Welsh Farming Reforms
The Agriculture (Wales) Act 2023
Farm policy reforms don’t come around very often. The first ever Agriculture (Wales) Act is now on the statute books of the Senedd Cymru - Welsh Parliament. The Act establishes “Sustainable Land Management” (SLM) as the framework for agricultural policy in Wales. This places a duty on Welsh Government to ensure that farm support helps farmers produce food sustainably, alongside taking action to respond to the climate and nature emergencies and contributing to thriving rural communities.
A positive vision
There’s a lot to like in the Sustainable Land Management vision, where food production and tackling the climate and nature crises work hand in hand. This is very much a ‘land sharing’ approach to improving food productivity through improvements to the quality of water and soils, restoration of nature and less dependence on inputs of fossil-fuel based fertilisers and chemical pesticides, all helping to make the land more resilient to the impacts of climate change.
As the Bill made its way through the Senedd, our message to the Members was that supporting the right approaches to farming and land use will reduce the big economic risks from climate change-driven disruptions such as drought, wildfire and flooding. So, it’s encouraging to see the Minister for Rural Affairs Lesley Griffiths acknowledge that the “main threat to sustainable food production in the future is climate change”. The Bill contains some welcome join-up with Wales’ ground-breaking sustainability legislation, the Well-being of Future Generations Act and to the Environment (Wales) Act 2016. When viewed alongside the new nitrogen spreading restrictions for all farms in Wales the Welsh Government appears to be heading in the right direction.
A path to more nature friendly farming?
But the Act only sets out the broad parameters for farm support in Wales – it allows government to prioritise the SLM objectives in new schemes as they see fit. The key question now is whether the Sustainable Farming Scheme (SFS), due to launch in April 2025, will help drive a transition to nature friendly farming like organic or do little more than support the status quo. The SFS will need to suit a wide range of farm types and farmers to secure good uptake when launched, whilst also delivering tangible progress for climate and nature.
But no support for certified organic?
Right now, there is no certainty that some of the more innovative proposals for climate and nature in the SFS will make it into the version that launches in 2025, such as the universal requirements for farms to hold at least 10% cover of trees or woodlands and at least 10% cover of managed habitats. And we’re very concerned that the SFS and, more urgently, an interim agri-environment scheme for 2024 contains no proposals to support certified organic management. Loss of support for certified organic would have serious economic and environmental consequences.
Scientists and economists agree that organic farming is proven to be a highly effective system for the delivery of Welsh Government’s SLM goals as it is the only standard that bans the use of artificial nitrogen and severely restricts the use of pesticides. On average organic farms hold 50% more wildlife than non-organic. Organic agriculture also emits significantly less greenhouse gases per hectare by not relying on fossil fuel derived fertilisers and chemical pesticides.
Working with the Welsh Organic Forum, we have written to the Minister for Rural Affairs and the First Minister of Wales to raise these concerns. Wales now stands out among the UK nations in terms of the proportion of land area certified as organic, cared for by farmers who are firmly committed to the principles of Sustainable Land Management and standing ready to deliver more. Supported by Welsh Government, decades of investment in healthy soils, nature-rich farms and pioneering food businesses now looks set to be squandered if there is no support for organic in the interim agri-environment scheme in 2024 and the SFS from 2025.
The Welsh Government has pledged to undertake a further consultation on the Sustainable Farming Scheme towards the end of 2023. We will keep you updated.