‘Shocking lack of ambition’ on post-Brexit farming policy risks UK missing net zero targets, wildlife charities warn

Scheme to replace EU subsidies was billed as ‘biggest change in half a century’, last year, but will now only pay farmers to improve soils

Harry Cockburn
Environment Correspondent
Thursday 02 December 2021 15:45
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<p>A combine harvester processes wheat in the UK. The government’s post-Brexit farming vision has been branded an ‘absolute scandal’, by wildlife charities</p>

A combine harvester processes wheat in the UK. The government’s post-Brexit farming vision has been branded an ‘absolute scandal’, by wildlife charities

The government’s new “vision” for farming in the UK has been described as a “huge disappointment” by wildlife charities, which claim the new land management schemes break the promise of a “Green Brexit”, and fail to adequately address the climate and biodiversity crises.

The measures will pay farmers for improving soil quality on their land, when the scheme comes into operation next year, but incentives for broader enhancements are still yet to be confirmed.

The details on the Sustainable Land Incentive, which will replace the old EU subsidy scheme, were published by the Department for Environment, Food, Rural Affairs (Defra) on Thursday to immediate backlash from environment organisations.

The scheme is designed to pay farmers for taking action to boost biodiversity and protect the natural environment, but despite the government billing the changes as “the biggest change in agricultural policy in half a century,” conservationists have warned it does not go far enough to protect the natural world.

The government said farmers “will receive payment for taking actions which generate environmental benefits, such as improving grasslands or soils”.

So far almost 1,000 farmers have signed up to a pilot scheme, but now the scheme will be rolled out to farmers who farm more than 5 hectares of land and meet other eligibility criteria.

But the RSPB chief executive, Beccy Speight, said the government was wasting a “perfect opportunity” to reform farming.

She said: “Not only does this go against public wishes but it also undermines the government’s ability to deliver their own environmental targets as a result.

“Farmers want to be doing more but they need incentives in place to help them.”

Farmland covers around 70 per cent of England, and is the biggest driver of biodiversity loss, as well as being a major source of greenhouse gas emissions and water pollutants.

Craig Bennett, the chief executive of The Wildlife Trusts, said: “After leaving the EU, we were promised that the billions of pounds of taxpayers’ money given to farmers would be used to improve our natural world.

“But today’s publication shows a shocking lack of ambition which does very little to address the climate and nature crises.

“The government seems intent on perpetuating the iniquities of the EU’s much-derided Common Agricultural Policy.

“Worse still, nature-friendly farmers look set to lose out too.”

Mr Bennett told the Press Association the new scheme should be used to reward farmers for actions like restoring peatlands and employing ambitious measures to prevent soil and pollutants from washing into rivers.

He said: “It’s an absolute scandal that the government has failed to seize this unique and important opportunity to improve farming so it can help restore nature and address the climate crisis.”

The WWF’s Kate Norgrove said the government’s announcement put the country’s legally binding net zero emissions by 2050 target at risk.

She said the measures outlined “fall short of what’s needed to align this crucial sector with the government’s climate and nature promises”.

“To deliver the wholesale transformation that’s needed, ministers must speed up the introduction of higher ambition payments to farmers, as part of a strategy to achieve our nature targets and enable people to eat more sustainably, while driving down agricultural emissions significantly by 2030.”

In his statement outlining the plans, the environment minister George Eustace said: “While it is not for me to tell an individual farmer what to do, I accept that we need to be clear about the policy outcomes we seek.

“These are to halt the decline in species abundance by 2030; to reduce our greenhouse gas emissions; to plant up to 10,000 hectares of trees per year in England, to improve water quality; to create more space for nature in the farmed landscape; and to ensure that we have a vibrant and profitable food and farming industry which supports the government’s levelling-up agenda and helps safeguard our food security.”

The National Trust also criticised the small scale of the government’s plans.

The organisation’s director general Hilary McGrady said: “Nearly four years has passed since the government set out its vision for the future of food, farming and the environment in a ‘Green Brexit’, centre-stage being the delivery of a better and richer environment in England.

“But the future of wildlife and climate now looks uncertain as today’s announcement falls short of the ambitious reforms promised.

“Farmers need a clear path to a future where nature is at the heart of sustainable and secure food production, not the short diversion this new scheme creates.”

Additional reporting by PA

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