Ruth Edwards is MP for Rushcliffe.
New schemes announced last week will deliver for English farming on many fronts: new income opportunities for farmers, a more resilient food system, and a healthy natural environment for us all.
The Government’s latest two Environmental Land Management schemes (ELMs) will join the Sustainable Farming Incentive launched last year in paying farmers for delivering environmental improvements – making good one of the manifesto promises of 2019.
This is a significant change in the way that farmers and land managers will be rewarded for delivering public goods. The Government is dispensing with the old EU scheme, and ushering in a new opportunity to support domestic food production and protect the environment for the future.
The first of these schemes is Local Nature Recovery, the more ambitious successor to the existing Countryside Stewardship, which will provide financial incentives for farmers to restore priority habitats on areas of unproductive land and facilitate farmer collaboration to deliver this.
The second scheme, Landscape Recovery, is a far more tailored solution that will fund larger scale habitat restoration projects in landscapes where this is appropriate. As George Eustice has made clear, this scheme won’t be right for all or even most farm holdings, but instead will be there to “support a choice that some landowners may want to take”.
The new schemes give farmers the freedom to decide what is best for them and their land, contrary to suggestions from some quarters that the reforms are seeking to transform the UK into a national rewilding project, which is grossly misleading.
It is true that to meet our goals of halting species decline by 2030, trebling tree planting rates by 2025 and restoring our peatlands, a small portion of unproductive agricultural land will need to be repurposed for nature’s recovery.
But this need not negatively impact our food security. After all, the least productive 20 per cent of our land produces only three per cent of our calories. There are some 9.3 million hectares of farmland in England covering just under 70 per cent of the nation. These schemes seek to restore 300,000 hectares of habitat by 2042, amounting to 2.3 per cent of land. Rather than being intimidating, this is in fact an opportunity for some areas of land that cannot be farmed profitably to be better deployed for nature’s recovery and the many benefits this provides.
As the primary stewards of our natural environment, farmers are vital to restoring nature. Britain is one of the most nature-depleted countries in the world and, if nature is left to deteriorate further, this will impact us all in very real ways such as increased flooding and falling agricultural productivity. This was the focus of the recent Conservative Environment Network conference on the natural environment at which I and other colleagues spoke about the opportunities to reverse this.
The wellbeing and prosperity of the nation’s excellent food producers is an issue that is close to the heart of many Members of Parliament. In a Westminster Hall debate on the ELMs scheme and food production, colleagues argued that food must remain at the heart of the scheme, or – in the words of Geoffrey Clifton-Brown – to ‘put the F back in Defra’. I am glad to see that the Government’s new scheme does exactly this.
The recent food security review found that the biggest medium to long-term risk to domestic production comes from climate change, soil degradation, poor water quality and biodiversity loss. But this can be mitigated by making our farming sector more sustainable.
A staggering 40,000 farmers are already participating in the Countryside Stewardship scheme and last year there was a 40 per cent increase in interest. The appetite for protecting our natural environment is clearly there.
Part of the reason for this is that there are many commercial benefits from doing so. The new farm payments will incentivise farmers to improve their soil fertility and create habitats for pollinators. This can increase productivity and reduce reliance on costly fertilisers – improving profit margins. There is also growing private sector demand for environmental improvements such as biodiversity and carbon offsets and water quality improvements, which can provide new income streams for farmers.
For taxpayers, these reforms will deliver far greater value for money compared with CAP. If the policies were reversed and farmers were now to receive taxpayer money purely for the size of the farmland they own, there would be uproar, and rightly so. Communities will now benefit from the provision of public goods such as cleaner air and water, natural flood defences, and more abundant and diverse wildlife.
Conserving our natural inheritance, getting more bang for our buck, supporting British farmers, and ensuring a plentiful supply of food for our families to enjoy are all deeply conservative ideals. Thanks to Brexit, our homegrown Environmental Land Management schemes provide fertile ground upon which the future of our farming industry and of a nature-rich Britain can be grown. You can watch the Restoring our Natural Inheritance conference here.