‘Fraught with risk’: Government’s sustainable farming plan sparks concern amongst green groups

The UK Government has unveiled plans to deliver the most significant change to land management and farming practices in 50 years as a replacement to the EU's Common Agricultural Policy, a move that has sparked widespread concern amongst green groups due to a lack of detail.

‘Fraught with risk’: Government’s sustainable farming plan sparks concern amongst green groups

All changes are designed to ensure that by 2028

The Government has today (30 November) unveiled the ‘Path to Sustainable Farming’ strategy, which outlines plans to introduce an Environmental Land Management scheme that would financially reward farming practices that promote nature restoration to tackle climate change.

The sweeping new strategy would also focus on investing animal health and welfare, firstly by eradicating endemic diseases amongst cattle, pigs and sheep.

The plan will act as a replacement system for the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy, which has been widely criticised by green groups for its failure to address biodiversity loss and damage to nature.

Under the new UK plans, direct payments will be reduced over the coming years, starting from the 2021 Basic Payment Scheme year, with the money instead used to fund new schemes and grant options that reward farmers that showcase environmental improvements.

All changes are designed to ensure that by 2028, farmers can operate safely and profitably without subsidy support.

Environment Secretary George Eustice said: “We want farmers to access public money to help their businesses become more productive and sustainable, whilst taking steps to improve the environment and animal welfare, and deliver climate change outcomes on the land they manage.

“Rather than the prescriptive, top-down rules of the EU era, we want to support the choices that farmers and land managers take. If we work together to get this right, then a decade from now the rest of the world will want to follow our lead.”

The way in which land is used in the UK accounted for 12% of national emissions in 2017, meaning that agri-food systems will need to be “rapidly” changed to ensure that the Government’s legally binding net-zero target is met.

In response, the Committee on Climate Change’s (CCC) first in-depth advice paper on agricultural policy’s role in the net-zero transition outlines how emissions from land-use can be reduced by almost two-thirds (64%) by 2050, and the residual emissions accounted for through offsetting. 

Measures would include increasing UK forestry cover from 13% to at least 17% – requiring 30,000 hectares of planting annually – and incentivising low-carbon farming practices. The UK Government is well off-track in efforts to plant 30,000 hectares annually.

Negative reaction

The plan has not been well received by green groups, with many stating it lacked clarity and detail to give farmers confidence that post-Brexit Britain would support the sector.

Craig Bennett, chief executive of The Wildlife Trusts said: “We are deeply worried that the pilot schemes, which make up much of the Government announcement simply cannot deliver the promise that nature will be in a better state. The announcement will frustrate farmers and every single one of us who is fed-up with the steep wildlife declines that are reported with such agonising regularity.

Four years on from the EU referendum, we still lack the detail and clarity on how farm funding will benefit the public. This is desperately needed so farm businesses can plan and, just as vitally, so that nature’s recovery can be planned alongside their work. The existing Countryside Stewardship schemes, which we would encourage all land managers to consider, have not been enough to reverse nature’s decline. We urge the Government to move faster to reverse nature’s decline.”

Mark Bridgeman, President of the Country Land and Business Association which represents 30,000 rural businesses, said: “From January, we will embark upon the biggest shift in agricultural policy in 70 years.  The new Environmental Land Management scheme has the potential to be a genuinely world-leading policy that will allow land managers and government to work together to reverse biodiversity decline and mitigate climate change, as well as deliver quality food, grown and reared to the highest standards.

“But the transition from the old system to the new is fraught with risk. Many farmers will find it hard to see past the drastic cuts to the Basic Payment Scheme, that begin next year. The average family farm will see cuts of over 50% before the new schemes are fully available in 2024.  The Government has announced the Sustainable Farming Incentive to help bridge the gap, but with only a month to go before the transition phase begins we have no details whatsoever about how this will work on the ground and the level of investment it will provide. This lack of detail risks casting a shadow over Government’s laudable aims.”

Dr Richard Benwell, CEO of Wildlife and Countryside Link, said: “The sustainable farming incentive, local nature recovery and landscape recovery components could stack up to be a really effective boost for environmental recovery, so we welcome Defra’s decisions today. But their effectiveness will depend on a clearer direction of travel for farmers and other land managers and a firm foundation of regulation, where Defra’s plans still remain murky.

We urge Defra to publish more detail on higher environmental standards expected during and after the transition period as soon as possible, so that farmers can plan for the future. Combined with uncertainty for farmers over exports, tariffs and standards in trade deals post-Brexit, there’s a foggy future for farming ahead. This uncertainty could mean some farmers turn away from greener options or give up on existing environmental choices, but as this week’s farmland bird index showed once again, there’s no time to lose in investing in a greener farming future.”

The new plan follows the re-introduction of the Agriculture Bill last month. Groups and individuals across the green economy have expressed anger and disappointment after an amendment to the Agriculture Bill, designed to require imported food to meet domestic standards, was thrown out by the Government.

An amendment designed by the Lords to force the UK to include a clause in all post-Brexit trade deals, stating that the UK would only import goods produced in line with its own rules on animal welfare, the environment and food safety, was rejected by the Government.

The Conservative Party opposed the amendment, arguing that the EU’s rules banning imports of certain goods produced to lower standards will automatically be transposed into UK law once the transition period ends on 31 December. The Bloc’s framework notably bans imports of chlorine-washed chicken and beef fattened with hormones.

Matt Mace

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