Farmers and environmentalists have written to MPs for support after reports that the government is backtracking on its post-Brexit plan for farmers to be paid to protect nature while producing food.
The ‘public money for public goods’ principle, which would include payments for things like soil health and clean water, has been in trial for five years under so-called Environmental Land Management schemes (ELMs), with farmers across the country helping to test and develop the new plans.
But under new Prime Minister Liz Truss, it appears Defra will now review the plan with a potential reversal back to paying farmers according to the size of their farm.
A Defra spokesperson would not initially confirm or deny to Wicked Leeks that the plans would be scrapped, but emphasised a focus on productivity. “Farmers make a brilliant contribution, producing high quality food for consumption at home and for export and now we need them to go further, as productivity gains have been flat for many years,” the spokesperson said.
But an insider at Defra told Wicked Leeks that an email sent from senior civil servant Janet Hughes, who leads on farming, tried to downplay the news, “which confirms there is change coming if nothing else”.
“Lots of our farming science, economists and high policy people are to have meetings with ministers,” the source said, adding that there is speculation that work on climate adaption for farming could now be binned. “It sounds like the desire would be to shove ELMs largely into a more Countryside Stewardship scheme,” they said.
Farmers, NGOs and campaigners are among those to take action and call on MPs to help reverse the changes.
Organic veg box company Riverford has written to the local MPs to its two main farms, asking for support in resisting any change or dilution. An open letter from chief executive, Rob Haward, said: “We were heartened to see the environment at the heart of new farming subsidies under the new Environmental Land Management Schemes (ELMs). To hear that these are to be potentially scrapped under a new drive for productivity is a shocking U-turn.
“At Riverford, we have been farming organically for 30 years, and are living proof that you can produce high quality, nutritious food on a commercial level while working in harmony with nature. These schemes would open the door for many more farmers across the UK to follow suit, at a time when we drastically need a change in how we produce food, restore nature, and address the climate crisis.”
Farmers have also taken to social media, including organic farmer George Crossley, who said: “Paying landowners according to the amount of land that they own does not incentivise food production or protection of the environment. We’ve done this before, and since then the EU and the UK’s own policy makers have worked hard to resist and reverse the impacts of farming on biodiversity loss and climate change.
“Now the government want to revert to an archaic, simplistic subsidy system based on area not positive results. All farmers need to plan; often three, six or ten years ahead. So if you’re bent on destruction (‘growth’), and reliance on foreign food, at least make up your minds so we can gorge ourselves on avocados whilst we can still afford them.”
Feelings have ranged from shock to despair, as Crossley pointed out it comes off the back of the government also rejecting Henry Dimbleby’s National Food Strategy, while others expressed no surprise.
Sugar beet farmer Tom Clarke said he “wasn’t surprised” ELMs have been thrown out by a new government, and that it shows how farming is now at the whim of politics.
“I’ve been saying publicly for a while that now we’re out of the EU, we are at the whim of the government more than ever before for an industry that needs long term planning. Any change in government means that ELMs could be thrown out the window tomorrow.
“This government might not last a long time, so in 18 months we could be looking at a whole different policy. This is the new normal and it doesn’t do us any good. What we need is cross party consensus or at least a settled view on what agricultural policy is for.”
Organic farmer John Pawsey said the new ELMs were helping farmers move away from agribusiness.
“I believe that when farmers are doing environmental work, they should be paid to do that work and paid a management time and not just income forgone. I think that’s right. I do believe [ELMs] is the right way forward, and I do believe it’s right to take away the basic payments,” he said.
While many agree that the new subsidy plans weren’t perfect, there is a widespread consensus that it is the rapid changes in decisions and policy that are most harmful to farmers, food production and environmental protection.
Kate Norgrove, executive director of advocacy and campaigns at WWF, said: “Farmers need certainty. Chopping and changing agricultural policy on a whim is no way to bolster UK food security.
“The UK has a golden opportunity to build up its food system resilience by accelerating the shift to nature friendly farming. The UK government’s flagship environmental land management schemes are crucial to drive this transformation, and rowing back on that ambition risks returning to a system that’s proven to fail both people and planet.”
As a result of widespread media coverage and backlash from organisations including the RSPB, National Trust and the CLA, Defra has since reiterated its position in a blog, stating: “Claims we intend to go back on our commitment to the environment are simply not right.
“We’re not scrapping the schemes,” the statement continued, but suggested instead they would be reviewed.