Calls for change in the UK’s land sector have never been louder. Yesterday, the government had another reminder, in the Office for Environmental Protection’s report, of just how off track it is from ending the steep decline in nature, whilst the Committee on Climate Change has called progress to cut emissions “slow and partial”.
Farmers aren’t happy either, with many in England frustrated at the slow development of the Environmental Land Management schemes (ELM) as they watch the clock tick on the gradual scale-back of their support under the previous European policy.
Money for nothing is ending
For decades, much of the £3.2 billion annual rural payments budget in the UK has been awarded on a per hectare basis. This system has perpetuated the farming of land unsuited to food production. Given the planned phase out of these payments, the future security of many farms lies in scaling up payment for public goods instead, such as carbon sequestration, biodiversity or flood mitigation.
In our report, published today, we show that this change could bring huge wins for nature and farmers. We recommend a dramatic change in how the available budget is spent so farmers are supported to create more habitats, like woodlands, wetlands and extensively grazed grasslands, on ten per cent of currently farmed land by 2030 and 30 per cent by 2050.
Encouraging the trend towards replacing processed meat products with non-animal derived alternatives could allow for just over half of the farmland left to be managed according to agroecological principles, which allow more space for nature on farms. We estimate that this dual approach could increase the average size of wild bird species populations by over 80 per cent by 2050.
New environmental payments would increase most farm incomes
This doesn’t just have huge benefits for nature. Farmers’ incomes would rise. At present, agricultural support is very unequally distributed: in England, taxpayers give as much to the top one per cent of farms as they do to the bottom 50 per cent. Moving to payments for public goods, for climate, nature and other environmental outcomes on land less suited to food production, would increase the incomes of all but the largest, most profitable, farms.
Given the financial stability that being paid for climate change mitigation measures offers so many farms, we should be concerned by reports that new carbon removal technologies could become the UK’s fastest growing industry. We found that trying to achieve the UK’s net zero target by investing solely in these expensive and, as yet, unproven high tech greenhouse gas removals, rather than supporting farmers to create well established nature-based ones, would cost the taxpayer £100 billion more to 2050.
Such a strategy would fail to save nature and leave many farms insolvent once continued direct payments end. Under our recommendations, engineered carbon removals do have a role to play, as one of a suite of measures, but good progress in the land sector would substantially limit the demand for them.
Unless the new ELM schemes support change, rather than business as usual, farmers risk losing out to the business interests promising to remove carbon emissions with unestablished technologies. Defra’s new Land Use Framework should be used to demonstrate how ELM will meet the UK’s climate and nature targets, as the government’s own Net zero review recommended earlier this week.