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The Sustainable Farming Incentive Scheme

I'm not by nature a curmudgeonly old cynic, I promise, but I'm getting pretty provoked. 

I was excited in 2018 listening to Michael Gove talking about ELMS, the Environment Land Management Scheme, which was going to replace the Basic Payment Scheme for farmers. Rather than pay them for the acres they had, we were going to pay them for how they looked after them - "public money for public goods". We were going to incentivise farmers to do nature friendly stuff like tree planting and meadow creation. Pay them to improve animal welfare and implement natural flood schemes, for example. Despite some political opposition, nature was at the centre of the scheme.

This was all pretty exciting for conservationists, of course, and everyone who believes in practices like regenerative farming. Farmland, after all, covers nearly 70% of the UK, so this was important. Given the state we're in, this bold new initiative couldn't have come at a better time. Sunlit uplands beckoned.

Things Start To Go Wrong

The wheels started to come off when it became clear that Defra didn't have the resources to deliver it. The government grossly under-estimated cost as a way of selling ELMS - it was obvious a scheme like this was going to be expensive.

The next nail in the coffin was the trade deals we started to sign off on. How can us tax payers be expected to subsidise high animal welfare standards when we're cheerfully importing cheap meat produced without them? 

It then became clear that there was going to be a funding shortfall for farmers while the new ELM schemes were being phased in. Disastrous for many, particularly smaller farms: 

...the aim is for future scheme development to keep pace with the percentage reductions in BPS – this isn’t to say ELMS is a replacement for BPS, but it should be offering the opportunity for farmers to replace much of that income if they choose to.

Phil Stocker, National Sheep Association

No Big Picture

I also began to get the sense that the government was making all this up as it went along. What was the strategy? Did it want small sustainable farms or large intensive ones? What kind of food independence did it target, and how? Did it want cheap food or food with environmental impacts priced in? Henry Dimbleby's National Food Strategy asked a lot of these questions, but answers came there none.

How It's Turning Out

Anyway, I told myself, these were teething problems.

Yesterday we had the first proper look at what the Brave New World was going to look like. This was the first bit of the Sustainable Farming Incentive Scheme, which itself is the first element of ELMS to be implemented. We were still being told (in no uncertain terms!) that our reservations were undeserved and that the scheme was world leading*, so it was an exciting reveal. 

This first section of the SFI is focused on soil health (other areas are going to be implemented over the next four years). Initially, I was disappointed by the lack of ambition in the scope of what was covered. Most of the requirements seemed just to reflect basic good practice. The methodologies seemed woolly, too. 

 ...today’s publication shows a shocking lack of ambition which does very little to address the climate and nature crises. There’s so much that farmers could be rewarded for doing, such as restoring peatlands and employing ambitious measures to prevent soil and pollutants from washing into rivers – to help wildlife and store carbon.

Craig Bennett, CEO, Wildlife Trusts

I then looked at the detail, which is where things really started to unravel. It was disappointing to see the minimum scheme length reduced from 5 to 3 years for "greater flexibility". You can't make much impact in 3 years, or plan sensibly for the long term. Farmers are supposed to self-assess, I guess to save money, which means that many of these projects are not going to deliver anyway; they can't be expected to manage them properly without help. There's going to be the odd bad penny too - how is Defra going to spot them? 

What About The Real World?

The areas I know a bit about betrayed a lack of technical knowledge too. Take this, for example:

Undertake measures to improve soil health (Improved grassland – intermediate level)
What: You must take measures to improve soil health by establishing a diverse sward – with a mixture of grasses, legumes, herbs, and wildflowers – to provide varied root structures on at least 15% of the total area of land entered into the standard. This could be a single area of land for the duration of the agreement, or different areas each year.
When: You need to have established the sward within the first year and maintain it throughout the period of your agreement.
How: We will provide guidance on how to do this, but there will be flexibility for farmers to decide the right mix for their farm.

 

For this you get £58 per Hectare per annum. The most basic seed mix you could use is going to be say £18/kg. If you seed 15% of a Hectare in the scheme that's going to cost £108 just for the seed - without the prep and ongoing management (which is going to be what, and how are we going to ensure it's happening?). In this instance, what kind of seed mix do Defra have in mind? If annuals, how does that help soil health? If perennials, how does it potentially being there for only 3 years make a significant improvement to soils or biodiversity? In practical terms, what kind of wildflower element are they looking for? 5%? 50%? 

More Money Please

Small farmers complain about the mismatch between real world prices and current subsidies; this seems to be getting worse. As James Rebanks puts it:

If the habitats created don’t earn actual revenue - significantly beyond capital costs, then most won’t bother

Christopher Price, Chief Exec of the Rare Breeds Survival Trust, said the payment rates were “disappointing” and “not enough to make a difference to farm incomes… and address the climate and biodiversity challenges”. He should know; most of his members have their stock grazing on permanent pasture, and they will be doing more already than the sort of thing the scheme is rewarding as good practice.

Blah Blah Blah

Introducing the scheme the Secretary of State said:

While it is not for me to tell an individual farmer what to do, I accept that we need to be clear about the policy outcomes we seek. These are to halt the decline in species abundance by 2030; to reduce our greenhouse gas emissions; to plant up to 10,000 hectares of trees per year in England, to improve water quality; to create more space for nature in the farmed landscape; and to ensure that we have a vibrant and profitable food and farming industry which supports the Government’s levelling-up agenda and helps safeguard our food security.

Like many sections of the world leading* Environment Bill, ELMS has suffered from being over-promoted. Thus far, it seems desperately short on delivery. It's quite something that a policy initiative like this ends up under fire from absolutely everyone, from farming bodies and farmers to the RSPB. 

Some think there's a secret government strategy to promote large scale intensive farming behind all this. It wants ELMS to fail. I don't believe this. First because I always believe cock-up rather than conspiracy, and secondly because I don't think it has the intellectual heft to execute a strategy like this. ELMS might fail, though. If few farmers take it up, then the Treasury will withdraw support. 

What We Want

I don't doubt the politicians and civil servants working on these projects are well meaning, and they are - potentially - very ambitious and complicated. There seem to be terrible problems with process, though. We need:

  • Proper resourcing
  • Proper incentivisation for participants
  • More urgent delivery
  • Better grasp of detail
  • A holistic approach
  • Real engagement with interested parties (this has been promised for the Nature Recovery Network)
  • Less aggressive government propaganda

In my darker moments, as I've written before, at a more basic level I wonder whether the system we have is up to tackling the enormous problems we face. Although I've got everything crossed for the Nature Recovery Network (the next element of ELMS to be rolled out), I've yet to be persuaded it is. 

*Copyright Boris Johnson, Michael Gove et al