HomeNatural environmentDefra’s plans to support farmers could be good but we just don’t know enough to say

Defra’s plans to support farmers could be good but we just don’t know enough to say

This post is by Jenna Hegarty, deputy director of policy at the RSPB.

Sir Dieter Helm recently said “Never have we needed nature-friendly farming as much as we do now”. With a decade to act on climate and nature, to avoid irreversible breakdowns, we don’t just need a farming system that minimises its environmental impact, it also needs to be net positive for nature.

In England, Defra is currently reforming agricultural policies, replacing subsidy primarily with environmental payments. But this world leading idea now needs to be turned into world leading action.

This is Defra’s opportunity to support nature positive farming and ensure the sector plays its part in meeting goals to halt species loss by 2030 and achieve a net zero carbon economy by 2050.

There has been a chilly reception to the SFI
Crucially, nature positive farming doesn’t mean choosing between nature and profitability, in fact, farming with the grain of nature has significant business benefits.

But this change requires changes to practices and mindsets. Neither our nature nor the climate can survive another decade of ‘almost, but not quite, hitting the bar’.

What we are expecting from Defra is a clear vision for nature positive farming that outlines the contribution it will make to delivering those environmental targets, a clear roadmap and a set of effective, deliverable and practical policy mechanisms to get there.

Defra has published snippets of this vision, and a skeleton roadmap, but it has not given enough detail to enable farmers to plan or really understand the options. For instance, they still don’t know what the offer is for organic, tenant and hill farmers. What has been signalled so far has made it difficult to judge the level of ambition.

This is perhaps why, as details  emerge about the Sustainable Farming Incentive (SFI), one of the three components of Environmental Land Management being designed, the reception has been chilly. There’s just not enough information to judge.

In June, Defra announced that, next year, it will launch an early version of the SFI, focusing on soil, animal welfare and a moorland standard. But, without context about how the entire ELM landscape will work, this offer looks thin, and the details released about the standards so far look unambitious.

Defra insists that the SFI will build in ambition to ensure it “does a lot of the heavy lifting across the farmed landscape”.  How and when it will is not clear. The department is keen to achieve high uptake, which is something we support. But, without clear articulation of what the SFI will deliver, there is a risk of repeating the mistakes of former schemes, notably entry level stewardship which had great potential (its robust application at the RSPB’s Hope Farm helped to drive up the Farmland Bird Index by 226 per cent). However, the political decision to prioritise uptake over performance meant that potential was squandered. The scheme achieved 70 per cent uptake, but failed to deliver against environmental objectives   

Defra should introduce a ratchetting mechanism to strengthen the SFI over time, and provide a detailed description of the strengthened standards expected by the end of the transition. It should also explain how the asset-based approach translates into the whole farm approach needed, and what will happen to farm regulation and enforcement.

Baking ambition in from the start will help the funding case
Ensuring ambition is baked in from the start of the SFI is the best way to encourage innovation, support planning and maintain an effective case for ongoing Treasury funding.

On the global stage, Defra is very proud of its proposed reforms, which makes its reluctance to clearly articulate the vision so odd. It is true there is a sequencing issue between ELM development and the finalisation of Environment Bill targets but, ultimately, it is clear what the priorities for ELM should be, and what is needed to translate them into policies which ensure nature positive farming becomes the norm and helps farmers to do it.

RSPB would like to see the following:

  • Clear articulation of  ELM’s part in the delivery of the government’s environmental objectives.
    • A description of the purpose of each ELM scheme, including what they will fund and how they will interact with each other. 
    • A transition strategy that maps out a clear route from existing to future schemes in enough detail for farmers to plan, adapt and succeed, with very specific details to the end of 2024 (beyond that already provided in the Agricultural Transition Plan).
    • More clarity on the relationship between ELM, regulation and enforcement, and plans to plug emerging gaps caused by the end of cross compliance.
    • A plan to address lack of progress on a new regulatory framework for agriculture, following the recommendations of the Stacey Review. Without this, there are risks of incoherence between future regulation and ELM.

Ultimately, the RSPB is willing ELM to succeed. And we work with many progressive farmers who want the same thing. The decision to shift from subsidy to environmental payments is the right one. But now is the time to bring this idea alive and ensure the three ELM schemes operate in harmony to deliver a nature rich countryside and thriving farming and rural businesses that are part of the UK’s future net zero carbon economy. We, and others, are here to help make it happen.


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Green Alliance is a charity and independent think tank focused on ambitious leadership and increased political support for environmental solutions in the UK. This blog provides space for commentary and analysis around environmental politics and policy issues as they affect the UK. The views of external contributors do not necessarily represent those of Green Alliance.