Leading environment groups are urging the new Prime Minister to take an important first step in reversing the Attack On Nature of the last administration, by fast-tracking ambitious nature-friendly farming reforms.
Proposals on the future of farming funding are expected later this month, after the Government announced a review of its farming policy. This includes a review of the Environmental Land Management payment schemes, which were first announced in 2018 to support farmers to deliver for nature and climate, and to assure future food security.  Environmentalists have warned that the potential watering down and cutting back of the scheme is a key concern for nature’s recovery and would impact the Government’s ability to meet crucial targets.
The call to the Prime Minister comes as new Wildlife and Countryside Link research, conducted by YouGov, is published, which reveals high public demand for ambitious, well-funded, environmental farming measures to restore nature and ensure food security. 
The findings also show that the public believes restoring natural resources, like pollinators and clean water, is the most important way to improve food security in the UK, with 47% saying this compared to only 25% saying other factors are more important.
Richard Benwell, Chief Executive of Wildlife & Countryside Link, said: “The Prime Minister should fast track environmental farming reforms, not back track, if he is to start rebuilding the Government’s environmental credentials. Any further delay would leave farmers uncertain about the future, and leave the environment susceptible. Instead, the Government should accelerate the move to regenerative farming, and increase the payments available to support the most ambitious nature positive agriculture.
“The public know that the future of farming depends on a healthy natural environment and back more funding for modern, green farming practices. After all, farmers are responsible for the future of three quarters of England. Doubling the budget to support environmental land management would still be a total bargain at the price.”
Harry Bowell, Director of Land and Nature at the National Trust said: "We have a real opportunity to establish a world-leading system of farming and land management that is good for farmers, good for people and good for nature.
"Sustainable economic growth depends on a healthy natural environment. ELMs will offer farmers vital funding to improve the countryside for nature and tackle climate change, while producing good food - this is critical to the future of the sector and achieving the Government's 25 Year Environment Plan, Environment Act and Net Zero targets.
"Maintaining the farming budget outlined in this Government's 2019 manifesto at £2.4 billion per year as a minimum until the end of 2024 is an absolute must - and beyond this it should increase to meet environmental need. To cut public investment for ELMs would be short-sighted and go completely against the spirit of the reforms, threatening both the industry and our environment, and send a signal that the climate and nature crises are less urgent, flying in the face of public opinion."
Martin Lines, UK Chair of the Nature Friendly Farming Network, said: "There is a huge public appetite for farming systems that feed the nation while improving the health and vitality of our rural environments. Farmers stand ready to deliver these interrelated goals with the right support and investment. But first, we need an agriculture budget which is fit for purpose and capable of addressing the environmental challenges we face, alongside ambitious payment schemes that put environmental stewardship at the heart of farm business decision-making. Anything less would be a let-down for farmers and the public, and it would be a missed opportunity to make our food system more resilient and sustainable for the long-term.”
Tom Lancaster, the RSPB’s head of farming and land management policy said: “Nature-positive farming provides a solution to feeding people sustainably whilst also helping nature recover and building resilience in the face of a changing climate. The UK Government must uphold its promise to help farmers change to work in this restorative way and drive the delivery of its environmental commitments, including Net Zero, recovering nature and improving water quality. The Prime Minister should recognise this is not only essential for a healthy environment but is what the public wants to see.”
Additional quotes from The Ramblers, the Woodland Trust, Plantlife, Greenpeace and The Wildlife Trusts can be found here.
Nature groups are concerned that even if the budget for ELM is not cut, that funding could be front-loaded to the least ambitious SFI elements, reducing the impact of the scheme and failing to reward those farmers that want to go furthest in environmental action.
The scheme is intended to provide 3 tiers of support. These are the Sustainable Farming Incentive (SFI -the entry-level element of the ELM-scheme), and the higher level tiers of Landscape Recovery (which supports landscape-scale projects to restore nature and capture carbon), and Local Nature Recovery (providing support to farm in a way than enhances nature and public access, while also supporting the management of other non-farmed land such as some wetlands and woodland).
Currently the Sustainable Farming Incentive only covers fairly low ambition measures which aim to improve soil health and tackle water pollution in a basic way. Additional measures on soils, hedgerows, woodlands and other important habitats, and improved public access, need to be funded through the SFI to boost the strength of this tier of the scheme. Measures to improve lakes and river condition, support wildlife recovery, and restore peatland, wetland and species-rich grassland would in large-part only be funded if the Government keeps the higher ambition Landscape Recovery and Local Nature Recovery elements of the ELM schemes. But these tiers are at risk of being reduced or removed as part of the review.
The initial plan for ELMs was for funding to be split equally between the 3 tiers of the scheme. Government estimates, based on this assumption, suggested that between 2021/2022 - 2028/2029 this would deliver a net present social value of £28.7 billion, with an overall estimated benefit-cost ratio of 2.5 - representing good value for money. But this benefit-cost ratio would be expected to decrease if funding is focused on the entry-level SFI measures at the expense of higher impact tiers.
Around 70% of land nationwide is farmed and the ELM schemes are the largest public funding pot available to fund wildlife and environmental restoration, through nature-friendly farming. Delivering an ambitious, well-funded and well-resourced scheme is therefore critical to achieving the legally binding target to end wildlife’s decline by 2030 and to meeting the Government’s aim to protect 30% of land and sea for nature by 2030. The schemes will be the main way Defra will meet its 25 Year Environment Plan goals and the biodiversity outcomes outlined in the Dasgupta Review. It is also important for reaching Net Zero by 2050, and nature experts argue increased funding for the scheme should be part of the Government’s revised net zero plan which must be outlined by March 2023.
The farming review is part of a triple threat to nature from Government, alongside weaker environmental protections in potential investment zones and wide-ranging risks of deregulation through the Retained EU Law (Revocation and Reform) Bill. Weaker agricultural regulation in combination with weaker ambition on ELM would create continued uncertainty for farmers and leave them inadequately rewarded for environmental action. [see note 9 for examples] It would also lead to further pollution of our air and waters, decline for wildlife and our precious landscapes.
Nature groups are calling on Government to commit to the following outcomes – and with them, fair rewards for farmers and other land managers, a healthy environment and a flourishing farming future:
Notes to editors:
3. Question asked: To what extent, if at all, do you support or oppose farmers being financially rewarded for taking action to achieve each of the following? (See full breakdown here):
- Preventing water pollution: Total support 86%, Total oppose 5%, Don’t know 9%
- Restoring woodland: Total support 84%, Total oppose 6%, Don’t know 10%
- Restoring lakes and rivers: Total support 84%, Total oppose 5%, Don’t know 11%
- Restoring wildlife: Total support 84%, Total oppose 6%, Don’t know 11%
- Restoring soil health: Total support 83%, Total oppose 6%, Don’t know, 12%
- Restoring hedgerows: Total support 79%, Total oppose 7%, Don’t know, 15%
- Restoring CO2-capturing land like peatland and wetlands: Total support 77%, - - Total oppose 7%, Don’t know 16%
4. For more information on the link between environment and food security, see briefing Accelerating the farming transition for future food security here
5. Figures are from YouGov Plc. Total sample size was 1,724 adults. Fieldwork was undertaken between 14th – 16th October 2022. The survey was carried out online. The figures have been weighted and are representative of all GB adults (aged 18+).
6. Summary of responses: Farmers should receive significantly more funding - 23%, Farmers should receive slightly more funding - 25%, (TOTAL MORE FUNDING, 48%) Farmers should receive the same amount of funding as before - 21%, Farmers should receive slightly less funding 3%, Farmers should receive significantly less funding 1% (TOTAL LESS FUNDING 4%), Not applicable – farmers should not receive any funding 2%, Don’t know – 25%.
7. The Sustainable Farming Incentive standards (2022) will only pay for introductory or intermediate measures in its grassland soils, arable soils and moorland and rough grazing standards,. These include basic actions such as assessing soil organic matter, covering some areas of soils to protect them from erosion and creating soil management plans.
While in their own right these measures are positive, they are unlikely to provide extra benefit for wildlife and for the public purse. For example, 76% of holdings reseed their temporary grassland with a clover mix every year without being paid for it. A higher ambition standard might include more agroecological practices such as managing pests without pesticides (integrated pest management) or reducing the practice of tilling the soil in some instances, to retain carbon and improve soil health.
8. 13 September 2021: Future Farming and Countryside Programme Phase 2 business case: accounting officer assessment - GOV.UK (www.gov.uk); this assessment was done in July 2021 by Tamara Finkelstein, Permanent Secretary of the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.
9. Examples on regulation that could be affected include: The Farming Rules for Water (‘The Reduction and Prevention of Agricultural Diffuse Pollution (England) Regulations 2018’) sets out requirements for farmers to minimise the risk of water pollution such as controlling the application of fertilisers
The Plant Protection Products Regulations (1107/2009) sets out the rules surrounding which pesticides can be approved for use in agriculture and which should be banned to protect human health and the environment.
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