Ditching plans to pay farmers to protect nature would be a “catastrophic mistake”, says Soil Association

UK organic farming body, the Soil Association, is raising serious concerns following Monday’s (26 September) news that the government might backpedal on plans to overhaul farm subsidies to benefit nature and climate.

The organisation called for renewed commitment to the Environmental Land Management Schemes (ELMS) after the government signalled a review of this new policy that rewards landowners in England for their environmental work.

Designed to replace the EU’s common agricultural policy (CAP), ELMS was unveiled earlier this year but a government spokesperson confirmed on Monday that it was “rapidly reviewing” its plans.

Soil Association head of farming policy Gareth Morgan said: “We are shocked to hear reports that the government may ditch plans to pay farmers to protect nature and climate – this would be a catastrophic mistake by the new Prime Minister. Tackling the climate emergency and mass declines in wildlife populations is vital for our long term food security, so to abandon plans to transform the way we support English farmers at such a crucial time would be an outrage.

“A handbrake turn on the progress made on the biggest opportunity to fix our broken farming support system in the last 50 years would not only betray nature and climate, it would also betray all those farmers who have invested so much already in tests and trials for the new Environmental Land Management Schemes.

“We know most farmers care deeply about the environment and it is vital that they’re rewarded to protect it – especially in the face of trade deals that threaten to undercut British farmers with imports of food ordered to lower environmental and animal welfare standards. Government must proceed with the most evidence-based solution – a rapid shift to agroecological, nature-friendly farming.”

ELMS is considered as the biggest shake-up of farm policy in England for 40 years, introduced after Brexit to replace the EU’s CAP payouts. It is made up of three payment schemes - the sustainable farming incentive, local nature recovery and landscape recovery. Under the system, farmers could be paid subsidies based on a range of environmental work, from improving water and soil health and creating wildlife habitats to rewilding whole landscapes. 

The new ELMS subsidy framework was cast into doubt after a number of landowners and farmers had meetings about the scheme with the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) cancelled.

And last weekend (25 September), Defra sources disclosed to The Observer that they are considering paying landowners a yearly set sum for each acre of land they own, which would be similar to the CAPS payment scheme.

On Monday (26 September), NFU President Minette Batters said she welcomed the potential departure from ELMS, which some smaller farmers had feared would not pay enough to keep them in business, and revealed her organisation wanted a delay to the schemes’ introduction.

Batters said: “We’re pleased the government is reviewing the framework for future farming regulation to help ensure farm businesses are supported through the current economic challenges and can make progressive decisions to boost growth and farming’s contribution to the nation.

“The NFU has always supported the ‘public money for public goods’ policy but we have called for a delay as the scheme was not fit for purpose and ready to roll out in its current form.

“We called for a delay not because we wanted to hang on to the status quo but because we believe that the SFI needed to have more detail and it needs to be profitable,” she said. “We have always been calling for a better policy, one that does deliver for food production and for the environment.

“My absolute priority is ensuring that farmers can continue to produce the nation’s food – so I do support maintaining direct payments in order to build a scheme that really will deliver for food production and the environment,” she said.

She later doubled down on this point, telling the BBC that she believed private money should be used to pay farmers for wildlife recovery, rather than public funds. She said: “We have got literally billions and billions of pounds in green finance that is looking to invest in wild environments. We should be making the private sector work effectively.”

Prominent members of the NFU told the Guardian they might leave the NFU if the leadership failed to clarify its position and support payments for environmental protections.