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Government unveils path to sustainable farming from 2021

Will new payments for farmers ensure a sustainable farming future?

I was pleased to hear the government restate its commitment to a farming sector that is rewarded for how it restores nature and safeguards the climate via Defra’s Agricultural Transition Plan.

However, with George Eustice still unable to indicate what sort of global trading relationships we will have in the new year, I also wasn’t at all surprised to hear farmers continue to plead for more details on what future policy will bring.

Defra is clear on the phase-out plans for the old farm subsidy system and has outlined a new 3-component system that will replace the old farm subsidy system from 2024 comprised of

  • a Sustainable Farming Incentive to support good performance on all farms
  • a Local Nature Recovery Scheme
  • a Landscape Recovery Scheme


Rewards for nature-friendly farming

In his speech and media interviews, George Eustice has made good references to the need for a holistic approach and to the importance of rotations, better soil management and extensification of livestock. But since all of these are central to organic farming, my fellow farmers and colleagues at the Soil Association were disappointed to hear no reference to supporting organic production as an “oven-ready” way of doing these things right now, on the ground. Organic practices are referenced in the Defra Transition Plan but currently not included in the longer-term funding plans outlined in the Environmental Land Management (ELM) scheme. Proposals do not include pilots for organic support and organic farmers are currently being thrown out of their Organic Higher-Level Schemes when these come up for renewal. It seems extraordinary that our government is continually failing to take advantage of all that organic farming can do to help reach its laudable goals, and that the scale of our ambition is so much less than the EU’s, who have set a target for 25% of farmland to be managed this way by 2030.

Before we even get to the roll out of the ELM scheme we need to start paying farmers for the actual benefits of the environmental services they provide, moving away from the current constraints which base payments on the income foregone. It was encouraging to hear George Eustice on Farming Today confirm that “the future scheme won’t be based on income foregone” but we urgently need to see words translate into more meaningful written commitments.

farmers meeting in field 

Farmer-led research 

We really welcome the proposals to engage farmers more in developing and trialling research ideas to improve performance. This is something we have been doing with partners for years at the Soil Association through the Innovative Farmers programme, and further support is desperately needed to level the playing field where research is dominated by the need for companies to make a return on investment. There is also welcome reaffirmation of the need to support continual improvement in farm animal health and welfare, not least to address the looming crisis of antibiotic resistance. This needs to be tackled through trade policy too, as like climate change, antibiotic resistance isn’t something that can be kept at bay at the borders.

Planting trees on farms

I was particularly pleased to see reference to the need for more tree planting. Progress at woodland creation is slow and I wonder if farmers would be more receptive if there was more talk about getting trees into farmland rather than converting fields into woodland. On my farm I have been experimenting with agroforestry, planting trees that can feed us like fruits and nuts, as well as those that are good for timber. All of them will lock up carbon, support wildlife, stabilise soils and provide shade and shelter for our animals. We have planted thousands this way, without losing (indeed, hopefully enhancing) our overall yield of food.

There will also be new grant schemes for farming technology and transformation to improve efficiency and productivity in a “sustainable” way. No harm in that of course – but we need to make sure these capital investments are genuinely sustainable and not used to prop up yet further intensification. It is also important that the new schemes and grants don’t disadvantage those early adopters who have already made the investments, and properly reward tried and tested sustainable approaches which could benefit from new, knowledge-rich, but often low tech, approaches.

trees on hilltop

A transition to agroecology

The new ELM scheme will only be part of the transformation we want to see in farming – we need to see much wider change in our food and farming system. So it is good too to see reference to the need to improve the position of farmers in the markets they buy and sell in, even if just two short paragraphs are devoted to this, and no commitment to implement the recommendations of the National Food Strategy.

Our vision is clear. We want to see a transition to agroecology led by farmers and citizens that helps to restore nature, tackle climate change and support healthy, diversified and resilient food production. An early test of whether government shares that vision will be a commitment to whole-farm approaches and support for systems like organic which deliver multiple benefits for society, nature and animal welfare. Please read our Grow Back Better manifesto which outlines how we plan to deliver on this vision.