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Environmental Land Management is too important to fail, but risks remain

After the Environmental, Food and Rural Affairs Committee published its report on Environmental Land Management today, Barnaby Coupe, Land Use Manager at The Wildlife Trusts and Alice Groom, Senior Policy Officer at the RSPB discuss its findings.

October 2021

Today the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Select Committee (EFRA) have published a revealing report into the state of ELM, a new agricultural policy for England which will pay farmers and other land managers for delivering a range of “public goods”. This comes just a month on from the National Audit Office’s damning assessment on the programme so far.

The publication of EFRA’s report coincides with the beginning of one of the biggest international environmental summits of the modern era, COP26. For the UK to realise its stated ambition to be a “world leader” on climate and nature, then it must have a world leading approach to the future of food and farming.

The report identifies several key recommendations which will help Defra to steady the ship and navigate out of the storm they find themselves in. Link’s recent report, Digging Deeper, laid out almost identical concerns, and seeing our concerns echoed in the upper echelons of Government makes them worth repeating.

High uptake, low outcomes

We whole heartedly agree with the recommendation that “the Sustainable Farming Incentive does not repeat the failures of previous agri-environment schemes that achieved high uptake but failed to drive significant environmental delivery.” 

Entry Level Stewardship was just such as scheme securing 70% uptake, but design flaws such as free choice and the inclusion of lots of business as usual actions, meant the desired environmental outcomes failed to materialise. With a decade to save nature and tackle the climate crises, we cannot afford to make this mistake again.

'Digging Deeper' sets out the ambition that is needed for SFI to drive significant environmental delivery. Crucially, ambition needs to be baked in from the beginning enabling farmers to ramp up delivery overtime. A low ambition scheme will fail to deliver on the Government’s environmental commitments or provide value for money for the taxpayer.

A fair and just transition

The report highlights the risks that “those farming the uplands, and tenanted and common land, will face particular challenges during the agricultural transition”. These marginal farming systems include those in the uplands and commons, who are very well placed to deliver a range of public goods. Defra needs to provide a safe and just route for these farming systems that helps to build resilience and maximise public goods delivery.

Key to this is supporting these farm businesses to reduce fixed and variable costs and improve profitability, a step which can also ensure these landscapes are bustling with birds, bees, and butterflies, and thriving rural communities.

Measurable Objectives

Again, the EFRA report chimes with the concerns of many that we still don’t know what ELM will contribute to government environmental commitments, the priority given to each outcome, and the metrics used to evaluate progress.

Without these fundamental objectives, the mechanisms and details of the component schemes risk being designed without clear direction or ambition, and we share the concerns of the EFRA Committee that “Defra is already in the process of delivering its multi-billion pound ELM programme without having published any measurable objectives”. Defra should publish a clear vision with SMART targets and priorities for ELM without delay.

A clear, ambitious vision

The report highlights that “Considerable uncertainty remains about how the 7-year agricultural transition will affect English farming” and that without this clear vision, Defra risks “a haphazard process leading to unintended consequences”.

These conclusions reinforce those of the National Audit Office report into ELM, that Defra have yet to set out a clear direction and timeline of the transition plan through to 2027. Without a clear vision setting out what sustainable farming and land management will look like in England, farmers and land managers are unable to plan their businesses effectively and may resort to trying to farm their way out of unprofitability, doubling down on increasingly high-input, unsustainable farming practices which have hugely damaging environmental impacts.

Alongside a clear vision, the report recommends that Defra should publish an impact assessment detailing how the transition from direct payments to ELM will impact the environment and viability of farm businesses, broken down by sector and by region.

ELM is too important to fail. The Agriculture Act 2020 embedded the concept of public money for public goods which could prove to be transformational, creating a truly nature positive sector which can produce the food we need, whilst helping to recover species and mitigate and adapt to the impacts of climate change. But this ambition risks being lost without a clearly planned and well-articulated agricultural transition and robust set of ambitious ELM schemes.

We have a decade to tackle the nature and climate crises. But, on the eve of COP 26, the Government’s status as a world leader on the environment hangs in the balance. Defra must address the issues facing ELM or risk failing nature, climate and our farming sector.

Barnaby Coupe is Land Use Manager at The Wildlife Trusts and Alice Groom is Senior Policy Officer (Environmental Land Management) at the RSPB

Follow: @RSPBNews@WildlifeTrusts@barnaby_coupe and @AliceGroom2

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