Defra minister hints at SFI cap to maintain food production

Defra farming minister Mark Spencer has suggested the government would consider capping the amount of environmental incentives farmers in England can claim, to ensure they are producing enough food for the nation.

Under the Sustainable Farming Incentive (SFI) – the first component of Defra’s Environmental Land Management (ELM) programme for England – there is currently no minimum or maximum area of land individual farmers can choose to enter into the scheme.

See also: Food security put in peril by Defra’s SFI policy, warns farmer

Mr Spencer delivered an opening address at the Norfolk Farming Conference, at the Norfolk Showground, near Norwich, on Tuesday 6 February. He told the audience Defra believes food production and the environment “must go hand in hand”.

Afterwards, he took questions from the floor from farmers and advisers, who spoke of their concerns about ELM and its possible impact on food production.

Charles Whitaker, a managing partner of farm agency Brown & Co, told Mr Spencer that many SFI options now pay better than growing crops. He asked the minister if Defra was concerned about a “wholesale shift” from farmers growing crops to taking SFI options.

Mr Spencer said: “I do not want whole estates taken away from tenants and farmers to be put into SFI, as a whole estate of wild bird mix. That’s not what we want to achieve.

“We want to see a balance between landscape, the environment and, of course, food on a shelf.”

Mr Spencer said it was farmers’ responsibility to get the right balance, adding: “If people do start to take the mickey, we will have to take action to stop that from happening.”

If there is an imbalance, Mr Spencer said Defra would have to give “active consideration” to limit the amount of land that farmers can put into stewardship schemes for certain actions.

The NFU has repeatedly asked the government to carry out an economic analysis of the impact of the SFI and ELM schemes on domestic food production, but these calls have been rejected.

The union is concerned that there is too much emphasis on the environment in ELM, which places both domestic food production and national food security at risk.

But Defra has played down the idea of capping SFI incentives for farmers.

A spokesperson said: “We are committed to backing British farmers, using our schemes to pay them to take actions which boost food production while benefitting the environment.

“We have always been clear that the SFI will not be capped, and minister Spencer was not suggesting this. The minister was outlining how the SFI supports sustainable food production alongside environmental gains for active farmers.”

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