Green light for nature-based agriculture subsidy scheme

The sustainable agriculture incentive will pay farmers to maintain ancient hedgerows teeming with wildlife

A post-Brexit farm subsidy scheme designed to reward landowners in England for environmental work is moving forward after a controversial overhaul.

Two of the three main elements of the payment system known as Environmental Land Management Schemes (ELMS) must be maintained, says the UK government.

A third proposed scheme – which would have rewarded farmers for making space for nature – must be abandoned.

Farmers will have to wait until the new year to see how much they will be paid.

The decision to revise Elms had angered farmers, who wanted to know details about which work would be rewarded, and environmentalists, who feared its environmental focus would be undermined.

Speaking at a Country, Land and Business Association (CLA) conference, Environment Secretary Therese Coffey said the review was ‘now complete’ and the government was ‘moving forward with the transition’.

Food production

Designed to replace the European Union’s Common Agricultural Policy (CAP), Elms represents the biggest agricultural policy change in England in 40 years.

Payments under the CAP system were worth around £3.5 billion a year, and most were based on how much land each individual farmer owned, which has led to criticism that they benefited the very wealthy.

The Elms system largely focuses grant awarding around the environmental work that farmers can undertake.

Ms Coffey said: ‘The choice is not about producing food or doing environmental programmes. It is about making room for nature and this has to go hand in hand with sustainable food production. They are not mutually exclusive. They can be symbiotic.’

But there is frustration among farmers over the continued lack of clarity about how much will be paid for which scheme.

Ms Coffey said more details would be provided ‘early in the new year’.

Deer in the forest silhouette

The review of the Elms system had caused anger among conservation organizations

The Elms will now include three payment schemes:

  • Sustainable agriculture incentive focuses on soil health and reducing the use of ‘inputs’ such as fertilizers and pesticides

  • The landscape reclamation scheme will pay landowners for ambitious large-scale ‘remediation’ projects

  • An adapted version of the current countryside management programme, which Ms Coffey has termed ‘countryside management plus’, will replace the planned local nature recovery scheme

The local nature reclamation program would pay farmers for actions such as creating bird breeding habitats or restoring wetlands.

And Ms Coffey said she hoped the better stewardship program would achieve “the same ambitious result”.

But the National Trust’s land and nature director Harry Bowell said the government was “watering down” its commitment to the natural world.

“A return to countryside stewardship, in which farmers are paid to care for the environment as a supplement to their core business interests, with little adaptation to local needs, risks an awkward adjustment of previous policies rather than ensuring leading review at world-class farmers were promised,” he said.

“The government must not abandon the ambitious goals of its local nature restoration programme, which farmers have spent hours making successful and which places a healthy local environment at the heart of agriculture.”

“Ambitious Words”

The Wildlife Trust’s director of policy and public affairs, Joan Edwards, said: ‘Today, the secretary of state confirmed the government’s commitment to the agricultural transition to help tackle the nature and climate crises, but the weather “It is short to achieve the government’s objectives. Any further delays in these agricultural schemes will make the task even more difficult”.

The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) said “warm and ambitious words” were welcome, but “now we need action to match them”.

“[The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs] Defra needs to clearly define how it will build on the countryside management program to ensure it is able to unleash the power of farmers to help tackle nature and climate crises,” he said.

National Farmers’ Union (NFU) Vice President David Exwood said: “We remain committed to working with Defra to improve its ELM programs so farmers are able to continue producing sustainable climate-friendly food, as well as provide products for the environment”.

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