The rollout of England’s new post-Brexit farm support scheme, Environmental Land Management (ELM), is grinding to a halt due to lack of vision and misplaced belief that action on climate and nature is a threat to food security and farm incomes.
In fact, the opposite is true. The droughts, wildfires, and heavy rainfall brought by climate change are the real threat to food production, alongside the decline of pollinators and wild species essential to support agriculture and maintain healthy ecosystems.
Financially, our work shows that most farms stand to see their incomes increase under ELM which pays for public goods, such as biodiversity, water quality and carbon storage, with public money.
The framework should focus on the scale and pace of change needed
The Land Use Framework, a policy promised for release in 2023, could bring change to this landscape in more ways than one. This is an important opportunity to get the ELM transition back on track, as Green Alliance has outlined in a briefing on what a successful Land Use Framework would entail.
As a starting point, we think it should set out the scale and pace of land use change needed to get on track to delivering the UK’s legally binding environmental commitments. The UK’s is at risk of missing both its commitments to restore nature, and reduce emissions from the land sector because farmers don’t have the policy support they need to make the necessary change. Green Alliance’s work has shown that meeting these targets requires ten per cent of UK farmland to species rich, well managed woodlands, wetlands and grasslands by 2030, rising to a third of currently farmed land to be restored for nature by 2050. The UK is exceptional across Europe in the high proportion of its land that is farmed, particularly how much of it is grazing lands. This change would give the UK a pattern of land use more similar to Portugal, France or Austria but would still leave us with half the share of these habitats found in Sweden or Slovenia.
The Land Use Framework should set out how ELM will support land managers in England towards this change. Under current plans, too much of the ELM budget is being directed into low impact measures that do little for farm incomes, nature or climate mitigation. This approach fails the grazing farms that are unprofitable from food production alone whilst the highly profitable large arable farms benefit the most with payments calculated according to income forgone.
The change we envisage is ambitious, but it would also boost the incomes of the least well off farmers by providing an alternative livelihood to loss making farming. These farms deserve the Landscape Recovery element on ELM to receive the third of the budget originally promised; last year it received well below one per cent of total spend.
Lowland peat needs special attention
Areas of lowland peat, such as the Fens and the Somerset Levels, deserve special attention. Each year, cropped lowland peat emits four times more greenhouse gases than the equivalent area of woodland could take out of the atmosphere in the same time period. In addition, the east of England, where lowland peat is mostly located, is becoming drier as our climate changes. This makes it harder to grow crops and necessitates expensive capital works to increase water storage. This all eats into profitability; indeed East Anglia farmers are already questioning their future.
This is where the government needs to use the Land Use Framework to support farmers to change how they make a living from the land. Whilst the third of cropped lowland peat that is horticultural is more difficult to shift to other parts of the country, it does not make sense to use the other two thirds to graze livestock or to grow livestock feed, which can easily be done elsewhere. The Land Use Framework should recognise the much greater public benefit in terms of climate mitigation and nature recovery that this land can provide if restored to wetland.
Issues that require small areas of land should not dominate discussions
It will be important for the framework, when it comes, to keep a perspective on the bigger picture and what’s needed to reach environmental goals. It should not get bogged down on issues that involve relatively little land. For instance, though often the centre of fierce debate, the projected expansion of housing, solar and wind energy will occupy just two per cent, 0.3 per cent and 0.2 per cent of the UK’s area respectively by 2050. In contrast, our research suggests 2.5 per cent of farmed land will need to change use to either semi-natural habitat or agroecologically managed farming every year between now and 2050 to meet the country’s legal climate and nature goals.
At the same time, the framework must avoid the trap of suggesting that everything can be delivered everywhere. There are trade-offs. Unfarmed land can store carbon, farmed land tends to emit it. And nature is more abundant in woodlands, wetlands and other unfarmed landscapes than on farmland.
The Land Use Framework must set the vision that ELM desperately needs to move forward, being clear about where land managers across the country would best be pursuing alternative outcomes to food production or, indeed, where food production should be the priority. If it does, the Land Use Framework will become a historic landmark, determining a positive future for the health and wellbeing of the country.