Defra Secretary George Eustice has outlined plans for what he described as a ‘better, fairer farming system in England’.
The seven-year transition towards a radically different farming policy for England will get under way next year, with the first phased reductions in Basic Payments seeing cuts of 5% on payments up to £30,000, increasing in stages to 25% on payments of £150,000 or more. The reductions will increase each year until Basic Payments disappear altogether in 2027.
The money released will fund the Environmental Land Management (ELM) scheme and schemes to boost farmers’ productivity and improve animal health and welfare under the public goods agenda.
The publication of Defra’s agricultural transition roadmap on November 30 followed the introduction of the Agriculture Act at the start of the month, after agreement was finally reached between MPs and peers on the Agriculture Bill.
Launching the Path to Sustainable Farming document, Mr Eustice said: “We want farmers to access public money to help their businesses become more productive and sustainable, whilst taking steps to improve the environment and animal welfare, and deliver climate change outcomes on the land they manage.
“Rather than the prescriptive, top down rules of the EU era, we want to support the choices that farmers and land managers take. If we work together to get this right, then a decade from now the rest of the world will want to follow our lead.”
While the roadmap provides a clear view on the changes coming through the transition, he said this will be followed by a period of engagement with farmers, land managers and other stakeholders to ‘finalise the design and operation of the future system to ensure they work for everyone’.
A three-year national pilot of the ELM scheme is set to launch in late 2021, involving up to 5,500 farmers. The scheme will have three components:
- The Sustainable Farming Incentive, supporting actions, such as improving soil health and hedgerows, that deliver for the environment.
- Local Nature Recovery, such as creating, managing or restoring habitats, natural flood management and species management.
- Landscape Recovery, such as large-scale woodland or peatland restoration.
The money from BPS will also redirected into a Farming Investment Fund, which will support innovation and productivity. This will open for applications next year.
The Farming Equipment Technology Fund will offer small grants towards the purchase of a list of specified items, while the Farming Transformation Fund will provide larger grants towards the cost of more substantial investments in equipment, technology or infrastructure.
There will be funding for wider animal health and welfare improvements, focusing initially on controlling or eradicating endemic diseases among cattle, pigs and sheep.
A farming resilience programme will be available throughout the first three years of the agricultural transition period to help those most affected by the phasing out of Direct Payments, which Defra said would ensure farmers are adequately supported through the transition to the new system.
Defra will consult formally on a proposal to offer lump sum exit payments to farmers who may wish to leave the sector and plans to delink Direct Payments from land for all farmers later in the agricultural transition.
From 2022, there will be increased investment in agricultural research & development. Defra is also promising to simplify and improve existing schemes and their application processes further from January 2021 and cut ‘unnecessary red tape’ for farmers by working together with industry to design a more targeted regulatory system.
NFU President Minette Batters said: “Defra has embraced many of the industry’s ideas for sustainable farming and food production in designing this new agricultural policy for England.
“Farming is changing and we look forward to working with Ministers and officials to co-create the schemes that will help farmers to improve productivity and animal welfare, encourage innovation and realise our ambition to produce increasingly climate-friendly food.
“However, the rate at which direct support reductions will take place, which we understand will not be applied in other parts of the UK, leaves English farmers with significant questions. These payments have been a lifeline for many farmers, especially when prices or growing conditions have been volatile, and will be very difficult to replace in the first four years of this transition. Can Ministers be sure that new schemes will be available at scale to deliver redirected BPS payments?
“What changes will Defra make to ensure that the new Environmental Land Management schemes offer rewards that provide a genuine income for their businesses while maintaining food production?
“Expecting farmers to run viable, high-cost farm businesses, continue to produce food and increase their environmental delivery, while phasing out existing support and without a complete replacement scheme for almost three years is high risk and a very big ask.
The largest certifier of UK organic land, OF&G (Organic Farmers & Growers) has reacted with bewilderment to Defra’s launch of its Path to Sustainable Farming 2021-2024.
Roger Kerr, chief executive at OF&G, said: “We welcome a transition to more sustainable farming principles, and we’re fully behind the ‘better, fairer farming systems that deliver more for the environment’ that the Secretary of State has outlined. But this currently looks like a roadmap to nowhere.
“There’s a glaring hole in the Government’s strategy as it fails to include organic in any Environmental Land Management (ELM) proposal or pilot scheme, as well as lacking any financial detail for farmers to plan their business strategies for when the ELM scheme begins in a little over three years’ time.
“Defra outlines the need for ‘sustainably grown, healthy food produced profitably without subsidy, while taking steps to improve the environment, improve animal health and welfare, and reduce carbon emissions. Yet if Government truly wants to fulfil these objectives, organic must be properly recognised for its role in delivering against those targets.”
Mr Kerr said many of the principles of organic are highlighted as advantageous within the transition plan. However, it appears the Government is proposing a ‘pick and mix’ approach of the environmental features, without acknowledging the integrated and holistic benefits of organic systems.
“There’s undoubtedly a need for a new way forward given the dire state of our agricultural land and rural communities. The current system isn’t working but simply cherry-picking specific elements of ‘environmentally-friendly’ food production isn’t going to address the multiple, complex and serious challenges we face,” said Mr Kerr.