Farmers must be properly rewarded for delivering environmental benefits – rather than receiving payments based on simple income-foregone calculations, says a leading policy adviser.
Economist Simon Ward, of the Policy Group, said basing environmental payments on a universal lost income formula will fail to deliver the desired outcomes from the government’s forthcoming Environmental Land Management (ELM) scheme.
“Other than lack of imagination and ambition, there is absolutely no reason to continue with the simplistic formula of the past,” he said. “The one-size-fits-all income-foregone calculation is totally inadequate because it fails to account for variations between different farms.”
Even more importantly, said Mr Ward, income foregone fails to recognise the risk to which farmers are exposed as a result of the much greater amount of time required to establish areas of wildlife habitat compared to equivalent areas of crop.
“The calculation may reflect the difference in cost, but it completely fails to account for the income actually foregone, particularly in a difficult year,” he argued. “So, it provides little incentive for the sort of ELM uptake that would really make a difference.”
Instead, Mr Ward said a more sophisticated approach was required to reward farmers for the true cost of environmental improvements. They should also be varied to account for the quality of land and the potential of different farming systems.
Independent agronomist Marek Nowakowski, who leads the Agrii environmental team, said successful delivery of wildlife benefits depends on the right level of support, provided in the right way with the right understanding of the challenges faced by farmers.
“Farmers are hugely enthusiastic about wildlife improvement and very good at achieving it,” he said. “We can’t let inadequate payments continue to distort habitat selection and reduce environmental improvement progress.”
Mr Nowakowski said policymakers should implement ELM with a practical understanding of the best way to integrate habitat creation with commercial farming – and ensure farmers are properly rewarded for quality wildlife delivery.
The government says it is considering a range of ways to calculate ELM payments. It acknowledges that a more flexible approach than existing schemes might be needed to encourage sufficient uptake among farmers to deliver the desired environmental benefits.
Defra is due to respond to a public consultation on the issue later this autumn.