HomeNatural environmentFarming reform is a big post-Brexit prize we should be careful not to lose

Farming reform is a big post-Brexit prize we should be careful not to lose

The government’s plans for farming in England have taken a kicking. In October, the NFU opposed reductions to the Basic Payments Scheme, and called for delay to the roll out of the new Environmental Land Management scheme (ELM). But many environmentalists see the first tranche of this new scheme, the new Sustainable Farming Incentive announced in December, as basic payments reheated. It was condemned by the National Trust, RSPB and Wildlife Trusts for ignoring “the important links between farming, climate and nature”.

ELM has been widely criticised 
Now Defra has given details of the other two components of ELM, Local Nature Recovery and Landscape Recovery. These are more ambitious and certainly do connect farming and nature, though there is less emphasis on climate. But many farmers think the schemes give them too little certainty, and environmentalists want more ambition.

The recent Public Accounts Committee report on ELM is particularly critical. It accuses Defra of being “over-optimistic about what it will be able to achieve by when”. On the environment, it says Defra “has not established the metrics that it will need to determine whether ELM is contributing towards the government’s environmental goals” and “is unable to explain how it intends to assess progress against environmental baselines, or even whether these baseline measures exist”.

This echoes Green Alliance’s evidence to the committee, which said Defra was unable to show:

  • how it [ELM] will contribute to achieving the fourth, fifth and sixth carbon budgets;
  • how it will raise the effectively ‘protected for nature’ area of the UK from three to five per cent to 30 per cent; and
  • how it will reverse the continuous 50 year decline in UK priority species by 2030.

The support scheme isn’t ambitious enough on emissions reduction    
The net zero strategy says that farm emissions must fall by 15-25Mt a year by 2035, the midpoint of the sixth carbon budget period. Yet, ELM aims only to reduce farm emissions by up to 6Mt a year by the end of this period. So it appears that the scheme will deliver 30 to 50 per cent of the farm decarbonisation needed over the sixth carbon budget period, while spending almost all of Defra’s budget for farming in the process. It would be useful to know how Defra intends to fill this gap to meet its climate commitments.

Likewise on nature, there is a gap between the government’s aims and what ELM is designed to deliver. Part of the problem here is the lack of agreement on what land in England is currently ‘protected for nature’. If the government insists, in spite of all the evidence, that National Parks and AONBs are already protected, ELM does not have to deliver much more. But, if it acknowledges that many protected areas are in poor ecological condition, however beautiful their landscapes, it is not at all clear how ELM, which eats up most of Defra’s budget, will ensure that 30 per cent of England’s land is effectively protected for nature.

Step change is needed    
If farming is to play its part in restoring nature, we need a step change, not incremental change (eg a Local Nature Recovery scheme billed by Defra as “the more ambitious successor to Countryside Stewardship”). We need this for nature and climate, but also to ensure that the state (aka the Treasury) continues to pay for land management when, outside the EU, it does not have to. Funding is promised for the rest of this parliament, but after the election, the Treasury will ask, “what value are we getting for £2.4 billion a year?” (for England). Without evidence that farmers are producing real environmental goods, why keep paying?

Both the need and the prize at stake call for greater ambition. But environmentalists must also recognise that there is significant pushback against the principle of public money for public goods. The Public Accounts Committee report gives a taste of the arguments.

It raises a concern that “without direct payments, over a third of farms would have made a loss and so be unsustainable as businesses if nothing else changed, such as income from new schemes or rent reductions”. But, of course, something is changing: the total sum of money available for farming in England is guaranteed till the next election; it is just that farmers will be expected to provide some public benefits for the support they receive from the state. This is fair enough, as most farmers agree.  

We are going through a big transition and we need to support farmers through it. But it is a big leap from acknowledging their concerns about the phasing out of basic payments to suggesting, as the Labour Party has, that they are going to lose all public funding. That is simply not true.

There is also a good deal of confusion about food production. It is true that there is no point in raising standards in the UK if it makes our agriculture uncompetitive. We cannot, in the words of the NFU, “export our environmental conscience”.

Popular arguments around food security are too simplistic         
But it is simplistic to assume that more nature means less food or that food prices will have to rise as a result. “Food security” is a powerful cry, employed by the Daily Mail against the “rewilding cult” (I particularly like the photo of daffodil pickers supporting that piece over the caption, “there are concerns that the plans focus too much on freeing up land for rewilding instead of supporting British food production”).

But food security – choose your definition of what the term means – will not be achieved by continuing to farm in the future as we farmed in the past, nor simply by growing food on as much land as possible. George Eustice was right to point out in his Oxford Farming Conference speech that “there isn’t a direct correlation between the amount of land that is farmed and our agricultural output… around 60 per cent of our agricultural output comes from just 30 per cent of land”. The least productive 20 per cent of land in England produces just three per cent of our calories. Is there really no more space for nature?

Rather than simply assuming that we need to grow as much food as possible in England, we need a food strategy that supports enlightened farming, as proposed by Henry Dimbleby. A decent food strategy would tackle diet, food poverty, trade, the resilience of UK farming (output is not the only good) and much more.   

Environmentalists must continue to put pressure on the government for greater ambition in its farming policies. For many, this was one of the few potential environmental gains from Brexit. It is certainly what was promised by the Brexiteers. But, in defending the principle of public money for public goods, we must also beware of the increasing pressure to turn the clock back and return to an agricultural policy that prioritises food production over all other aims.

Written by

Executive director of Green Alliance ( and Chair of the Greener UK board (