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Government’s new farm funding scheme puts environmental ambitions for agriculture at risk

22 September 2020

In a letter sent today, 22 September 2020, to George Eustice, Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, 17 environment groups are warning that changes and delays to funding arrangements by Defra are leaving its ambitious new farming policy drifting from its core aim of ‘public money for public goods’ and ‘lagging behind schedule’.

The environmental experts warn that the Government’s new plans to introduce a Sustainable Farm Incentive (SFI) risks creating a scheme that causes delay, digression and divergence from the principle of public money for public goods and offers no value to taxpayers or to the environment. The SFI proposals which environmental groups have seen propose paying farmers for activities which are simply good practice and risk replicating the mistakes of older agri-environment schemes by paying farmers for ‘deadweight’ – easy activities which have no environmental impact.

Instead of the SFI, environmental groups are urging the Government to get the Future Farming and Countryside Programme, including the Environmental Land Management scheme, back on track.

Time is running out for the Government to publicise details of how schemes will work and the funding available for land managers, with uncertainty undermining confidence in the scheme from both farmers and environmentalists – the new SFI is a distraction from this. The organisations’ letter highlights that under current Defra plans:

  • Proposed transitional farming funding arrangements will neither prepare farmers for a future system nor deliver meaningful environmental improvement.
  • There continues to be no clarity on timings, objectives and vision for roll-out of a future Environmental Land Management funding scheme from 2025 and a national pilot to be rolled out next year

Richard Benwell CEO of Wildlife and Countryside Link said: ‘Environmental groups welcomed the Government’s ambitious future farming policy proposals with open arms. But with progress on farming funding arrangements stalling we look set to see traditional subsidies continue in the short-term, propping up our existing failing farming system and the problems that come with it. Without a radical shift in delivery to match the promised landmark shift in farming policy, farming funding will continue to do little to tackle our polluted rivers, disappearing hedgerows and woodland, exhausted soils, and declining wildlife.’

Craig Bennett, chief executive of The Wildlife Trusts says: “Farmers, foresters and land managers manage three quarters of the land in the country – they have a unique role in tackling the nature and climate crises. The Government has promised that the cornerstone of their future farming policy will be an ambitious Environmental Land Management scheme which rewards farmers for work that only they can do– from bringing back threatened species like the barn owl or dormouse to locking up carbon in their land. Such work benefits everybody. We are gravely concerned that the Sustainable Farm Incentive will prop up ‘business as usual’ and offer zero return for both taxpayers and the environment.”

Christopher Price of the Rare Breeds Survival Trust and Chair of the Wildlife and Countryside Link Agriculture Group said: ‘The farming funding limbo Defra has created is undermining the credibility of its future farming policy. Public money for public goods seem to have been forgotten in the transitional funding scheme that is being proposed, with public money being diverted to business as usual. Farmers are being left in the dark about what money is available and unable to plan ahead to invest in environmental improvements on their farms. The public want to see our nature and climate crises tackled and it is vital that the public’s money is spent on the transformation in farming needed to restore our natural world.’

Emma Marsh, Director, RSPB England said: “For the very first time in decades, the Government is designing England’s own agricultural policy. We are heartened by its promises to ensure that the taxpayer will reward those farmers who provide a vital role in helping to address the nature and climate emergencies. Like the government, we want to see farmers supported to play their role reversing the dramatic declines of farmland birds and the loss of species-rich habitats. But we need to be ambitious and we are concerned, especially with suggestions around the so-called Sustainable Farm Incentive, that we may slip back into old ways where farmers are simply given hand-outs for doing what they are both legally required to and what is necessary for the operation of a farm business. We really must set our sights higher to create a world-leading farming system that plays a significant role in helping to tackle the nature and climate crises, and helps restore the land and natural processes upon which a supply of healthy, nutritious food depends.”

Under future farming proposals Government funding for farms is intended to shift from basic payments (based largely on the size of the farm) to an Environmental Land Management (ELM) scheme, which provides payments based on what public goods (particularly environmental improvements, public access to the countryside and animal welfare) the farm is delivering. Defra intends to put transitional funding arrangements in place from 2022-24 – known as the Sustainable Farming Incentive – to bridge the two schemes. However this initiative looks set to move very little away from the current subsidy system.

Environmentalists claim plans for the Sustainable Farming Incentive would mean money that has been earmarked for helping the environment would instead prop up ‘business as usual’ with the shift to public goods focussed funding put off to 2024. They say this scheme further clouds already unclear plans from the Government on how it will shift to a more sustainable farming future, with no clear vision or objectives published for the future ELM scheme and no detail available on the ELM pilot due to launch next year (2021).

These delays and lack of clarity for farmers about future changes could jeopardise this once in a generation opportunity to address the nature and climate crises, enhance public access and animal welfare, deliver better value for taxpayers’ money and secure a sustainable future for the farming sector.

To get the programme back on track, the groups are urging the Government to ensure that:

  1. Transitional farming funding to 2024 is used, as originally intended, as a ‘stepping stone’ to a new ELM scheme in 2025. This should focus on adapting the current Countryside Stewardship Programme to prepare farmers for the public goods focussed future, rather than devising an entirely new scheme
  2. Defra sets out overarching objectives for ELM as a guiding star for designing a successful system
  3. the Department publish a timetable and objectives for its ELM pilot
  4. the Government consults on the components of the Future Farming and Countryside Programme and how they join up


Notes to Editors:

Land has a crucial role to play in tackling the nature and climate crises, whilst providing food and other services for a growing population. Currently, 72% of the UK is farmland and so the way we farm affects the fortunes of much of the country’s wildlife. Well-managed land can deliver multiple functions. By applying the right management in the right place, and adopting a more holistic approach to farming, we can deliver better outcomes for people and nature.

In 2018, Defra committed to developing a new agricultural policy with a new environmental land management system at its heart. In January 2019, Defra tabled the Agriculture Bill in Parliament which sets out a transition away from the current area-based subsidies and creates powers for the government to reward farmers and other land managers for the delivery of public goods. The Bill has just completed its report stage in the House of Lords as of 22 Sept.


  • RSPB research shows 76% of the UK public support the view that nature could contribute to economic recovery in the UK (e.g. by reducing the risk of other economic challenges such as flooding, protecting water supplies, promoting local tourism etc.)
  • Wildlife and Countryside Link research in 2019 showed 50% of farmers agree with the ‘public money for public goods’ approach (1/3 are neutral, and 1/5 disagree with the principle).
  • The 2019 research showed increased weather volatility, e.g. flood and drought caused by climate change, was the second most commonly reported problem facing farmers (affecting 40%), second only to increased costs and reduced profit margins (affecting 51%).
  • Yet 1/3 of farmers were taking no environmental action to deal with problems on their farms, 44% were undertaking just 1 or 2 environmental activities, 1/5 were undertaking 3 or more
  • Farmers cited lack of access to capital and uncertainty as by far the biggest barriers to making environmental and other improvements to their farm business (41% of farmers experienced lack of funds access and 41% are struggling to make changes due to uncertainty around Brexit)
  • Soil: is lost at 10x the rate it is created, costing the economy in England & Wales £1.2bn a year. Healthy soil supports biodiversity above and below ground, stores carbon and reduces water pollution. It can also provide private benefits to farmers through increased productivity. Farming activities that go beyond the legal, regulatory baseline, like agroforestry, minimum or no tillage, and organic farming, should be incentivised.
  • Pollinators: One out of every three mouthfuls of our food depends on pollinators. But our pollinators are struggling with half of our 27 bumblebee species in decline (3 are now extinct), and two-thirds of our moths and butterflies in long-term decline
  • Wildlife: 41% of UK species are in decline with 15% (25% of mammals) at risk of extinction
  • Water: The highest proportion (31%) of pressures causing poor water health can be attributed to agriculture and land management
  • Trees: Ancient woodlands support many of our rarest wildlife species, yet up to 70% has been lost or damaged due to conifer plantations, overgrazing and the spread of invasive species
  • Air: Agriculture accounts for 88% of ammonia emissions in the UK, contributing to wildlife loss and climate change, as well as damaging public health

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