Watering down farm support would be an alarming betrayal of nature, farmers and public health, warns Soil Association

Organic farming

Organic farming

The Soil Association says it is alarmed to hear the government is planning to water down plans to reward farmers for protecting the environment.

An announcement is expected from Defra on the future of the Environmental Land Management Scheme in early December, and the Soil Association is urging government to push forward with more, not less, ambition for the schemes.

The sustainable food and farming charity is calling for government to urgently provide reassurance that payments for organic farmers will continue, alongside support for a revolutionary shift to more resilient, nature-friendly farming across the UK.

Soil Association head of farming policy Gareth Morgan said: “Any U-turn by this government on its commitment to sustainable food and farming would be an alarming betrayal of nature, farmers and public health.

”The environmental promises our new Prime Minister is making from the world stage at COP27 will ring hollow if his government waters down plans to reward farmers for protecting the environment. This policy is crucial at a time when our food system is in crisis – fertiliser, feed and energy costs for farmers are skyrocketing, wildlife populations are in freefall and climate change is escalating at an unprecedented rate.

“But seven years on from the Brexit vote we have no substantive package in sight to support the most evidence-based solution – a transition to resilient, agroecological farming. It is also now clear from George Eustice that trade deals undermining British farmers and our environment are being rushed through. We urgently need transformative change, but we are moving backwards.

“As a matter of urgency, we need a renewed commitment to long term support for organic farmers in recognition of the benefits they deliver for nature. Government must also invest in a revolutionary shift to nature-friendly, agroecological farming and support farmers to rebuild biodiversity and soil health across their farms alongside producing nutritious food.”

The Soil Association is calling for:

More ambition and funding within the Sustainable Farming Incentive – not the rumoured scaling back of existing standards which have so far inspired little confidence among English farmers. The scheme help farmers make the transformational change needed to restore nature and produce food that supports a healthy diet.

A route map for farmers to help them transition to resilient farm businesses focused on more diverse, nutritious food production in harmony with nature whilst tackling climate change.

Clarity for organic farmers – currently Countryside Stewardship provides funding for converting to and maintaining organic systems, which is due to end in 2024. With 50% more wildlife and 44% more soil carbon on organic farms, the government must renew its commitment to its nature-friendly farming pioneers. Failure to do so would risk serious damage to nature while also falling behind Scottish and European governments who have made significant commitments to organic.

Despite the uncertainty, the Soil Association also urges farmers to get involved with ELMS as it still offers the best opportunity to obtain payments for nature-friendly practices. The government has previously provided reassurance that anyone in Countryside Stewardship agreements will be able to shift to ELMS without any penalties for leaving the agreement early. Free advice on navigating farm subsidy polices, and on how to build resilience through agroecological practices, is available to any type of farmer (not just organic) with the Soil Association’s farming team.