Will the Sustainable Farming Incentive (SFI) deliver for organic?

Defra finally breaks silence

What a relief to finally have an official acknowledgement from Defra that organic land management does deliver environmental benefits. So why is it still so hard for Government representatives to say the O word out loud in public?

In his speech announcing the inclusion of an organic standard into the Sustainable Farming Incentive (SFI), George Eustice stuck to referring to ‘holistic approaches to sustainable farming,’. He quoted Sir Albert Howard, a principal figure in the early organic movement, but not once used the word ‘organic.’

Why is certified organic farming so politically unpalatable?

The inclusion of organic is a promising sign for the future of farm payments. The first phase of the SFI was never going to be about system change, only about rewarding certain practices, with the reward tailored roughly so that the same amount of money coming in from SFI matches the amount being taken away through reductions in the Basic Payment Scheme (BPS). ‘An evolution, not a revolution.’ This is the way that the Agricultural Transition Period (ATP) has been framed in order to secure the involvement of as many farmers as possible. Officials didn’t ‘want to set the bar too high’, as that would limit uptake. To that end, the SFI 2022 has been made accessible to all Basic Payment Scheme (BPS) recipients and will be overseen with a much lighter touch than Countryside Stewardship (CS).

Through our lobbying efforts, we made sure that organic farmers would qualify for the higher-level payments. We made sure that they would not get caught out by ‘double funding’ from CS. And we ensured that temporary leys would be included in the arable land area. As expected, and in acknowledgement that Defra does not want to make the SFI about system change, only about practice change, there was deliberately no specific reference to organic farming in the SFI 2022.

Organic farming after Brexit

The politics of Brexit have not been kind to organic farming. Recognition of the benefits of organic farming formed a key part of EU funded Countryside Stewardship, and the EU has put support for organic farming at the heart of its new 7 year ‘Farm to Fork’ strategy. If English policy were to follow the same path, people would ask “what was the point of Brexit?”.

The government wants to be seen as doing things differently. This can be seen in its desire to champion biotech as an alternative route to tackling biodiversity loss and mitigate climate change. They have proposed doing this through a package of measures featuring loosely defined versions of 'regenerative farming', 'sustainable intensification', and potentially 'Genetic Modification' (in the guise of novel breeding techniques) for the mainstream farming industry to use. Advocates of biotech claim that it can be more effective at delivering measurable steps towards climate and biodiversity goals than organic farming. Data gathered by the industry is put into self-supporting forms e.g. methane per kilo of beef being used to ‘demonstrate’ that indoor grain-fed systems are better than outdoor extensive rare breed systems.

The victims of this are likely to be genuine regenerative farmers, who are finding their movement being hijacked before it has even had the chance to define and protect itself in the way that organic has. As it has the legal right to claim damages from an unregulated release of GM material into the environment, organic has been marginalized.

Organic is further seen as politically unpalatable because of the way organic food carries a premium label in the marketplace. Even if organic farmers are not making better returns than conventional farmers there is a belief amongst government policymakers that they receive the premiums in full. This allows the government to both dismiss organic as a niche market and to justify removing support on the basis that the public is already paying through the marketplace and should not be expected to pay twice through government grants. Detractors refer to organic as just a commercial assurance scheme that should not get unfair, trade-distorting support.

Organic is confusing for the government.

High quality accredited food production resonates with the ‘Global Britain’ branding of value-added, high-quality exportable products. However, undermining that ambition is ‘cheap food’ which will be imported on the back of Brexit-inspired free trade deals as a symbol of liberation from a protectionist EU bloc. Overt support from Defra for organic farming within the UK, could run counter to the political messaging that this government may want to run in its campaign to win votes from more deprived, urban communities at the next general election.

Considering the forces ranged against organic, its inclusion as part of SFI is especially triumphant and shows how the Government cannot disregard the evidenced merits of organic farming such as for biodiversity, animal welfare and healthy soils. Defra ministers have taken a brave stand with the announcement and given the sector something to work with.

The Soil Association and English Organic Forum will attempt to capitalize on this announcement and

  1. Help develop an organic standard in the Agricultural Transition Plan, which will come into effect after the CS application windows close for agreements starting in 2024.
  2. Strongly urge organic farmers to extend their existing CS agreements or enter into new ones before the end of 2023.
  3. Engage with the development of all the SFI standards to ensure that organic farmers (and agroecological farmers working towards delivering environmental benefits across the whole farm) are adequately rewarded for the public goods that they produce, and at the same payment rates as for those same actions if carried out by conventional farmers.
  4. Influence the development of Local Nature Recovery to include certified organic farmland that delivers biodiversity gains as well as food.
  5. Will attempt to ensure that capital grants and productivity initiatives are relevant to organic farmers focused on resource efficiency and public goods delivery.

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