Why the government’s recent farming policy announcement got it wrong and what needs to happen next

This is a joint post by Marcus Gilleard of the National Trust, Barnaby Coupe of The Wildlife Trusts, and Alice Groom of the RSPB.

When the government made its eagerly awaited announcement about farming at the beginning of December there was a howl of disbelief from us, the UK’s three major nature charities. But why was it such a disappointment to us?

Billed as the last major announcement on the Agricultural Transition Programme, it was supposed to herald the most important change in farming policy in half a century. Yet, one year after the Agriculture Act passed and, after nearly four years in development, what we saw has given us no confidence that the government is adjusting away from the decision made after the Second World War, to push most farmers to increase production at nature’s expense.

We are facing a dual nature and climate crisis, and farming policy must reflect this. This is something all three of our organisations have been calling for since the start of the process leading up to last year’s new legislation and recent policy announcement. It was most recently articulated in Wildlife and Countryside Link’s Digging Deeper report in October.

The Sustainable Farming Incentive ignores climate and nature
Despite the opportunities provided by Brexit and hosting the Glasgow climate summit to reconsider the country’s approach to food and farming, the proposed Sustainable Farming Incentive ignores the important links between farming, climate, and nature. This is not helped by the ongoing absence of information on the other two proposed Environmental Land Management (ELM) schemes. Although a first step, if this signals the level of the government’s ambition, it will fail to help farmers rise to the challenge of addressing the scale and urgency of the nature and climate crises, and it will fail to secure a sustainable future for food production.

The original plan stated by the government was that the £2.3 billion paid out to farmers in England every year would be redirected to reward them for ‘public goods’; for example, for repairing the uplands to store carbon, protecting rivers from pollution, and planting hedgerows. This would ensure better value for money to taxpayers than the former EU Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) support system. It would be a new system that, at last, recognised the important interplay between farming and nature. 

Support for public goods has disappeared
But support for public goods was completely absent from the December announcement. Also absent was the message about the journey to a sustainable future, painted by the government’s vision for the future of food, farming and the environment; nor was there any recognition of the urgent scale of change needed in the farming sector to meet the 2030 nature and 2050 climate goals. Instead, the narrative was about self-sufficiency, profitability and levelling up, all of which are unachievable unless we tackle the nature and climate crises.

The Secretary of State said “it is not for me to tell an individual farmer what to do”. But we believe that it is precisely his role to tell farmers what they need to do to access public money and to outline the part everyone must play.

It makes sense for the government to get as many farmers as possible on board whilst helping them to recoup subsidies lost from the phase-out of the previous schemes, but only in the context of ‘public money for public goods’. Farmers need clear guidance on this, and there must be consistency across the farming sector or else it will be impossible to evaluate the success of the scheme and its outcomes.

Agriculture policy must protect nature
This has come at a critical moment for nature. We are losing natural habitats and wildlife too fast to afford low ambition in future farming policy. One in four UK bird species are now on the red list of threatened species and 26% of mammals are at risk of disappearing altogether. Rivers are in deep trouble too: in England, only 14% are in good ecological shape, largely due to agricultural pollution.

These losses cannot be reversed without a fundamental shift in agriculture policy which sees farming and the environment treated as mutually beneficial and interdependent.

The Defra Secretary of State is expected to make a further announcement in January, with more details on the other two ELM schemes: Local Nature Recovery and Landscape Recovery. These schemes need to be much more ambitious than their predecessors. But we are concerned about early rhetoric describing Local Nature Recovery as the “successor of Countryside Stewardship”, rather than ending the CAP history of retrofitting policy where the environment was bolted on. Rebadging an existing scheme and approach, which has overseen the decline in farm wildlife, is not sufficient to meet the scale of challenge, and will fail to ensure that nature-friendly farming becomes the norm rather than a ‘nice to have’.

What we want from the January announcement is, first, for the government to explain what the ELM schemes are for, and how they will help it to meet its environmental commitments. Second, we need to know what the schemes will look like, with an indication of how they will interact with the Sustainable Farming Incentive. Finally, a clear roadmap should be drawn up for further scheme development, with information on piloting and roll-out, and including monitoring and evaluation, as well as integration with broader farming policy.

There also needs to be a much clearer message from the government about how the ELM schemes will work with wider environmental policy. Everyone needs to know the direction of travel, what outcomes are sought and what that means practically. The announcement must at least provide a blueprint, if not the script.

It’s time to answer the important questions
We want to work with the government to deliver its vision of a “greener, cleaner” country. We can help the government to create the right operating conditions and funding opportunities to help farmers and other land managers. But it must reciprocate by stepping up the pace of reform and committing to integrating farming and nature for the benefit of us all. Throughout this year we have asked Defra a long list of questions about how it will guarantee the protection of nature in farming policy but with no adequate response. Now is the time for the department to answer them.

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