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Farming in the Brave New World

A Revolution in UK Farming?

Sadly the Oxford Farming Conference this year was virtual, which was a great shame. Not least because I was looking forward to the floor's reaction to George Eustice's speech. Last time I was there the audience laughed at the hapless former Secretary of State for DEFRA Theresa Villiers, and I fancy this time would have been similar.

Apart from telling us what a good thing Brexit is, the main subject of George Eustice's speech was the next bit of the government's new farm subsidy scheme, which will replace the pretty disastrous European Common Agricultural Policy. This is being given the slow reveal treatment (to be honest, I reckon they might be making it up as they go along).

Anyway, as I've written about before, this Govian revolution in UK agriculture is potentially very exciting. It's super important as farmland constitutes around 70% of the UK. The central premise is fab - to stop paying farmers for their acreage and start paying them for "public goods", including schemes to enhance biodiversity. Huzzah! I'm further encouraged as the Daily Mail seems weirdly upset about it, which is always a good sign. 

Time To Concentrate

The actual execution of this is fiendishly complicated, as you can imagine. I hope I've got this right.

Over the transitional period, DEFRA is encouraging as many farmers as possible to join the current Countryside Stewardship scheme, with improved rates. This will mitigate the losses farmers face from swinging cuts to the basic payment scheme . The Stewardship Scheme will be replaced by a thing called Local Nature Recovery.

While that's happening, another programme will kick in - the Sustainable Farming Incentive. This is going to start by trying to get farmers to look after their soil better. 

Additional to that, there's another thing being piloted, called the Landscape Recovery Scheme, which is designed to complement the other two legs of this. It's going to cover larger and more ambitious projects with potentially multiple landowners, not necessarily farmers. I think many people would think of it as "rewilding".

All three of these elements come under the umbrella of Environmental Land Management Schemes, or ELMS.

With me so far? 

Oh - I nearly forgot - there's another thing called The Nature Recovery Network, which is different and sounds potentially really good. Anyway, it's not to do with farm subsidies and was part of the Environment Act. 

Dark Skies Over The Uplands

The direction of travel underlying all this really is interesting. If I had more confidence in its execution I'd call it exciting.

Sadly I don't think we're heading to sunlit uplands any time soon. And given the state of nature in the UK we need to head there pretty rapidly.

Firstly, the government agencies putting this together are a smoking ruin. I've commented on this before. Over the last 15 years they've been gutted; without a massive injection of resources to put together, adminster and check on these complicated schemes they are doomed to fail. The government has repeatedly said there's no more money available for them. 

Secondly, this is all incredibly complicated. From an ecological point of view, the more complicated the better. So let's not just reward farmers for putting back hedges, let's give them more money if they're in Devon to build a Devon hedge, for example. And let's introduce different rates not just for hedgelaying, but different styles of hedgelaying. Of course we'll need to send a hedge inspector (ooh! What a great job!) to check the work has been done properly too. And on and on. I'm being facetious, but you get the idea.

Can you imagine how tangled this is going to get? And this is before you start looking at the various offset schemes emerging... Both the Public Accounts Committee and the National Audit Office have already raised flags about their practicality and adequacy, farmers' confidence in the Environmental Land Management scheme, and DEFRA's performance delivering them to date. We shouldn't be surprised; DEFRA seemed to find it difficult to adminster the super simple Basic Payment scheme. I don't think I was being particularly brilliant in predicting they wouldn't be up to handling anything like the new incentives back in 2019.

Dodgy Detail

There are also - already - arguments going on about the metrics being used, and their underlying assumptions. It's pretty clear to me even in my amateur capacity that some of these are pretty uninformed and driven by unfortunate enthusiasms. You can see this too in another flagship environmental policy, Biodiversity Net Gain

Creating species rich grassland, for example, has thus far been sadly overlooked. Permanent grassland like this is important for biodiversity and important as a resilient carbon sink, but it's difficult to fit into these schemes. The proposed payments for it are feeble. Unlike some other areas attracting incentives it can be usefully and profitably combined into a regenerative farming system.

Quite apart from the difficulty of overseeing all this and its flawed conception, it seems designed to spawn a new industry of expensive consultants and bean counters. There's no way most farmers are going to be able to deal with the new schemes on their own. Bigger farms and specialist advisers will be much better placed to understand their potential.

This is such a big change it's easy to criticise its execution, particularly when it's been surrounded by quite so much hyperbole. I'm sure there will be many iterations of the schemes as we move forward.

The Cost Of Food

These issues aren't the most serious problem with current plans, though. There's one which torpedoes the whole exercise before it even starts. The cost of food.

The underlying aim of most of these schemes is to make farming more nature friendly. They're supposedly not predominantly there for estates like Knepp, which are super nature friendly but produce very little actual food. These presumably will be part of the Landscape Recovery Scheme currently being piloted.

In other words, we - the tax payer - will be subsidising farmers to produce food in a more environmentally friendly way. It's an excellent principle. 

This would be fine except we're busy signing trade deals which allow countries like Australia to export much more cheaply produced food into the UK. Why more cheaply? There's the issue of scale, but it's also because we're not insisting it's produced to the same environmental standards. So of course it won't be.

There's been much wringing of hands over UK consumers' reluctance to pay for properly produced food over the years, but they just won't. The recent food strategy report provides an excellent summary and recommendations. You and I might try to buy higher standard UK produced food, but most people won't. We're wedded to cheap food. Changing this is the key to everything.

In the meantime Retailers will continue to screw farmers over and the vast majority of consumers won't give a stuff. The public will be paying farmers to produce food which will be too expensive for them to want to buy. Huzzah! 

You can't combine a system of domestic subsidy with deregulation and free trade. This is a huge issue and the government has no answer to it. 

Meanwhile, there'd have been another round of hollow laughter at the farming conference when George Eustice asked the audience to push back against retailers and ask them for more money to cover their rising costs. While we simultaneously allow more cheap imports in. It was an aside, but it shows quite how headless the government is. 

A Dystopian Future

As things stand, I reckon a lot of smaller farms will be forced to the wall. Ironically many of them farm in an environmentally friendly regenerative way already.

Their land will either be more or less rewilded if "unviable", through government or offest schemes. If not, they'll be swallowed up by large intensive farms, adopting these systems to compete with cheap food imports. In this gloomy scenario - shared by people like James Rebanks - we will potentially produce less food, and certainly less sustainably. There will be no place for exactly the kind of farming the schemes are designed to encourage.