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Environment Land Management Schemes, devised by the former environment secretary Michael Gove, were constructed to encourage farmers to create space for vulnerable species such as wading birds and dormice, as well as absorbing carbon to help the country reach its net zero targets.
Pilot schemes have created rare habitats and brought back species including nightingales, beavers and white stork, demonstrating their success in restoring Britain’s natural world.
However, sources at the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) have revealed to the Observer that they are considering paying landowners a yearly set sum for each acre of land they own, which would be similar to the EU basic payments scheme of the common agricultural policy.
A ‘catastrophic mistake’
According to the Soil Association, the replacement of Elms with EU-style yearly sums would be a “catastrophic mistake”, considering the current state of British food security and soil health.
As Gareth Morgan, the group’s head of farming policy, explained, “We are shocked to hear reports that the government may ditch plans to pay farmers to protect nature and climate – this would be a catastrophic mistake by the new prime minister.
“Tackling the climate emergency and mass declines in wildlife populations is vital for our long-term food security, so to abandoning plans to transform the way we support British farmers at such a crucial time would be an outrage.
“A handbrake turn on the progress made on the biggest opportunity to fix our broken farming support system in the last 50 years would not only betray nature and climate, it would also betray all those farmers who have invested so much already in tests and trials for the new Environmental Land Management Schemes.”
This is something Vicki Hird, head of the sustainable farming campaign at Sustain, also strongly believes. She told Speciality Food, “It would be madness to pause or halt the transition to a ‘public money for public goods’ approach now, after five years of development.
“The Elms timetable and budget needs to be implemented faster rather than slowed down. Any ‘review’ of the existing plans could investigate specific concerns, such as whether it supports good farmers enough, the impact on upland or small farmers, and if it is ambitious enough.
“If a review stalled the switch to more nature-friendly farming, the scheme could lose the support of farmers, the treasury who pay for it, as well as the vital chance to protect nature and deliver on the UK’s climate goals. All are vital for food security and resilience.”
In fact, Roger Kerr, CEO of Organic Farmers & Growers (OF&G), also believes Elms doesn’t go far enough to support food security in the UK. He explained, “There has been a lot of debate around Elms and particularly its failure to address food security issues in favour of promoting environmental stewardship.
“We believe the proposed policy has been too ‘wide and shallow’ to have the necessary environmental impacts that are so urgently needed.”
The need for nature-friendly farming
Environmental groups have proved that urgent action towards more regenerative, nature-friendly farming is needed to protect the British countryside.
According to Roger, “Michael Gove famously stated that we are 30-40 years away from the eradication of soil fertility. Four years on and too little action has been delivered. The long and short is we don’t have time to keep stalling.
“Therefore, OF&G has repeatedly called for organic’s proven ‘real world’ evidence of delivery, to be given clear and unambiguous recognition.”
As Vicki added, “Farmers are already struggling with rising prices and poor harvests as well as loss of labour. They also face increased competition from low-standard food imports thanks to badly negotiated trade deals.
“There should be an emergency fund, separate from the Elms and Agriculture Transition plan budgets, to support them through what is set to be a very hard winter.”
Gareth concluded, “We know most farmers care deeply about the environment and it is vital that they’re rewarded to protect it – especially in the face of trade deals that threaten to undercut British farmers with imports of food ordered to lower environmental and animal welfare standards.
“Government must proceed with the most evidence-based solution – a rapid shift to agroecological, nature-friendly farming.”