Government must stop tinkering around the edges and deliver bold ambition for sustainable farming

Government must stop tinkering around the edges and deliver bold ambition for sustainable farming

The Soil Association warns that we still await the bold and decisive announcement needed from government to give farmers confidence and spark a mainstream shift to truly nature-friendly farming - while welcoming the announcement today (Thursday 5 January) that farmers will be incentivised further to protect insects and restore habitats.

Following several delays, Farming Minister Mark Spencer spoke at Oxford Farming Conference to give an update on the plans to reward farmers for protecting the environment. In a statement released at the same time, Defra outlined a series of payment hikes to encourage more farmers to take up both the post-Brexit Environmental Land Management Scheme and updated versions of the Countryside Stewardship schemes that were in place before Brexit.

But the Soil Association warns today’s announcement isn’t enough.

Soil Association Head of Farming Policy Gareth Morgan said: “Today’s payment hike recognises the poor uptake so far of the Sustainable Farming Incentive scheme, but farmers still await the bold vision and clarity they need to invest with confidence in a transition to nature-friendly farming systems, like organic. We are running out of time – government needs more game-changing action.

"If we are to truly reverse the catastrophic decline in wildlife and meet our climate goals, we need bolder ambition with support for farmers to protect nature across their entire farm, not just in protected areas. Transformative change is needed rather than tinkering around the edges. The Environmental Land Management Scheme cannot achieve this in isolation – trade deals, carbon markets and supply chains must also work to ensure British farmers can produce nature-friendly food that is good for both the planet and human health.”

The Soil Association continues to urge the government to set out a clear vision for farmers of a resilient and profitable pathway to nature-friendly, agroecological farming, as set out in its recent report on the Economics of Transition to Agroecological Farm Businesses.

Agroecology remains the most evidence-based solution to the climate and nature crises, as demonstrated by the bold ambition for agroecological farming in Henry Dimbleby’s National Food Strategy, the Ten Years for Agroecology in Europe study, and Chatham House’s recent sustainable agriculture report.

Morgan added: “This is not the big announcement we have been waiting for, but we are pleased to see the government starting to recognise the vital role of smaller and tenant farmers by improving their access to the Environmental Land Management Scheme. It is also encouraging to hear the minister making the case for the resilience that nature-friendly farming can bring and the role insects must play in sustainable food production. Support for farmers to switch to predatory insects for pest control, instead of using toxic pesticides, is vital. Hedgerows and grass and flower strips both within fields and at the edges will not only create habitats for insects and other wildlife, but help farmers be more resilient by moving away from increasingly expensive chemical inputs.”

The Soil Association also calls for:

  • Support for whole-farm approaches to protecting and restoring nature, as we know that pesticides and fertilisers harm bees, and other vital insect species, as well as causing harm to the wildlife that eat them, even in surrounding conservation areas.
  • Government investment in practical advice and farmer-to-farmer learning. This is essential alongside the incentives to help farmers adopt nature-friendly practices that end chemical reliance. A decade of farmer-led research with the Innovative Farmers network has proved that farmers learn best from each other and real farm-based trials spark change. With this approach, a farmer-led tree revolution – incorporating trees with crops and livestock within fields rather than just in separate woodland – will help us meet our tree cover, climate and nature goals.
  • Intervention by government to overhaul our broken food chain so that it stops encouraging people to eat unhealthy, unsustainable, ultra-processed diets – instead creating a market for farmers to produce healthy, fresh, nature-friendly food via shorter supply chains and better menus in schools, hospitals and other public settings.
  • The continuation of Countryside Stewardship incentives to help farmers convert to and manage organic systems, which do not use chemical pesticides or fertilisers.
  • Governance of carbon offsetting with government playing a key role to set rules that ensure carbon markets deliver for the environment and actually work for farmers by not conflicting with farm support policies.