UK Government unveils bumper crop of farming subsidies, partly with environmental focus

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak has unveiled what he claims is the “largest ever” grant package for British farmers but has been accused of failing to rise to the scale of environmental challenges including extreme weather and soil degradation.

UK Government unveils bumper crop of farming subsidies, partly with environmental focus

Stock image. Pictured: Potato farming in Devon, England.

Speaking at the National Farmers Union’s (NFU) annual conference in Birmingham on Tuesday (20 December), Sunak confirmed his Government’s intention to provide an additional £427m of grants to the agriculture sector this financial year.

Grant funding for productivity schemes is set to more than double, from £91m last financial year to £220m this year.

Additionally, some £220m will be allocated to help farmers adopt “future-focused technologies”, the Prime Minister said. These will include digital automation systems, energy efficiency technologies and rooftop solar.

Farmers will be incentivized to adopt rooftop solar rather than ground-mounted panels “to safeguard land for food production”, the Government said in a statement.

Sunak and his predecessor Liz Truss were both staunch opponents of ground-mounted solar on farms and have sought to extend bans on these arrays to less productive fields – much to the criticism of renewable industry bodies.

Sunak also, today, pledged to set aside £15m in grant funding for surplus food redistribution networks. This is intended to help cut the three million tonnes of edible food wasted on UK farms each year, which generates one-tenth of British agriculture’s carbon footprint.

Sunak was joined at the NFU event by Environment Secretary Steve Barclay, who reiterated the Government’s existing commitment to a 10% uplift in average agreements made under the forthcoming Sustainable Farming Incentive (SFI) and Countryside Stewardship schemes. Barclay confirmed that payments will begin in July.

These schemes will reward farmers for generating environmental benefits as well as for producing food. There are dozens of actions for which farmers can receive a premium, including improving fertilizer management, conserving water and creating or maintaining hedgerows, grassland or nesting habitats.

The Government has positioned the schemes as a way to “help farmers generate income from unproductive corners and edges of fields”.

WWF has argued that the Government’s announcements today are too incremental to tackle the farming industry’s climate or nature impacts meaningfully, or to make the sector more resilient to future environmental shocks.

The NGO’s director of policy solutions Angela Francis said: “Our food system is creaking with every year of climate chaos, and farmers are on the front line of this change, yet Government have not yet stepped up to fully support a just transition to environmentally sustainable agriculture.

The public understands this and it is vital that all parties come forward with a bold and joined up plan to genuinely support UK farmers to grow the right food for people and planet. This means delivering on WWF’s long-standing calls for core environmental standards for imports, supply chain regulation and proper financial support to restore the soil, water and nature our food security depends on.”

The Soil Association has expressed similar concerns. Its head of farming policy Gareth Morgan said: “Cash boosts for our farmers who are facing so much uncertainty are welcome but today’s announcement smacks of a search for silver bullet solutions instead of mapping out a more realistic future.

“There is a role for new tech and setting land aside for habitats, but this won’t be enough on its own. For true food security, the Government must bolster the Sustainable Farming Incentives with a bold vision for resilient farming, following the lead set by organic and agroecological farmers who are using truly sustainable and regenerative approaches.”

Climate resilience

Alongside the funding announcements, Sunak confirmed his Government’s intention to begin publishing a new annual food security index, with the first edition due out this spring.

The index “will capture and present the key data needed to monitor how we are maintaining our current levels of food security across the country and is expected to be UK-wide”, the Government said in a statement.

Index findings will be set out at the ‘Farm to Fork Summit’ – an event convening policy and industry experts.

The UK imports around 40-50% of the food it consumes each year. Whether food is produced domestically or overseas, climate-related extreme weather events are becoming more likely, more frequent and more intense, jeapordising food security. The UN expects the situation to get worse in the coming years.

According to the Energy and Climate Intelligence Unit (ECIU), costs resulting from climate challenges and from spiking fossil fuel prices in food supply chains added £700 to the average British household’s food bills in 2023.

ECIU land analyst Tom Lancaster said: “The Prime Minister is right not to take food security for granted. From devastating droughts across Europe to floods in the UK this winter, climate change is already hitting food production and prices.”

Sunak has promised an uplift in funding to Internal Drainage Boards to protect agricultural land from flooding and to ease recovery from recent flooding events.Farmers are currently able to claim up to £25,000 each for damages accrued during storm season 2023-4.

UK Farming Minister Mark Spencer said: “Maintaining food security and boosting sustainable food production is vital as we see the impacts of more extreme weather and global events, and today’s announcements provide further support for farmers to deliver this while also protecting the environment.”

The UK Government’s official climate advisors have long been calling for Ministers to bolster the national strategic plan for improving climate adaptation proactively. More funding could also be needed, up to a maximum of £10bn a year compared to existing Government promises of £0.5bn – $1bn.

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