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Farming pilot is a road test without a route map

10 March 2021

Responding to the Sustainable Farming Incentive (SFI) pilot details and standards announced today, Dr Richard Benwell CEO of Wildlife and Countryside Link, said: “It is good to see Defra road testing the SFI, an important vehicle for delivering a sustainable future for farming. However, Defra is starting out on the path of farming reform without a clear route map for moving beyond business as usual to a future where farming plays a key role in nature’s recovery.

“It is vital that in the months ahead as the pilot is underway, Defra clarifies the starting line for the SFI and the ultimate destination. Some of the options under consideration in the pilot are already regulatory requirements, or may not achieve real environmental improvement, and could gobble up vital funds needed to support more environmentally ambitious farming and land management businesses.

“Setting out beyond business as usual standards will be a critical test for the scheme. Crucially, we also need clarity about which nature measures available for payments at the outset will become part of the normal expectations for a responsible farm business over time. This is vital for farmers and land managers to know what is available to them when and to ensure they strive to make more nature improvements as the scheme progresses.

“It will be impossible to improve the state of nature and our climate without a policy vehicle that can bring farmers on a speedy journey to widespread adoption of higher standards and investment in nature. The SFI could be that vehicle, but without further clarity on the direction of travel or clear measurements for progress, we cannot be certain that it will deliver the high-standard environmental future we need.”

Nature groups generally welcomed the launch of the Sustainable Farming Incentive, but cautioned that important details remained to be decided, which would determine the success of the pilot and the main programme:

  • There is not enough detail on how farmers and land managers will be expected to progress over time within the Sustainable Farming Incentive levels (entry, intermediate, and advanced) or how the SFI will be integrated with the other components of Environmental Land Management (Local Nature Recovery and Landscape Recovery), which are expected to deliver more ambitious environmental benefits.
  • Some of the standards announced for the SFI appear to be to a fairly low baseline. As the Government seems to be frontloading funding into this scheme, this could see a large proportion of funding being used for activities that should be ‘business as usual on farms’, such as basic soil and hedgerow management and avoidance of water pollution. This may leave little in the pot for transformative measures that will have a major environmental impact such as agroforestry, Integrated Pest Management, or creating wildlife habitats.
  • Measurable thresholds are currently lacking in some places for the SFI and will need to be articulated in the guidance for the pilot and when it rolls out in full. For instance, there are no clear guides on how wide waterbody buffer strips should be within the ‘waterbody buffering standard’. Without such guidelines it will be difficult for Defra to measure what the SFI will be delivering on against environmental objectives such as the 25YEP.