receive additional payments of up to £1,000 a year as part of the ELMs, for protecting nature and the environment, as part of government changes to the post-Brexit subsidies to agriculture.
The farming minister, Mark Spencer, announced the new payments at the Oxford Farming Conference last week. Ministers have been under pressure for months over ELMs, as successive prime ministers and their environment secretaries last year gave conflicting indications over the future of the system.
While the extra incentives were welcomed, farming industry bodies argue that the sums are very small relative to farmers’ needs, and the announcement left many details of the payments still uncertain.
Too little too late
After months of uncertainty, the updated scheme still doesn’t offer a clear path ahead for farmers.
Mark Tufnell, president of the Country Land and Business Association, representing nearly 30,000 landowners and rural businesses, said more urgency and more details were needed. “Today’s announcement shows the government is listening and adapting to the concerns of farmers.
“It reduces uncertainty, supports proper valuations and creates stronger incentives for a wider range of farms to enter into the schemes. All this is to be welcomed, but everything is just moving too slowly. We have had many promises of improvements in the future, but what we desperately need are details of payment rates and standards for 2023,” he said.
In fact, according to David Exwood, vice president of the National Farmers Union (NFU), “While some of these latest changes are welcome, including enhanced payments for farmers and landowners through the Countryside Stewardship scheme and the introduction of a Sustainable Farming Incentive (SFI) management payment, it risks being too little too late, especially given the current economic challenges we are experiencing and the rapid erosion of direct payments.”
“The NFU has always been very clear; for the ELMs to succeed it needs to be simple, provide certainty and fairly reward farmers for taking part. This means schemes that are inclusive and available to every farm business – whether upland or lowland, tenant or owner-occupied – with a range of practical and profitable options available through a ‘foundation’ SFI standard to ensure the high uptake needed so these schemes have the desired impact”, he added.
The impact on the environment
Another major concern is that the government is not acting urgently enough to shift to more sustainable and nature-friendly farming practices.
As Roger Kerr, CEO of Organic Farmers & Growers, explained, “It feels ironic that the increase in SFI payments is announced on the same day the Met Office reports that the UK’s record-breaking annual average temperature of more than 10°C in 2022.
“This alarming data seems only to highlight the lack of any coherent policy to address the challenges we face; showing once again that our country’s policymakers seem intent on delivering too little, too late.
“Surely the hottest year on record is a concrete indicator that government must enact wider, more progressive and forward-thinking policies around agriculture and food production in order to arrest climate change and address the decimation of our natural wildlife.”
This is something the Soil Association strongly agreed with, as head of farming policy, Gareth Morgan, added, “The environmental promises our new prime minister is making from the world stage at COP27 will ring hollow if his government waters down plans to reward farmers for protecting the environment.
“This policy is crucial at a time when our food system is in crisis – fertiliser, feed and energy costs for farmers are skyrocketing, wildlife populations are in freefall and climate change is escalating at an unprecedented rate.
“But seven years on from the Brexit vote we have no substantive package in sight to support the most evidence-based solution – a transition to resilient, agroecological farming. It is also now clear from George Eustice that trade deals undermining British farmers and our environment are being rushed through. We urgently need transformative change, but we are moving backwards.
“As a matter of urgency, we need a renewed commitment to long-term support for organic farmers in recognition of the benefits they deliver for nature. The government must also invest in a revolutionary shift to nature-friendly, agroecological farming and support farmers to rebuild biodiversity and soil health across their farms alongside producing nutritious food.”
As Roger concluded, “It is in everyone’s interest we ensure sustainable, climate-friendly British farming in the future, with farmers doing what they do best; producing food alongside protecting and maintaining our environment.”