PLANS announced this week for a massive post-Brexit shake-up of government support for agriculture in England have had a mixed reaction.
The £1.6-billion EU subsidies based on acreage will end, and, instead, money will go to schemes that restore wild habitats, create new woodlands, boost soils, and cut pesticide use. There will also be grants to help improve productivity and animal welfare and encourage the use of new robotic equipment. There will be less support for the livestock industry and more for arable production.
The Environment Secretary, George Eustice, said on Monday that the new Environmental Land Management (ELM) regime was “the biggest change in agricultural policy in half a century”, and would also help to fight the climate crisis.
There will be a trial of payments to 5000 farmers before a full launch in 2024, while the existing payment system will reduce gradually to zero by 2028. The changes apply to England only. Devolved administrations in Wales, Scotland, and Northern Ireland are devising their own plans.
The Bishop of Salisbury, the Rt Revd Nicholas Holtam, who is the Church’s lead on the environment, welcomed “the environmental ambition” of the plan. He said: “It is good that [within the scheme] there will be initial funding for better soil management, hedgerows, and reducing chemical use through integrated pest management. It is a step towards the more holistic environmental management of all aspects of the economy, with the goal of our becoming net zero.”
He echoed many who complained about a lack of detail, however, and the limited period that farmers will have to prepare for the changes. “Without more detail, farmers will not have much time to plan their cycle of planting and growing, and investment in animals and equipment, when the aim is to reduce direct payments to farmers by 15 per cent in 2022 and 2023, and remove subsidies completely over the next seven years,” he said. “That is a very big ask in relation to these very big changes.”
While the Bishop of St Albans, Dr Alan Smith, agreed that the thinking behind the new scheme was “positive and ambitious”, he worried that its implementation “raises concerns about its capacity to deliver on the outcomes that safeguard our countryside and bring us into the era of sustainable farming”.
He was also concerned that the plans left farmers short of time for the one to two years’ advanced planning they need to factor in crop rotation and capital and livestock investment. “With the first stage of Basic Direct Payments reductions starting in 2021, the timescale for farmers to adjust is extremely tight, and may place unnecessary pressures on them, particularly given the uncertainty around our future trading relationship with the EU,” Dr Smith said.
“Many in the farming community are also worried that smaller farms will become unviable, and will result in even faster amalgamations into very large agricultural units. There is an urgent need for the rural church to be on the front foot, offering support for our farmers and their communities during this time of significant change.
“Overall, there is still a lack of detail. We don’t know whether the additional work required to meet ELM outcomes will be overly burdensome on farmers, and, despite official emphasis placed on reducing bureaucracy, the funding application process hasn’t been released. The new scheme has potential, but, until it we see it in action, it is difficult to judge whether it will actually be a success.”
The National Farmers’ Union reckoned that the income of livestock farmers could be reduced by up to 80 per cent by 2024. The union’s president, Minette Batters, said: “There’s going to be real pain for lowland beef, upland beef, and sheep farmers. How much pain we don’t know until we’ve seen the details we’ve been waiting four years for.
“Expecting farmers to run viable, high-cost farm businesses, continue to produce food, and increase their environmental delivery while phasing out existing support and without a complete replacement scheme, is high risk, and a very big ask.
“These payments have been a lifeline for many farmers, especially when prices or growing conditions have been volatile, and will be very difficult to replace in the first four years of this transition.”
The CEO of the Wildlife Trusts, Craig Bennett, was another who complained of the lack of clarity on how farm funding would benefit the public: “We are deeply worried that the pilot schemes simply cannot deliver the promise that nature will be in a better state.”
Other environmental and conservation groups, however, broadly welcomed the switch. WWF’s executive director for advocacy and campaigns, Kate Norgrove, said: “Our farmers have the potential to be front-line heroes in the climate and nature emergency, and this road map starts us on the right path. It must see increased investment in nature as a way to tackle climate change.”
Tom Lancaster, who is principal policy officer for agriculture at the RSPB, said: “This is a make-or-break moment for the Government’s farming reforms, which are so important to both the future of farming and recovery of nature in England. [This plan] provides some welcome clarity, but faster progress is now needed over the coming months.”
There were warnings of the extra strain that the moves would put on already stressed farmers. The Revd Claire Maxim, CEO of the Arthur Rank Centre, which seeks to combat rural isolation, said: “We are glad to see that all farmers are being encouraged to consider themselves as stewards of the land they farm.
“However, farming is a long-term-investment industry, and this sustained period of change and uncertainty is likely to lead to farmers’ needing increased levels of support for their mental health as well as in the practicalities of transition.
“A farmer dies by suicide on average once a week, and the pressures can lead to life-changing lapses in heath-and-safety processes. Rural Christians need to stay aware of the situations of their local farmers so that they can pray for them effectively and continue to offer support as required.”
The CEO of the Christian support group Farming Community Network, Jude McCann, said: “This is a period of significant change for our industry. Change will bring opportunities for some, but, for others, change can cause stress, anxiety, and with other pressures there are many who will need support and guidance in adjusting to new ways of working and farming.”
A spokesperson for the Church Commissioners for England said that they were “currently reviewing the proposals, and have no further comment to make at this time”.
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