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Whither Environmental Land Management
in England?

There’s an increasing sense that the goalposts are shifting for the new Environmental Land Management (ELM) scheme. From an initial aspiration to revolutionise the way farmers and others are supported to deliver a better environment, we seem to be looking at something much closer to the status quo.

June 2020

We are hearing less about focussing on rewards for environmental outputs, payments based on the value of the public benefits and a shift in the way we farm in England, and more about prescriptions and compensation for “income foregone”. But ELM must be more than just a new ‘agri-environment scheme’. It needs to be the foundation of a new approach to restorative land management that can create win-wins for the future of farming, land management, nature conservation and people. For this to happen we need to return to viewing ELM as a key pillar of the government’s environment strategy, and part of a wider and holistic strategy for food and farming.

As a ‘cornerstone’ of a future land management system which better links the public with farming, the core objective of ELM should be to reward farmers, foresters and land managers for the delivery of environmental public goods (including public access to the natural environment). It must be properly resourced to ensure farmers and land managers can be rewarded by the market for those public goods society demands.

Since ELM was first mooted, the wider socio-economic context has been turned upside down and the current Covid-19 pandemic has exposed vulnerabilities in the food supply chain, reminding us that there are weaknesses such as distribution networks and a dependence on seasonal labour needing attention. At the same time, we have learned a lot about our environment and the importance of access to nature for all citizens. But global pandemics are only one future shock we should prepare for – future risks will be posed most notably by climate change, but also the loss of pollinators, over-exploited soils, plant and animal diseases, and worsening public health outcomes through inequitable access to nature. Better agronomy can restore soils, reduced chemical use and increased habitat diversity can support pollinators, better husbandry can reduce the risk of disease and antibiotic resistance and enhanced access to nature can provide a wealth of mental and physical health benefits for society.

But ELM must not be the totality of a future farming and environmental land management policy. Parallel schemes for improving farm productivity and animal health and welfare should be available to support farm businesses move to a more resilient and sustainable state. And all financial assistance schemes must be underpinned by a robust and properly enforced regulatory regime. Mechanisms will be needed to ensure more equitable returns through the supply chain so that farmers receive a fair price for their produce, and there needs to be a programme of farmer-driven research, dissemination and innovation to improve practices and understanding.

ELM should be viewed as part of a wider framework to secure a sustainable and resilient food and farming system and a restored, accessible environment.

Alongside the productive role of farming - notably that of food production - the fundamental reliance of farming on the environment must be fully recognised. ELM should enable farmers to move beyond seeing the environment as a ‘bolt-on’ option to their business to a more holistic approach to food production, recognising the interdependencies between farming and nature, and acknowledging the wider environmental services that can benefit their business and society at large.

Encouraging a shift to a whole-systems approach should therefore be an overarching objective of ELM, with Tier 1 in particular focusing on measures to green the farm business on a whole farm basis. Some models already exist, such as organic, agroecological and regenerative agriculture, and ELM should learn from and build on these. This will not only help give farmers a more certain and secure future knowing they are doing everything to conserve and enhance the natural asset base of their farm, but can help open up new opportunities from diversifying their farm business to engaging in new markets that attract complementary private investment. An ELM payment should be a way of realising wider financial returns and profitability whilst creating a sustainable and resilient business that protects and enhances the natural assets on which the farm’s productivity depends.

ELM needs to support a change in attitudes towards the environment and the way people experience it, ensuring all those involved view improving the environment as a core part of their business and activities, not a bolt-on.

In the long term, ELM should only pay farmers and other land managers to deliver above a new regulatory baseline and beyond what is deemed normal good practice. A separate transitional fund should therefore be established to help them get there. A particular focus should be on reaching compliance with key regulatory requirements such as the Farming Rules for Water, reducing ammonia emissions and Rights of Way regulations. Thereafter, a robust compliance and enforcement system should ensure ELM offers good taxpayer value and is land-manager friendly.

This transitional fund should also focus on creating a farming sector that is fit for the future - helping farmers gather data, build their skills, and take advantage of ambitious assurance schemes.

ELM is not the right tool to tackle all of the environmental challenges associated with farming and a separate fund is needed to transition farming to a new baseline.

It is vital that farmers buy in to ELM, especially after issues with old style agri environment schemes. The scheme must be transparent with readily accessible information, establishing a clear path to recognition and reward that empowers the farming community.

ELM will need to be integrated with other mechanisms proposed under the 25-Year Environment Plan such as Local Nature Recovery Strategies and biodiversity net gain. The relationship with other initiatives should also be made clear, where the impact of public funding could be enhanced (e.g. complementary private finance) or more lasting conservation benefits secured for the public good (e.g. conservation covenants).

ELM is therefore central to a package that will support the change in farming that is essential to increase the sector’s long-term resilience, whilst ensuring intergenerational equity and leaving the environment in a better state for the next generation.

Fundamentally, ELM needs to support farmers and other land managers on a journey, helping them to play an increasing part in delivery of the 25-Year Plan.

Marcus Gilleard, Senior Policy Programme Manager, National Trust

Gareth Morgan, Head of Farming and Land Use Policy, Soil Association

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