Questions remain over sustainable farming roadmap

01 December 2020, 08:44 AM
  • Farming and environment groups urge the government to provide clarity on details of its path to sustainable farming
Questions remain over sustainable farming roadmap

The government has laid out its plans for a more sustainable farming system in England, which will be the biggest transformation in the industry in 50 years.

The roadmap outlines changes that will affect farmers over the next seven years as the UK government breaks away from the European Union’s Common Agricultural Policy, including:

    • Introducing the Environmental Land Management scheme to incentivise sustainable farming practices, creation of nature recovery habitats and establishing new woodland to help tackle climate change.
    • Investing in improving animal health and welfare, focusing on controlling or eradicating endemic diseases amongst cattle, pigs and sheep.
    • Phasing out Direct Payments from the 2021 Basic Payment Scheme year, and using the money to fund new grants and schemes to boost farmers’ productivity and reward environmental improvements.
    • Simplifying and improving existing schemes to reduce the burden on farmers, and working together with industry to design a more targeted regulatory system.

By 2028, farmers in England will be able to sustainably produce healthy food profitably without subsidy, while taking steps to improve the environment and animal health and welfare, the government says.

“If we work together to get this right, then a decade from now the rest of the world will want to follow our lead,” said environment secretary George Eustice.

“Significant questions”
Minette Batters, president of the NFU, said the rate at which direct support reductions will take place leaves English farmers with “significant questions”.

“These payments have been a lifeline for many farmers especially when prices or growing conditions have been volatile and will be very difficult to replace in the first four years of this transition. Can Ministers be sure that new schemes will be available at scale to deliver redirected BPS payments?” she asked.

“Expecting farmers to run viable, high-cost farm businesses, continue to produce food and increase their environmental delivery, while phasing out existing support and without a complete replacement scheme for almost three years is high risk and a very big ask,” Minette added.

James Woodward, sustainable farming officer at Sustain agreed that big questions still remain around whether the Environmental Land Management scheme and Farm Investment Fund will support whole-farm agroecological systems, like organic and agroforestry.

“The array of farming and environmental policies needs to be designed to work together. We still lack the detail of what farms will be paid for doing, which will frustrate farmers trying to plan for the future.”

Organic Farmers & Growers (OF&G), the largest certifier of UK organic land, was “bewildered” by the roadmap. “This currently looks like a roadmap to nowhere,” said Roger Kerr, chief executive at OF&G.

“There’s a glaring hole in the government’s strategy as it fails to include organic in any Environmental Land Management (ELM) proposal or pilot scheme, as well as lacking any financial detail for farmers to plan their business strategies for when the ELM scheme begins in a little over three years’ time,” he said. “Organic opens access to new food supply chains, improved farm biodiversity and reduced reliance on inputs with the resultant release in working capital.

“It’s time for government to recognise the diversity of approaches to food production and ensure organic farmers and growers are financially recognised for the proven value and multiple benefits they provide as part of this new ‘better, fairer farming system,’” Roger said.

Uncertainties caused by Brexit and Covid-19 only amplify the situation, and Minette warned that sudden drops in income that could jeopardise farms would have knock-on impacts on domestic food production.

“As with any big policy change it is critically important to be clear on its economic impact. We would urge Defra to share this assessment as soon as possible, indeed this has been one of our key asks for the last four years,” Minette said.

Details “desperately needed”
Tony Juniper, chair of Natural England, said the plans mark a “historic shift in the way we manage our land”. He continued, “More than two thirds of England is farmed and this plan paves the way for those who manage the land to produce healthy food alongside other vital benefits, such as carbon storage, clean water, reduced flood risk, thriving wildlife and beautiful landscapes for everyone to enjoy.”

However, Craig Bennett, chief executive of The Wildlife Trusts, feared that the government is all talk and no action. “Four years on from the EU referendum, we still lack the detail and clarity on how farm funding will benefit the public. This is desperately needed so farm businesses can plan and, just as vitally, so that nature’s recovery can be planned alongside their work.”

“We must not spend the next few years just talking; nature needs the help promised by this government and we cannot afford to waste any more time. We urge the government to move faster to reverse nature’s decline,” Craig said.

Helen Browning, chief executive at the Soil Association also urged the government to channel their plan into action quickly. “With market disruption, Brexit looming, weather patterns changing and the lifebuoy of CAP support rapidly deflating, there’s a burning platform…  but leadership, investment and a robust approach to protecting our standards in trade deals will be needed to ensure that all progressive farmers and land managers can make it through these choppy waters.”

But while farmers await further details, there is reason to be hopeful. As Helen said, “There is remarkable consensus emerging between farmers, environmentalists and citizens about the opportunity to set a new course for farming and food, to transform it from being at the heart of the challenges we face now, to right at the heart of the solution.”


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