Comment: NFU president Minette Batters highlights concerns at the lack of scientific rigour behind the government’s ELM schemes for England
As I said in my 2023 Annual Edith Mary Gayton lecture at Reading University, I am increasingly concerned at the lack of scientific rigour or pressure-testing that has gone into the development of the government’s Environmental Land Management Schemes (ELMS).
ELMS, and the Sustainable Farming Incentive, are part of what is, after all, the most significant shift in domestic agricultural policy for more than 40 years. These schemes must be grounded in sound science, not on hope and wishful thinking, if we are to see UK farmers delivering more food, energy, and fibre, with less impact while using fewer resources.
In stark contrast, a recent article in Farmers Weekly suggested that farmers in England are reducing productive capacity to devote more land to green schemes and diversification under ELMS. That is not the route for a sustainable UK food system, reliant on uncertain imports rather than homegrown.
With the phased removal of direct support, it is understandable that some farmers will turn to these schemes as a more stable and secure source of income. Farmers should certainly be able to access commercially viable land use options that are complementary to food production and contribute to net zero.
However, I wonder if the government is serious about its commitment in the Food Strategy to ‘broadly maintain the current level of food we produce domestically’. How is that target going to be delivered if, in practice, ELMS is rewarding lower-yielding farming systems and even disincentivising productive management practices?
Where is the impact assessment of what ELMS will mean for domestic food production, for consumer prices, and for our dependence on imported supplies? What does the ‘sustainable’ in Sustainable Farming Incentive (SFI) actually mean? While some of the SFI standards can support greater productivity, such as soil testing, many actions show no signs of being based on robust understanding of the science. I am not at all convinced government is using the full extent of scientific knowledge available at research centres like NIAB to deliver a system that can genuinely integrate environmental and production benefit on commercial farms.
Alongside the commitment to maintain domestic food production at current levels, Defra asserted in its Health and Harmony White Paper setting out the future direction for agricultural policy in England, that: “There is clear evidence showing that the scope for productivity improvement would enable farms, on average, to remain profitable following a withdrawal of Direct Payments.”
Most of the actions being incentivised under SFI just do not seem to be designed to deliver this policy. What message is this sending to farmers? Uncertainty and confusion is not good for any industry, and on-farm measures will not deliver if they are not based on a full understanding of the farming system.
Fourteen years ago, in 2009, a working group of the Royal Society, chaired by Sir David Baulcombe, introduced the term ‘sustainable intensification’ to describe the response needed by global agriculture to tackle the combined challenges of population growth, climate change, habitat loss and depletion of natural resources. The working group included leading scientists and academics with expertise in agriculture, international development, conservation biology and plant science.
Their report, Reaping the Benefits, defined sustainable intensification as an approach in which agricultural yields are increased without adverse environmental impact and without the need to cultivate more land. In other words, using the best available scientific knowledge and innovation to optimise the balance between food production, resource use and impact on the environment.
Two years later, in 2011, UK government chief scientist Sir John Beddington and fellow scientists warned of the ‘perfect storm’ awaiting a society that fails to take sufficient action both to secure its food and energy supplies and to protect the natural resources that supply it.
Beddington’s Foresight report called on all governments to embed sustainable intensification of agriculture as a core policy objective to feed the world sustainably.
I am aware that some people have come to regard ‘sustainable intensification’ as a tainted term, but I would strongly argue that the concept remains as relevant today, if not more so, than when it was first coined.
The recent outbreak of war in Ukraine, involving two of the world’s largest producers and exporters of grains and oilseed crops, has highlighted the precarious balance which exists between global food supply and demand. Estimates from the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation suggest that the world needs to increase food production and availability by up to 70 per cent by 2050 to keep pace with the food needs of a rapidly expanding global population, in the face of an escalating climate crisis, biodiversity loss and pressure on finite natural resources of land, energy and water.
But while the UK government initially embraced Professor Beddington’s advice, and Defra funded a four-year, multi-partner Sustainable Intensification Research Programme (SIP) from 2014-18, the outputs of this research now appear to have been quietly shelved in favour of a policy shift towards less productive farming systems.
In a highly critical report on ELMS last year, the House of Commons Public Accounts Committee said Defra had failed to set out a clear plan for land use and food production, to explain how projected productivity increases would be achieved, or how the ELMS scheme would offset the financial impact of cutting current subsidies by more than half by 2024/25.
We are still waiting for that plan, and for the impact assessment of what ELMS will mean for the nation’s food security. I urge the new government chief scientific adviser, Professor Dame Angela McLean, to give her attention to the central role robust science must play in guiding food, farming and environment policy. I believe her advice will prove vital over coming months and years.
Like the Royal Society and Foresight reports, the Defra Sustainable Intensification Research Programme was led by a consortium of many of our top scientists – from leading research institutes such as NIAB, Rothamsted, CEH and Fera, as well as renowned agricultural universities such as Exeter, Nottingham and Bangor. Surely these scientific organisations should be leading on the development of our future farming policies?
There is a clear dichotomy emerging in the direction of farm policy development on either side of the Atlantic. While the EU’s Farm to Fork Strategy includes plans to expand organic farming, reduce synthetic pesticide and fertiliser use, and reject modern biotechnology, the USDA’s Agricultural Innovation Agenda emphasises the use of agricultural science and innovation, with a stated aim to increase production by 40 per cent, while cutting the environmental footprint of US agriculture in half, by 2050.
But whether misguided or not at a time of such geopolitical instability and climate concerns, at least the European Union is adopting these policies open-eyed about their potential impact, estimating that they will reduce EU agricultural output by 13 per cent.
We have no such impact assessment.
We do not have any benchmarks of the current position, nor any agreed metrics to monitor the effects of these policies. ELMS and the SFI standards seem to have been developed with little if any scientific rigour. It is essential that scientifically robust metrics are in place to describe our soil baseline, for example, at the start of this new policy journey. And we want to work with Defra on a harmonised carbon footprint methodology, so farmers can be supported to measure and reduce GHG emissions under SFI.
With its good soils, temperate climate, highly equipped and professional farming sector, and world-leading science base, Britain is well placed to increase its food production capability in response to the global food security challenge, while at the same time mitigating and adapting to climate change, enhancing biodiversity and conserving precious natural resources.
But for Britain to realise this potential, scientific rigour and evidence must guide the UK’s approach – otherwise we may find ourselves sleepwalking from one food crisis to the next.
This commentary first appeared on the Science for Sustainable Agriculture website.