Fit for purpose? Reflections on emerging agriculture policy – will it help arrest the climate and ecological emergency?

Ellie Brodie, Head of Land Management, takes a look at how the Agriculture Bill and recent Defra policy statements are stacking up for wildlife and wild places.

Headlines

  • Future environmental land management (ELM) scheme retains its focus on delivering public goods – but farmers should be paid fully for the costs of management and for going over and above best practice measures.
  • ELM will be key to delivering a Nature Recovery Network and must be connected with other Defra policy and legislation including the Environment Bill and its provision for Local Nature Recovery Strategies.
  • The Agriculture Bill needs to safeguard against lowering of standards through trade deals and guarantee that a new system of regulation will maintain and improve farming and environmental standards.

Our work on and with farms

We look after a lot of land across our 46 Wildlife Trusts in the UK. In the main, on our 2,300 nature reserves which, I’m reliably told, are more numerous than McDonald's restaurants. With the help of an army of dedicated volunteers, staff work to restore and expand habitats which support some of our most threatened species.

We also have 31 working farms, mostly livestock, some mixed and one arable - the flagship Lower Smite Farm in Worcestershire. Besides our direct land management work, we provide a lot of advice to farmers on how to work with nature in their farming methods – through initiatives such as Severn Trent Water’s STEPS programme and helping farmers understand how to look after Local Wildlife Sites, two thirds of which are in private ownership.

Baling legume herb mix at Lower Smite Farm

Baling legume herb mix at Lower Smite Farm. Credit: Caroline Corsie

Farming makes up over 70% of the UK’s land use

We are heavily invested in the future of farming and land management as it affects how as a charity we deliver our mission to bring about living landscapes which are rich in wildlife. Beyond our own land and advice that we give to others, it matters because farming accounts for around 70% of the UK’s land use and is key to arresting the climate and ecological emergency.

Right now, the Agriculture Bill is making its way through Parliament. At a national level, through our policy and political engagement work, we are working with a coalition of charities to influence the  bill. We’re also engaging directly with Defra to influence the policy detail, which will inform how it gets translated into action on the ground in England. Currently nine Wildlife Trusts across England are helping Defra understand how ELM could work on the ground by trialling projects that link up farmers across the landscape to deliver more for nature and help them identify the public goods on their land.

Farming is key to arresting the climate and ecological emergency.

Defra recently unveiled some more of their thinking in two policy statements: Farming for the Future Policy & Progress Update and Environmental Land Management Policy Discussion Document. 

Below we take a look at how these policy statements and the Agriculture Bill itself are stacking up for wildlife and wild places.  

skylark

Skylark - David Tipling/2020VISION

Paying farmers for making significant environmental improvements

It’s positive that the bill retains its focus on ‘public money for public goods’ - paying farmers to do things that will benefit everyone, like enhancing the environment. It’s also great that Defra acknowledge the ‘urgent need to protect the natural assets that are essential to the production of food in this country’ - in plain English: the soil, water and land that food production depends on.

But nearly four years after the EU referendum result, it is disappointing that Defra are ‘still developing the final set of priorities for ELM’. Without knowing what the environmental land management (ELM) scheme - the ‘cornerstone' of the Government's agriculture policy - is trying to achieve, it is difficult to comment on whether Defra’s proposals for ELM will achieve their intended result.

What Defra has proposed for ELM so far has some positive, and some worrying elements. In their proposals for a three-tiered approach to structuring and paying for ELM, they state that there is potential for regulation to cover some of the actions paid for through Tier 1 in future. This highlights a risk (as does the list of things Tier 1 might pay for such as field margins) that Tier 1 sucks up a large proportion of the agriculture budget into activities best described as low-hanging fruit – and for that matter, fruit which should be picked as a matter of good practice.

Without knowing what the environmental land management (ELM) scheme is trying to achieve, it's difficult to comment on whether Defra’s proposals for ELM will achieve their intended result.

Tier 2 looks like a good home for farmers transitioning away from existing agri-environment schemes, namely Countryside Stewardship, and could fund projects and activities on habitat creation, species management and natural flood management. It’s great that Defra are seriously looking at how to spatially prioritise this element of the ELM scheme, as well as Tier 3 which would fund larger-scale work like peatland restoration, so that the right activity happens in the right place. Connecting provisions for Local Nature Recovery Strategies in the Environment Bill and ELM will be key to creating a Nature Recovery Network, stitching back together Britain’s tattered natural fabric of wild land and creating more space for wildlife.

Outside of ELM, we are seeking guarantees in the Agriculture Bill that public support payments, for increasing productivity for example, do not undermine payments for public goods. One example could be to support hill farmers to reduce stocking levels and diversify their businesses which can be both better for the environment and increase profits as this recent blog about a report on hill farm profitability explains.

Bogbean growing on a bog peatland at dawn

Mark Hamblin/2020VISION

Funding set to meet the scale of the climate and nature emergency, and targeted in the right place

The Agriculture Bill lacks a framework for long-term funding, and a mechanism for the agriculture budget to be independently assessed. This is needed so that the budget can be set to reflect the scale of activity needed on land to address the ecological and climate emergency – and to set out the contribution needed from the land management sector in meeting environmental targets.

When thinking about funding, Defra’s ELM document suggests that the current method of calculating funding levels for farmers of on income foregone and costs incurred could be used in ELM. Whilst this may be convenient, and certainly easier for the Treasury to stomach, it is problematic. Semi-natural habitats are often heavily protected wildlife sites with types of forage that are economically unviable to farm. This is why they have been deserted by modern, high efficiency farming; and why they are so good for wildlife.

ELM should value these sites as the jewels in the crown of a Nature Recovery Network and ensure that those managing them will be fairly rewarded for their work – this is currently not the case, with payment levels in the current Countryside Stewardship scheme often being too low to cover management costs, making it an unattractive scheme for farmers to enter.

Safeguarding our standards: trade and regulation

It is of deep concern that the Agriculture Bill does not include legal safeguards on trade standards, to ensure that farmers in the UK are not undercut by imported food produced to lower standards elsewhere. In the bill’s second reading, the then- Secretary of State, Theresa Villiers, reiterated the Conservative Party’s manifesto commitment that they would not lower standards, but this needs legal underpinning in the bill itself – and is an issue on which we stand together with farming organisations and other civil society groups.

Regulation is a further concern, and closely related to standards. The Agriculture Bill is quiet on regulation – it provides the mechanisms to withdraw from the Common Agricultural Policy and its associated rules, but it doesn’t provide make provisions to protect the environment and animal welfare and better regulate farming and land management, building on our current baseline standards. We recently set out the regulatory risks in a report by the Institute for European Environmental Policy (IEEP) which highlighted gaps in environmental protections post-EU Exit and argues that a new system of regulation is needed to maintain and improve farming and environmental standards. The report examines the risks to nature of losing the current conditions that are attached to farming support and proposes a new framework for farm regulation.

Cow silhouetted at sunset grazing, The Wildlife Trusts

© Peter Cairns/2020VISION

What happens next?

The Wildlife Trusts will continue to work with other civil society organisations to try to influence the Agriculture Bill as it makes its way through Parliament, and we’ll continue talking with Defra to help inform the future ELM scheme. Through our practical work on the ground, we’ll be helping Defra test and trial ELM across the country. We’ll be responding to the ELM consultation over the next 10 weeks, so we’ll share our more in-depth views on that on our farming pages. If you’d like to read more, we submitted evidence outlining our concerns and hopes for the Agriculture Bill, which you can read here on the Parliament.uk website. The Greener UK briefing on the Commons Stage of the Agriculture Bill is also useful.