Defra pushed for ‘bold and decisive’ action on sustainable agriculture subsidies

More than 50 food sector players are urging the UK Government to clarify its plans for reforming farmer payment schemes post-Brexit, pressing Ministers to include measures to help bring about nature restoration at scale.

Defra pushed for ‘bold and decisive’ action on sustainable agriculture subsidies

Image: Riverford Organic Farmers

A joint public statement, intended particularly for those working at the Department for Food, the Environment and Rural Affairs (Defra), contains this call to action. It has been published today (14 December) by WWF, which has the support of banks, businesses and charities across the nation’s food system.

Among those supporting the letter from the private sector are Aldi, Tesco, the Co-Op, Dole, Hodmedod’s, Lidl, Marks & Spencer (M&S), Ocado, Riverford, Sainsbury’s, Sodexo, Waitrose & Partners and Yeo Valley. The cohort of supporters is broad, ranging from banks Triodos, Natwest and HSBC, to the National Trust and Humane Society International.

The letter voices united support for the implementation of Defra’s Environmental Land Management schemes (ELMs). ELMs are intended to be the UK’s framework for subsidising farmers post-Brexit, replacing the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy.

In initially drawing up ELMs, Defra acknowledged that the UK had an opportunity to go further and faster on reducing the negative environmental impact of food production outside of the EU. It originally brought forward plans to pay farmers for ‘common goods’, including the preservation or restoration of soils, water and biodiversity, among other factors. Payments were set to be made via a Sustainable Farming Incentive.

Then, in early 2022 Defra launched the Local Nature Recovery scheme and Landscape Recovery scheme, both designed to help farmers and landowners collaborate on larger-scale projects to create and restore habitats. The three-tier system, Defra stated, should improve environmental outcomes on individual farms and also contribute to nature restoration at scale.

While there were questions about how Defra was handling the development and the delivery of these schemes, the consensus was that the overall ambition of making farming more environmentally sustainable was laudable and needed if the UK is to meet its 25-Year Environment Plan targets and 2050 net-zero goal.

Yet reports emerged, during Liz Truss’s time as Prime Minister, that Defra was planning to scrap all ELMS before their launches. This move proved unpopular with green groups and with some farmers, but the National Farmers’ Union (NFU) welcomed it. Defra subsequently confirmed that a review of ELMs was underway under Truss, but that it would be balanced, rather than involving directly scrapping ELMs.

Now, with Truss having stepped down and with Rishi Sunak in place as her successor, the letter states that actors at all parts of the food system “urgently need the vision, clarity, and detail on the rollout of ELMs to plan into an uncertain future”.

It continues: “We are calling for the ambition and delivery of all parts of ELMs to be raised to support farmers to work with nature, reduce their input costs, and adapt to a changing climate, all while providing healthy, affordable, high welfare and sustainable food.

“Now is the time for bold, decisive action, if we are to create a productive, regenerative, and resilient food system into the future. We are all ready to work together to make that happen, including unleashing the potential of the private sector, as long as a strong and secure policy signal from government is in place.”

Elaborating on the statement, WWF’s executive director of advocacy and campaigns Kate Norgrove said: “Currently, the only action we’re seeing on ELMs is ongoing delays and tinkering with names. Defra needs to move on from the upheaval and delays of recent months and deliver on the promise to farmers with the clarity, ambition and certainty they need.”

Defra update

edie reached out to Defra for an update on progress with potential ELMs reforms. A spokesperson said there has been “no delay” with the rollout of ELMs, with the Sustainable Farming Incentive now open and with “further announcements” on the next phase of ELMs due in the new year.

“We have already opened two of our three new Environmental Land Management schemes and are pressing ahead by fine-tuning and expanding them to make sure they help to deliver our ambitious outcomes on the environment and support a thriving food and farming sector,” the spokesperson stated.

“Thousands of farmers have already signed up to our new schemes like the Sustainable Farming Incentive and we encourage many more to apply – 22 large scale nature recovery projects have begun and we expect there to be 32,000 Countryside Stewardship agreements live at the start of 2023, a 94% increase from 2020. ”

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