UK farmers to be paid for soil stewardship from 2022, but green groups warn subsidy scheme isn't enough
The UK Government has confirmed that farmers will receive payments for improving and conserving soils and grasslands from next year, but is facing criticism over the scheme, with green groups saying it does not pay enough or have a broad enough remit.
In January 2020, the UK’s post-Brexit Agriculture Bill was introduced, including measures to prevent farmers from being financially incentivized to over-produce at the expense of the environment. Instead, new subsidies were promised for farmers providing “public goods” such as healthy soil and improvements to biodiversity. These measures are designed to replace the subsidies offered pre-Brexit under the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy.
Following months of calls for more clarity on the implementation of the new Environmental Land Management (ELM) scheme, the Government has today (2 December) confirmed that the first phase will come into effect from 2022, providing, in the first instance, money to farmers working to conserve and improve soil health.
The UK’s soil organic matter is estimated to have fallen by 50% within the past 60 years, according to Future Food Solutions.
Environment Secretary George Eustice this afternoon spoke at the Country Land and Business Association conference to announce the move. He confirmed that the Basic Payment Scheme will annually pay farmers £22 - £40 per hectare for conserving and restoring arable and horticultural soils; £28 - £58 per hectare for conserving grassland soils and £148 per year for moorland and rough grazing land.
Around 1,000 farmers participated in a pilot of the scheme in its current form.
Extensions to the scheme, which will also see farmers receiving payment for activities like water stewardship, hedgerow improvement, tree planting and reducing livestock farming, will be announced in the coming months.
Eustice was keen to emphasise that the new scheme will run alongside existing initiatives that continue to scale up, including the Countryside Stewardship Scheme, which itself will see payment rates increased in January 2022.
The Country Land and Business Association’s president Mark Tuffnell has called the launch of the Basic Payment Scheme “a major milestone in the development of England’s new agricultural policy”, which “fires the starting gun towards a more sustainable and resilient farming sector”.
However, several green groups have expressed their disappointment with the approach taken by the Department for Food, the Environment and Rural Affairs (Defra).
WWF’s executive director of advocacy and campaigns Kate Norgrove said the new measures “again fall short of what is needed to align agriculture and land use with the Government’s own climate and nature promises”.
Norgrove said: “To deliver the wholesale transformation that’s needed Ministers must speed up the introduction of higher ambition payments to farmers, as part of a strategy to achieve our nature targets and enable people to eat more sustainably, while driving down agricultural emissions significantly by 2030.”
WWF is notably calling on the UK Government to reduce the environmental impact of products made domestically and imported by 75% this decade. It is also working with five major UK supermarkets to halve the environmental impact of typical grocery baskets by 2030.
Similarly, the National Trust’s director-general Hilary McGrady said: “Farmers need a clear path to a future where nature is at the heart of sustainable and secure food production, not the short diversion this new scheme creates.”
The Wildlife Trusts’ chief executive Craig Bennett added: “There’s so much that farmers could be rewarded for doing, such as restoring peatlands and employing ambitious measures to prevent soil and pollutants from washing into rivers – to help wildlife and store carbon. It’s an absolute scandal that the government has failed to seize this unique and important opportunity to improve farming.”
Farmers themselves have also voiced disappointment, as many will likely see their basic payments reduced by between 5% and 25% from 2022 as a result of the changes. It is hoped that this will push those large farms facing the steepest cuts to urgently increase sustainability ambitions and actions. The general response from the farming sector seems cautiously optimistic.
The way in which land is used in the UK accounted for 12% of national emissions in 2017, according to the UK Government’s advisory body the Climate Change Committee.