Controversial plans to impose additional environmental measures on English farmers are in disarray after DEFRA refused to clarify its intentions.
Farmers have started abandoning environmental stewardship schemes in response to continued uncertainty over proposals to impose extra cross-compliance conditions on producers who receive the Single Farm Payment.
Growers are refusing to renew Entry Level Stewardship (ELS) agreements, fearing they could be forced to take extra land out of production even if they have already adopted voluntary environmental measures (see below).
The situation threatens to undermine government attempts to retain the environmental benefits of compulsory set-aside, recently abolished by Brussels. Efforts to encourage “greener” farming methods are so far in danger of having just the opposite effect.
A number of options originally considered by DEFRA have been quietly dropped. But plans forcing farmers to take 5% of previously cultivated land out of production remain firmly on the table.
Despite government assertions that farmers who have signed up to ELS would be least affected, the NFU believes the plan would penalise farmers who have already signed up to environmental stewardship.
NFU legal advisers believe EU rules banning “double funding” would prevent growers counting ELS options towards the new requirements, unfairly forcing the most responsible farmers to implement the most environmental measures.
NFU president Peter Kendall said farmers took their environmental responsibility incredibly seriously. But he warned: “Taking so much land out of production would be like shutting down a sector of the economy.”
The Country Land and Business Association has also voiced misgivings. “What we’ve ended up with is not what we would have chosen,” said CLA president Henry Aubrey-Fletcher.
A keynote speech by DEFRA secretary Hilary Benn to this month’s Oxford Farming Conference failed to reassure farmers. Mr Benn said: “I don’t want to re-introduce set-aside. But we do need to balance production and the environment.”
A DEFRA spokeswoman said: We are working closely with the NFU and others on the future management of land for environmental benefit, but no decisions have yet been made on what that will look like.”
The government proposals are expected to be finalised this spring, with the intention that the new requirements will come into force in time for the first ELS renewals in 2010.