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The devil’s in the detail for future farming aspirations

Bills are like buses. After the stagnation of 2019, the policy taps are well and truly flowing, with Agriculture, Environment and Fisheries bills in Parliament, and the publication on Tuesday of important papers on Defra’s plans for future farming, and separately their environmental land management scheme.

February 2020

If the Agriculture Bill lays the foundations for future farming, then these policy papers represent the plans for the building, and as such are an important step forward in understanding how farming and land management policy will evolve over the next decade.

A crucial question for today then is: are they any good?

In big picture terms, they remain true to the public money for public goods mantra that we have done so much to encourage, and which has been Defra’s stated policy since 2018. If you’d handed me these papers on 24th June 2016, I’d have bitten your arm off. That though was in the context of low expectations, and since then Ministers have done much to claim that England’s future farming policy will be world leading, and genuinely transformational. In the last three years, our appreciation of the magnitude of the climate and environment emergency has also become clearer, and the need for urgent action greater than ever before. Whether these plans pass this higher bar remains an open question.

Credibility on standards

Firstly, gaping holes remain in Defra’s thinking on how to improve our standards and regulations as we move away from the current system. Their thinking on the ‘animal health and welfare pathway’ demonstrates a degree of precision in thinking about how regulation, markets and public money can interact to achieve improvements in this area that is lacking from their proposals elsewhere.

Their section on regulatory culture makes the claim that the “…Agriculture Bill provides powers that enable a safe transition away from the CAP and cross compliance”. As a report commissioned by some Link members shows, this is patently not the case. In fact, the bill at present lacks many of the powers necessary to bring forward a new framework for farm regulation and enforcement, as envisaged in this report, and as recommended by the Government’s own Farm Inspection and Regulation Review.

The future farming policy paper does state that cross-compliance will be maintained and an ‘alternative inspection and enforcement delivery approach will be introduced by the time payments are delinked’. This is a welcome assurance. However, the paper also suggests that Defra will look to change cross-compliance in the meantime, such as moving to warning letters not penalties and changing the way breaches are assessed that could significantly undermine the cross-compliance ‘deterrent effect’.

Cross-compliance is a blunt instrument, but in a context where the Environment Agency has effectively lost all of its capacity to enforce environmental standards, it is all we have until a new, better system can be introduced. With the Government and industry claiming that we have some of the highest standards in the world, and the NFU arguing that these should be considered in the context of future free trade agreements – a battle we are fighting alongside them – it is imperative that these claims are credible. At present, systemic failings in enforcement means we cannot be certain that our standards are well maintained, and these proposals do not provide us with the confidence that we need.

Public money for…?

It is welcome that the principle of public money for public goods remains a central part of Defra’s narrative. The key mechanism to achieve this will be the new environmental land management (ELM) scheme, and Defra’s discussion paper published on Tuesday is the first public articulation of what this will look like.

In the context of last year, when political upheaval meant officials struggled to get answers from Ministers, the fact that it is lacking in detail in some crucial areas is perhaps forgivable, at least when thinking about what is in the gift of civil servants.

It is concerning, though, to see signs that this focus on public goods is subject to potential dilution. Tier 1 of the new ELM scheme in particular,includes examples such as manure management, precision application of pesticides, and feed efficiency of livestock. These are measures that would normally be described as good practice, or even as steps needed to avoid pollution.

Using public money to fund such business-as-usual activities will not drive the transformational system change that is needed. Taken to an extreme, paying to avoid pollution is not public money for public goods, but more public money to avoid public bad. In a climate and environment emergency, and when many progressive farmers have already gone much further than this, ELM must have a more ambitious starting line.

Lessons from the past

In our 2017 policy paper, we made the case that the best examples of agri-environment schemes over the last 30 years provide us with a proof of concept for ELM. Defra’s thinking indicates in some areas that they agree. The adoption of a ‘tiered’ approach, a recognition of the importance of advice and the utility of ‘packages’ suggest that they have looked at the evidence of what works.
In other areas though, there is more cause for concern.

As discussed above, the thinking on regulation lacks coherence. An element of this is in how it relates to ELM. It is good that in determining what they pay for, Defra have made it clear that they will only pay for interventions not required by regulation. And yet, they are only ‘exploring’ whether receipt of public money through ELM should be conditional on compliance with these standards. Put another way, they haven’t yet decided whether breaking environmental laws should disqualify people from receiving potentially large amounts of public money, even if that breach of the law directly undermines what that money is seeking to achieve.

On Tier 1 of ELM, as mentioned above, the examples Defra include in their paper are notable for their lack of ambition. Many of them would not be out of place in the code of good agricultural practice – not bad in isolation, but not nearly enough when it comes to ELM driving real, systemic change. They also look very much like the soil, nutrient, manure and crop protection management plans included in Entry Level Stewardship in 2005 that were subsequently removed from the scheme after just two years on the basis that they provided very poor value for money. We recognise the need to support a transition to more agroecological and regenerative approaches to farming alongside more robust regulatory standards. But this needs to be in parallel with much more ambitious measures to restore nature and tackle the climate crisis. At present, tier 1 of ELM is on the wrong track for the job that it has to do.

Integration with the Environment Bill

The Agriculture Bill, farming policy and ELM must hang together coherently with the measures included in the Environment Bill in a post-Brexit package to recover nature, and fight climate change.

The third tier of ELM, for example, could make a real and lasting contribution to the local nature recovery strategies required by the Environment Bill, and the Nature Recovery Network (NRN) envisaged by the 25 Year Environment Plan. Tier 3 is all about large scale habitat creation and restoration, and should be a key tool in achieving wider uptake of nature-based solutions to climate change, the road to net zero and natural flood risk management.

Whilst the ELM discussion paper talks about ‘considering’ and (again) ‘exploring’ the connections between ELM and the Environment Bill, it lacks any sense of vision for how the two bills will work together. Defra must work quickly to spell out how it expects ELM to contribute to the delivery of Government’s wider environmental objectives. Without the safeguards of robust European legislation, this clarity of purpose is essential for Government to be held to account.

Transformational change?

This analysis has focused on weaknesses, but we must also thank the civil servants and ministers who have been working hard to get these papers out the door in challenging circumstances. There is much about these two papers that we welcome, and I have touched on some of that above. With nothing nailed down, they do offer the potential to achieve great things for farming, nature and people.

The concerns I pick up above though, particularly on tier 1 of ELM and the coherence of thinking on regulation, are of a magnitude that, if Defra get them wrong, they could derail the whole project. Get them right – something still very much within their gift – and these two in combination could be the engine that drives the systemic and transformational change that we need to see.

With the ELM discussion paper now subject to 10 weeks of consultation, we will be working double time to make the case that now is the time for ambition. In fact, there should be no other option available to us given the climate and environmental crisis that we are in.

Tom Lancaster, Head of Land, Seas and Climate, RSPB

Follow @tommlancaster and @Natures_Voice

The opinions expressed in this blog are the author's and not necessarily those of the wider Link membership.