In the UK, farm policy is a devolved responsibility, so the governments of England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland are each working at their own pace and to their own vision of post-Brexit agricultural reform. In this article, the first of a two-part series, Ursula Billington presents the state of play in England, the nation so far taking the most novel approach.
(Updated on February 24 at 16.49 CET to include Rebecca Laughton’s given name and to clarify that Growing the Goods is one of 200 Environmental Land Management Test and Trial schemes funded by Defra.)
2023, six years after the vote to leave the EU, the UK’s nations are still wrestling with the intricacies of agricultural policy reform. A lack of clarity, the vague nature of proposals to date and confusion as to what actions land workers can receive payments for has left farmers confused and frustrated as the years pass.
There are differences in prioritisation of the natural world and environmental sustainability, but concerns the reforms are not ambitious enough to tackle the scale of environmental crises, to encourage the holistic approach – necessary for environmental health, or to prevent potential loopholing such as land sparing over sharing and ‘offsetting’ of damaging practices are commonly-held.
Recognition of the contribution of small-scale farms and horticulture differs in each UK nation, yet the sectors commonly receive little or no support in proposals for the new policies.
The nations have their own perspectives and challenges, but greater recognition for small farms in new policy across the board could be seized at this time of great opportunity to implement a widespread transition to agroecology. Organisations continue to campaign, with growing cross-sector collaboration on calls for agroecological standards in farming.
England, governed by Defra from Westminster, is the one nation to have taken the opportunity to move away from area-based payments towards an environmental health-incentivised system that rewards farmers for ‘public goods’.
These include clean air, healthy soil and water, as well as beauty, heritage and engagement standards, as defined in the new Sustainable Farming Incentive (SFI). A token payment of £20 for the first 50 hectares “recognises the cost of planning for and participating in the SFI” (Defra, 26 Jan). Ministers hope this will bolster the small numbers of farmers currently enrolled on the scheme.
The complementary Countryside Stewardship (CS) pays for “the environmental work [farmers] carry out alongside sustainable food production – restoring wildlife habitats, creating or managing woodlands, mitigating flood risks”; and the extended CS+ provides payments for coordinated action for climate and nature with neighbouring farms and landowners.
What about small farms?
Defra still needs to confirm whether “issues will be resolved around small farm participation,” Sustain said in a statement on 27 January; “[There is] little assurance to smaller farm businesses that Defra is seriously looking at how to make the schemes workable for them.”
Jyoti Fernandes, Campaigns & Policy coordinator at the Landworkers Alliance (LWA), has responded with concerns that the SFI’s level of ambition does not reflect the urgency and scale of the environmental crises, where whole farm and landscape-scale approaches are needed to encourage holistic thinking; and that farms below 5ha remain excluded from support.
The LWA suggest payments should be made for additional specific public goods commonly provided by small farms, namely public access, engagement and education; agrobiodiversity in orchards, plants and livestock breeds; and a reduction in the use of soya in animal feeds, with incentives to grow pulses.
Further, they’re calling for a more nuanced approach based on the type of farm operation, including specific standards around the pig and poultry sectors, “for which the current Countryside Stewardship options are largely irrelevant”; and independent recognition for the horticultural market garden and orchard sector. Here, the LWA are making real progress.
A promising pilot but the proof will be in the pudding
Growing the Goods is the LWA’s Environmental Land Management Test and Trial scheme (ELMS), one of about 200 funded by Defra to co-design workable elements of ELMS for the horticulture sector. Rebecca Laughton, leading the pilot, is optimistic: “I think Defra have been quite brave and bold in the way they’re approaching this. They’re putting their money where their mouth is to a large extent which is encouraging.”
She says their involvement has had significant benefits – including cementing the LWA’s seat at the decision-making table, with Jyoti sitting on the External Engagement Group alongside 40 other organisations. They’ve also been able to deliver study tours of small farms, market gardens and horticulture projects for Defra officers who experience the buzz of these enterprises first hand. The effect, she says, “has been game-changing. It’s been a real eye-opener for them.”
In terms of the focus on horticulture, “there was quite a gaping hole that we could fill,” says Rebecca – as the sector has been overlooked in policy to date – “and a bit of a niche we could colonise when thinking about it ecologically.”
They’re working with growers from largescale to small, vegan and organic: an exciting opportunity to encourage conventional farms to adopt more sustainable practices and also bring small-scale perspectives into the government’s line of sight. In doing so, they’ve developed practical methodology that has the potential for wider adoption, including an ‘internet shopping’ approach to land management planning via a catalogue of public goods, set to reduce the administrative burden that impacts negatively on farmers.
The organisation is now in a good position to bring new perspectives to the Defra table; for example, passing on feedback that growers’ poorer environmental practices are often driven by the demands of supermarkets: “It’s useful to hear that from the horse’s mouth,” says Rebecca, who’s been able to provide evidence that short supply chains enable farmers to deliver more public goods to a sceptical department.
Over the next year they’ll be working on practical ways to reform tenant farming to fit the public goods model, encouraging large field-scale vegetable growers who have an “extractive relationship with the land” to collaborate on landscape-scale rotation plans.
Farmers still need “wider and more joined-up support to help shift towards…sustainable and agroecological systems,” says Sustain. There are concerns that the market could stall this shift further, and government powers that complement agricultural policy such as principles around supply chain fairness and the grocery code need strengthening.
Yet Rebecca is cautiously optimistic about the future, though at present there’s no guarantee the LWA proposals will be adopted, and there’s still little clarity around small farm support. “The proof will be in the pudding,” she says, “but I personally can’t believe Defra would be spending so much money on this if they weren’t going to take any notice of it.”
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