Soil Association welcomes cash boost and incentives for nature-friendly farming

Soil Association welcomes cash boost and incentives for nature-friendly farming

Environment Secretary Steve Barclay has announced updates for the government's Sustainable Farming Incentives, including a 10% funding uplift, during a speech at the Oxford Farming Conference today.

The Soil Association welcomes the cash boost and unveiling of new incentives for nature-friendly farming in England, including for agroforestry and rewetting peatlands.

These payments are part of the Sustainable Farming Incentives that form the government's post-Brexit farm policy. 

The scheme aims to pay farmers to take actions that boost sustainable food production while delivering positive outcomes for the environment.  

Speaking at the conference, Steve Barclay outlined the updated offer for 2024 which the government says has been designed using farmers’ feedback, aims to bring more farmers onboard the schemes and facilitate greater environmental ambition.

Echoing the message at a debate in Oxford yesterday that was organised by the Soil Association and The Wildlife Trusts, Barclay said: "Food production can and should go hand in hand with preserving biodiversity."

He added: "Things like improving soil health, pollinators and precision farming are things that directly relate to food production as well."


Many British farmers want to work with nature

Responding to the Environment Secretary's announcement, Soil Association Chief Executive Helen Browning said: “As both a farmer and an environmentalist, my mind is buzzing with the potential opportunities that could open up for my farm following this announcement from Defra. Many farmers are already working with nature and many more are keen to do so but have been waiting for reassurance from government.

"There is widespread agreement that we need a farmer-led tree revolution, so I am delighted to see vital funding coming through this year for agroforestry and wood pasture, alongside further support for farmers to create habitats.

"With further incentives for combining nature-friendly practices, we could finally be moving towards a resilient farming system where farmers produce good food in harmony with wildlife across all of their land, as agroecological and organic farmers already do. This is essential in the face of the escalating climate and nature crises – small tweaks to the status quo will not be enough.

"We want to see the budget for agroecological farming doubled, so today’s funding uplift is an important step forward for our farmers who are under huge pressures. We hope this will lead to more investment in sustainable farming, alongside support for farmers to enact whole farm plans for nature and move away from harmful practices.”

During his speech, the Environment Minister also reiterated the commitment for the public sector to serve more “high quality and sustainable food" produced by British farmers.

He also reiterated the promise for an update to the Government Buying Standards, which are minimum mandatory standards that government departments and their related organisations must meet when buying goods and services. 

This update has been in the pipeline for more than a year, so the Soil Association welcomes this renewed promise. 

The Sustainable Farming Incentive improvements announced today include: 

  • A 10% increase in the average value of agreements in the Sustainable Farming Incentive and Countryside Stewardship driven by increased payment rates, with uplifts automatically applied to existing agreements.
  • A "streamlined single application process" for farmers to apply for the Sustainable Farming Incentive and Countryside Stewardship Mid Tier.
  • Around 50 new actions that farmers can get paid for across all types of farm businesses, including actions for agroforestry and "those driving forward agricultural technology" such as robotic mechanical weeding.
  • Enhanced payments for 'creation' and 'maintenance' options to improve the long term incentives for farmers to create habitats and "ensure they are rewarded for looking after habitats once they have created them".
  • Premium payments for actions with the biggest environmental impact or combinations of actions that deliver benefits at scale, such as £765 per hectare for nesting plots for lapwing, and £1,242 per hectare for connecting river and floodplain habitat. 

Next steps that the Soil Association is calling for

  • A good advice service for the Sustainable Farming Incentives to ensure high take up of the good options currently available for farmers.
  • A focus on outcomes – we want to see government monitoring to check these practices are working for wildlife, the environment and animal welfare.
  • Building on the incentives that involve creating a whole-farm plan for working with nature, a requirement to implement them.
  • Support and regulation to help farmers move away from practices that are harmful and drive pollution both in the UK and overseas, with reduction targets for artificial fertiliser, harmful pesticides, and imported feed.
  • Research into alternatives to peat as a growing medium and palidiculture – growing in rewetted peat – to build on the welcome new payments for rewetting peat.
  • A more cohesive approach to trade with minimum standards for welfare and environmental protection to prevent British farmers from being undercut by imports produced to lower standards, building on the welcome promise from today to improve country of origin labelling on food.
  • Mandatory method of production labelling for British animal foods, starting with pig and chicken systems, so consumers are informed about when British meat has been produced intensively. 
  • Roll out of a whole-school approach to good food, following the example being set by schools working with Food for Life, with school meals serving at least 50% local and sustainable ingredients

Clarity on Sustainable Farming Incentives needed for organic farmers

Although the new focus from government on creating habitats is encouraging for the organic movement as organic farmers work with nature across their entire farms, this new announcement still doesn’t provide the clarity needed for the sector.

The previous plans for an “organic standard” within the Sustainable Farming Incentives changed course earlier in this year, with government instead announcing that Countryside Stewardship – which currently provides funding for organic – would instead be retained and enhanced.

Many of the practices being rewarded by the new policies are core principles within organic, and government has given reassurance that organic farmers can receive payments from both Countryside Stewardship and the new Sustainable Farming Incentives.

But it is still not clear how organic farmers can stack the different options within these two schemes, and what flexibility may exist within existing five-year Countryside Stewardship agreements. This uncertainty needs to be resolved so it is clear how organic can be rewarded for the benefits it is delivering.

This week’s announcement also alluded to an increase in payments available for farmers to converting their farms to organic or maintaining existing organic systems, which is welcome news and the Soil Association is seeking more detail.

Farmers in Wales are also desperately waiting for more information after Welsh Government promised specific support for organic as part of their interim scheme this year, ahead of the proposed Sustainable Farming Scheme that is due to launch in 2025.

Soil Association Head of Farming Policy Gareth Morgan said: “This week’s announcement on incentives for farmers in England is encouraging in light of the vital need to spark a transition to nature-friendly farming on all farms, but more is needed to reassure and support the organic sector for the environmental benefits it already delivers.

“We will continue to meet with all UK governments to urge ministers to recognise our sustainable farming pioneers and provide the clarity needed to ensure organic farmers can continue to lead the way on protecting wildlife, soil health, animal welfare and much more.”

Advisors within the Soil Association’s farming team, who have been working on the Defra Future Farming Resilience support programme, can advise on the options we currently know are available and support farmers to access these.