This post is by Alice Groom, senior policy officer at the RSPB.
Work done by farmers will be central to bringing back wildlife and protecting our most cherished landscapes. And business as usual is not an option, as we are losing our wildlife and our pollinators at an alarming rate, our soil is eroding away and most of our rivers are in a terrible condition.
On 1 January 2021, the UK leaves the EU. For the first time in a generation, Defra is developing a new agricultural policy. At the core of the proposals is the Environmental Land Management (ELM) scheme.
The idea of this scheme is that farmers are rewarded by the taxpayer for producing things that are good for us all, but that do not have an obvious market value. These ‘public goods’ include birds, butterflies, wildflower meadows, in short, nature in all its rich tapestry. Public goods also include carbon stored in soils, especially peat, which will perform a vital service in the fight against climate change. These are the things that we need, but that farmers cannot make money from.
This focus is necessary to help tackle the nature and climate crises and rebuild the productive capacity of the land. The government has what Michael Gove referred to in 2017 as “an unfrozen moment” and, in “taking back control” of our environmental policies, the chance to consider “new possibilities” and to do things better. Fast forward to 2020 and there is a risk that government is simply reinventing the status quo.
But ELM needs to be ambitious, helping to transform farming, to ensure land is managed to produce the balance of outcomes that society needs, which includes more nature and a stable climate, as well as food. It should support the progressive adoption of ‘regenerative’ and ‘agroecological’ practices that work with nature, provide more space for nature and offer the nature-based solutions that can help tackle climate change.
The potential of ELM tiers
Defra intends ELM to have three levels or ‘tiers’, from high nature value to high production value. If designed and targeted correctly, these should enable farmers to pick the right farming system for their land, whilst delivering a good mix of other outcomes for nature and society.
Tier 3: More wild land for nature and nature-based solutions
Tier three could provide more wild land for nature and nature-based solutions. We know that many species, such as bittern or curlew, only thrive in wilder landscapes. We also know that nature-rich habitats, such as peatlands and woodlands, store carbon, reduce flood risk and supply clean water.
Tier 2: Nature friendly farming
Some land is not as productive as other land but can still be good for wildlife and provide other benefits. On this land, ‘lower yielding’ land species thrive, such as yellowhammer and cirl bunting. This tier could play a significant role in helping to reward farmers for creating and enhancing semi-natural habitats and adopting farming methods, including organic systems, that keep chemical inputs low.
Tier 1: Transitioning to regenerative agriculture
This tier could boost the environmental sustainability of farming which, in going over and above regulatory standards, aims to avoid negative impacts, such as water or air pollution or depleting essential assets such as soil. It could improve the environmental sustainability of farming, for example, by supporting the progressive use of regenerative practices across land holdings. It should adopt a ‘ladder approach’, encouraging applicants to progressively use more ambitious environmental practices to receive the highest rewards.
What’s better for nature is better for farmers
Many regenerative practices can have positive impacts on the quality and amount of food produced. For instance, reducing chemical inputs, using natural mixes of grass and wildflowers, growing crops that ensure soil is never bare, and practicing agroforestry and boosting grassland diversity to increase soil organic carbon.
Even on the most productive farms there are unproductive areas that aren’t so good for crops. Using these to create semi-natural habitats, including beetle banks, thick hedges and scrub areas, will support more wildlife. Evidence shows that including flower rich habitats on farms increases yields by attracting more pollinators and pest predators.
The new ELM scheme will need to target funds where they are most needed and where the taxpayer will get the best returns. It will also need efficient and effective administration, to ensure it is straightforward to apply for and that payments are always on time. If it gets it right, the government has chance to make this part of a world beating set of farming policies to help achieve its environmental commitments, rebuild the productive capacity of farms and support wise, sustainable, resilient farming and land management.
At the RSPB, we are concerned that the ambitious vision Defra first set out for ELM and future farming in 2018 is now at risk, due to a lack of progress and resolve. But it’s not too late. We must seize this opportunity or face another lost decade for our natural world and a missed opportunity for our cherished farming sector.