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Digging deeper during the Agricultural Transition

Dr Richard Benwell, CEO of Wildlife and Countryside Link discusses the state of play on agricultural policy, and outlines the recommendations from Link's new report 'Digging Deeper'.

October 2021

This week we have heard again how low the UK lies in international rankings of biodiversity intactness.

The Government has agreed laws to halt the decline in the State of Nature by 2030 and achieve net zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050, but its chances of success depend on farmers’ ability to be part of the solution. Any delay in farming reform would surely ruin any hope of meeting those targets.

In our report today, Digging Deeper, we argue instead that farming reform must go further and faster, giving farmers the certainty they need to plan for change, with confidence in the way their businesses will need to evolve.

A political compromise

There is inevitably political bargaining in any major new policy to transform a sector. There always is. Think of the massive windfall profits that energy companies received from free credits when they joined the Emissions Trading System; think of the dividends water companies paid out by borrowing against their assets when first they were privatised.

In the case of farming, the fudge is that the first version of the Sustainable Farming Incentive is barely a hair’s breadth above business as usual and the multi-million pounds sums that will be paid out when subsidies are “delinked” from the land. These are intended to sweeten the policy pill and secure broad participation. For farming, these compromises are more understandable than in other circumstances. After all, we are asking farmers to revolutionise not just their businesses, but a way of life.

The risk for Defra, however, is that it is difficult to budge from the first fudge unless change is built in from the outset.

At the moment, there is no ratchet mechanism to strengthen the Sustainable Farming Incentive (SFI). There is only an inkling of what farmers will be paid for in Local Nature Recovery and Landscape Recovery. There is no detailed description of the strengthened standards that farmers should adhere to at the end of the transition. This serves no one. Improvements in farming standards could stall and lack of clarity makes business planning (and the case for ongoing funding from the Treasury) more difficult.

Digging Deeper argues that part of the solution is to describe the purposes and endpoint of farming reform in more detail as a matter of urgency.

Clarifying the future

For Environmental Land Management, the first task for Defra is to tether the programme to the 25 Year Environment Plan by setting out the precise objectives that each element is expected to deliver. We know that the Government can pay for the ten public goods set out in Section 1 of the Agriculture Act 2020, but we do not know how much of each is expected.

Section 1 of the Agriculture Act must be clearly tied to delivery of Section 1 of the Climate Change Act 2008 (the 2050 net zero target) and Section 1 of the forthcoming Environment Act (nature targets). With that in mind, it is easier to set out the shape of each component part.

The SFI, for instance, should require a minimum of 5–10% of all farms to be managed for wildlife. Local Nature Recovery should contribute to the 500,000ha of semi-natural habitat that Government have promised to create and help to create a comprehensive network of public access routes. Landscape Recovery should reshape our great landscapes, such as the uplands, with a target for peatland restoration beyond the initial 35,000ha promised in the England Peat Action Plan.

Clarity on these long-term objectives is surely also essential for long-term funding, which is only guaranteed to the end of the Parliament.

Defining a new normal

The next task is to create a clear path toward a “new normal” of regenerative/agroecological farming.

The current SFI is clearly designed to encourage broad participation over bold ambition. That trade off in the short-term cannot become ingrained; the money will be needed to reward more ambitious changes.

The level of effort required to justify public money will need to change over time, but this should not become a constant negotiation. Instead, Defra should set out a ladder of ambition for the SFI, setting out now which actions it will pay for today that it will not pay for at the end of the transition.

The same is true of regulation and enforcement, especially for those who choose not to participate in the new payment schemes. It is evident from recent confusion surrounding the Farming Rules for Water that many rules must be clarified and communicated more clearly, but clarification must be accompanied by a strengthening of environmental standards.

The state of England’s rivers show that enforcement must also be improved. It is only fair to those who abide by the rules to ensure that others do not undermine them with non-compliance. We know that cross-compliance rules will soon come to an end, but there has been complete silence about what will replace them since Dame Glenys Stacey’s review almost three years ago.

Digging deeper

With every policy piece in play—rules, regulations, enforcement, purposes, and payment mechanisms—the task for Defra is understandably daunting. For farmers and other land managers with livelihoods at stake, the temptation to turn back to old ways of working must be even greater.

But many farmers, environmentalists and politicians share the conviction that major change is necessary to secure a sustainable future for farming and to stand any chance of halting irreversible ecological harm.

At this crucial first step of farming and land reform, Defra must dig deep and establish a bold regulatory baseline for the future of farming, with clear targets for delivery in each ELM programme, and a well-marked pathway for change to guide farmers’ footsteps. That will lend land managers the confidence they need to move forward at this critical threshold to a greener farming future.

Dr Richard Benwell is CEO of Wildlife and Countryside Link

Follow: @RSBenwell and @WCL_News