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Further and faster: the best way forward for sustainable farming and food security

Richard Benwell, CEO at Wildlife and Countryside Link, sets out the three directions we can take for the future of farming policy and how going further and faster is the best way to respond to current crises

May 2022

There are three basic directions for the future of farming policy:

  1. Hold the line, pressing forward with DEFRA’s planned reform
  2. Turn back the clock, reverting to the old system of basic payments
  3. Go further, faster, accelerating the green farming transition, plus short-term support

Hold the line

The Government is committed to a “farming transition”, moving from old-fashioned farming subsidies to a system of “public money for public goods”. The idea is to pay farmers for non-market benefits such as biodiversity and climate change mitigation.

The last three years of farming reform have been poorly managed:

  • The Government has not given farmers certainty about future regulatory expectations so that they can plan ahead—the destination of the promised greener farming future remains a mystery.
  • Few details have been published about what farmers will actually be paid for under key elements of the
  • Environmental Land Management programme, such as Local Nature Recovery.
  • Early versions of the Sustainable Farming Incentive are weak, offering few benefits above business as usual, so farmers who want to lead (or are already leading) in green practices do not know where to turn.

Nevertheless, despite these criticisms, the entire environment movement has remained united in support of the central premise of farming reform. Public money for public goods is an essential change that will reinforce the fundamentals of the sector (soil health, fertility, pollination, climate resilience) as well as providing hope of nature’s recovery.

Turn back the clock

Now, however, events are conspiring that are lending weight to arguments to turn back the clock and revert to the old system of farm subsidies.

In normal times, this would be politically baffling. Farmers have been paid for some time essentially according to the amount of land they own, with few serious conditions for environmental management. The conditions that have been imposed have been under-ambitious, but overly-bureaucratic and punitive—the worst of both worlds.

The system did nothing to support farmers who wanted to go further in managing their land in harmony with nature. Instead, every tax payer transferred hundreds of pounds a year (over £2bn in total) to a system that rewarded extent of holdings. A less effective system would be hard to imagine. It’s like paying someone to be in the office, rather than paying them to actually do their job—the two are linked, but only just.

Unfortunately, three circumstances have aligned to make this argument attractive:

  • The effects of the Ukrainian crisis on prices for fertiliser and on perceptions of food security.
  • The uncertainty and disillusionment that has resulted from the poor roll out of ELM
  • The additional costs, loss of affordable labour, and imbalance in competition that has resulted from Brexit.

Add to these circumstances the short-term political imperative of securing votes in “Blue Wall” seats and voices are piping up on all sides of the political debate to suggest a rethink of farming reform. There appears to be a serious threat that the farming transition could be scrapped altogether.

This would be really disastrous for environmental policy and for the future of farming.

What’s at stake

There is simply no way we can halt nature’s decline by 2030, achieve net zero by 2050, and supply plenty of healthy food without an extraordinary effort from those people who manage over 70% of our land. We need every kind of farm to change.

At the moment, biodiversity in the farmed environment is in trouble. In 2019 the UK farmland bird index was 45% of its 1970 value. Agriculture is responsible for 10% of UK emissions. Turning this round will require a combination of regulation and effective payments to support change.

It is essential for the long-term viability of the sector as well. Soil degradation, erosion, and compaction result in losses of about £1.2 billion each year and reduce the capacity of UK soils to produce food. The decline of pollinators poses a threat to yields, and the loss of biodiversity can increase the chances of disease and infestation. Farmers should be supported in maintaining the fundamentals of their business for the future.

Go further, faster

The best response to the current crisis would be to go further, faster.

Farmers should be paid more public money. Personally, I think delivering sustainable agriculture at the scale needed means they should be paid lots more.

There seems to be a clear moral imperative. Many farm businesses are family businesses, built on a way of life. As a society, we need some of the rhythms and rules of that life to change, and quickly, combining some elements of more traditional husbandry with some fantastic features of modernity. In many cases, it’s what farmers want to do anyway, but it’s right that we reward such upheaval generously.

There is a clear scientific imperative too. Our modelling suggests that meeting the Government's existing environmental goals would require over £1bn to be spent on green farming each year in the short term, and that every penny goes to real improvements.

Right now, pressures on farmers from inflated prices should be met by short-term, targeted support for those that need it. Some restructuring of the reduction in basic payments could be considered to ensure that the change is made easier for smaller, more vulnerable farm businesses by shifting more of the burden to larger, more profitable farms. Adding more money into the system overall could help further. But the overall trajectory of shifting payments towards public goods should not slacken.

Alongside that cash, there is a serious job for the Government to do in improving its transition plan.

Much more detail needs to be published about the end point of the transition: what will the future regulatory baseline look like? What will farmers be paid for in future? What are the basic expectations about the kind of farmed environment we want? Like any businesses, farmers need certainty to plan ahead.

The Government also needs to work quickly to put elements of the system in place that can generously reward the front-runners in reform. Those farmers who are already putting in place amazing, whole-farm, regenerative approaches to sustainable farming should see the benefits in their pockets sooner. Quick deployment of high-ambition, whole farm standards in the Sustainable Farming Incentive, and an earlier roll out of the Local Nature Recovery programme would be ideal first steps.

The future

The politics of the moment risk undoing one of the most significant steps forward for sustainability in this country for decades. Green farmers and the environmental movement worked hard to win the principle of public money for public goods.

There is certainly a short-term challenge for farmers facing tough prices, uncertainty and market pressures. It is right that politicians respond. But the long-term challenge that faces all of us means that it would be a terrible mistake to turn back the clock on the farming transition. Nature, climate and the future of the sector depend on it.

The answer is to stick to the principle of public money for public goods, move further and faster in its delivery, and make sure that the rewards are quick and generous for the farmers who will help us to create a nature-rich future. I hope that is something that all parties can unite behind.

Richard Benwell is CEO at Wildlife and Countryside Link.

Follow: @WCL_News

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