Brave new world or Emperor’s New Clothes?

Ellie Brodie, The Wildlife Trusts' Head of Land Management, takes a look at Defra’s Sustainable Farm Incentive pilot and the direction of agriculture policy.

Today the next instalment of Defra’s farming policy, details of the first pilot phase of the Sustainable Farm Incentive (SFI), was published. This follows a relative lull since publication of the Agricultural Transition Plan in November. 

Whilst the SFI pilot will only be open to a few hundred farmers, today’s communication from Defra is significant because it sets out for the first time the types of activity farmers might get paid for, and how much they get paid, to deliver the aims of the Agriculture Act.

It shows the direction of travel. And this direction is towards a more conventional view of farming and the environment, closer to the status quo which the Government have been vocal about departing from: the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy (CAP).

The SFI pilot document groups the activities farmers could get paid for around eight standards or packages including standards on soils, hedgerows, woodland and grassland.  Each standard has three levels – introductory, intermediate and advanced – with each level receiving a higher payment. This is a menu-based system which farmers can choose from extensively or very minimally. Farmers get to choose their starting point and the pilot scheme will pay for what farmers achieve than delivering rigid prescriptions, a feature of current schemes. Defra seem to be taking piloting seriously – farmers will be paid to share their learning to inform the next stage of the pilot.

Whilst these are positive steps, the document raises two important questions: how different are SFI pilot plans from conventional (EU) agriculture policy? And how will the direction of travel in the SFI pilot document tackle the nature and climate emergency?  

Is this the biggest change in half a century?

The SFI document states that ‘this is the biggest change in agricultural policy in half a century’. Yet this is questionable for several reasons:

  • Defra have moved away from the integrated Environmental Land Management system held together with a Land Management Plan previously proposed towards three separate schemes.
  • The SFI is described as a way for farmers to ‘to become more productive while delivering additional benefits for the environment’, indicating a move away from the environment being the cornerstone of agriculture policy.
  • At worst, it appears that some standards could pay for what is already included in regulation such as water course buffering. Some elements of very basic good practice like the cross-compliance requirements of the Basic Payment Scheme also appear to be creeping in. Paying some farmers to do what all are required by law, or for parts of cross compliance does not provide value for taxpayer money.
  • The payment rates proposed in the SFI pilot are the same as those within current CAP schemes, and only those farmers who are currently receiving payments under the CAP’s Basic Payment Scheme (the area-based payment scheme) will be eligible to apply for the pilot.  

Overall then, the SFI looks as if it will pay for some fairly basic good practice. And the Agricultural Transition Plan explained that the second scheme, Local Nature Recovery, would be the follow-on from the existing agri-environment scheme, Countryside Stewardship. This looks and feels rather like the two-pillar system of the CAP.  

This does not signal a radical departure from what we have now. 

How will the SFI address the nature and climate crisis?

Nature and the climate are in crisis. What happens on farmed land – around three quarters of land in the country – is critical in reversing the crisis.

Three years ago Defra put forward a vision which proposed environmental land management as the cornerstone of agricultural policy, based on a system of paying farmers and land managers for public goods. At around the same time, Defra released their 25 Year Plan for the Environment on how they would meet their promise to leave the environment in a better state for the next generation – including through environmental land management. Since then, the Government have committed to reach net zero emissions by 2050.

Today’s publication does not explain how the activities farmers are paid for through environmental land management will achieve environmental policy goals.

The Wildlife Trusts have repeatedly called for a clear articulation of agriculture policy outcomes with associated milestones and targets, and plans for the associated actions and payments to deliver them. Policy objectives on farmed land should be tied to meeting the environmental ambitions of the government, which should be legally bound through the Environment Bill. 

A clear roadmap was not included in the Agriculture Transition Plan, nor is it included in today’s SFI pilot plans. Many questions are still unanswered. How will difficult choices around what farmers get paid for be prioritised and spatially mapped to meet the climate and nature crisis? How will taxpayers’ money used to pay farmers be demonstrated as providing value for money?

Reversing the fortunes of wildlife and the climate requires systemic change. It requires a fundamental shift away from conventional agriculture policy which treats the environment as a bolt-on to the real business of farming towards one which sees farming and the environment as mutually beneficial and dependent.

Today’s publication of the pilot details for the Sustainable Farming Incentive does not signal that environmental ambition is being hard-wired into agriculture policy. The Wildlife Trusts will continue to work with Defra and colleagues across the farming and environment sectors to help change this – and avoid a reinvention of the status quo and irreversible damage to nature and the climate.