Food security threatened by ELM scheme, scientists warn

Defra ministers have been accused of a “dereliction of duty” following claims they are ignoring their own science and pursuing policies in England that will undermine national food security.

The claims come from the pro-science think tank Science for Sustainable Agriculture (SSA), which has written to the cross-party Environment Food and Rural Affairs (Efra) committee, demanding an “urgent inquiry” into the impact of the government’s Environmental Land Management (ELM) schemes.

The letter says a recent impact assessment of the ELM scheme, commissioned by Defra, identifies “multiple risks to both food production and the environment from its ‘land sharing’ policies”.

See also: Sustainable Farming Incentive 2024 – what farmers need to know

Land sharing is where both food production and nature restoration are pursued on the same fields, whereas SSA favours a “land sparing” approach, maximising food production on the best land, while leaving room for nature and rewilding on more marginal land.

“For action after action, the Defra-funded report indicates that achieving environmental benefits in land managed under ELM actions can be expected to be offset by potentially more significant disbenefits elsewhere,” says the letter.

“In simple terms, it recognises that land under ELM will be less productive, which will require the missing food to be produced on other land, including in other countries, which could result in an overall environmental and food security disbenefit.”


According to former NFU and Country Land and Business Association chief economist Derrick Wilkinson, the report highlights a real risk of displacement of food production from the ELM scheme.

“That such potential effects on domestic food production and security have not been given due attention amounts, in my view, to an appalling dereliction of duty by Defra,” he said.

Renowned scientific writer and Northumberland farmer Matt Ridley also pointed to the “host of unknown risks and uncertainties” revealed by the study.

He likened the land-sharing approach to medieval farming, “with fields full of weeds and pests”.


Defra has dismissed the claims, however, pointing out that the impact assessment was just one of several that have fed into the development of ELM schemes.

“It assessed the impact of a long list of 750 potential actions suitable for agricultural land in England and, from these, around 200 offers were developed for our schemes,” said a spokesman.

Defra also points out that the impact assessment did not take account of the likely popularity of the various actions.

It expects the most popular will be the ones with the least impact on food production, particularly those that can be applied to marginal land.

It is also adamant that, while there may be some short-term displacement of food, longer-term food production should benefit from ELM measures designed to improve soil or mitigate climate change.

“We have always been clear, food production is the primary purpose of farming, and we are committed to continuing to produce at least 60% of the food we consume in the UK,” the spokesman added.

It is understood that the Efra committee will raise the issue of ELM, including its impact on food security, when it quizzes Defra secretary Steve Barclay in an evidence session next week.

“We are also considering holding a stand-alone evidence session on the topic,” said a spokeswoman.

What the impact assessment says

The impact assessment involved contributions from 45 different authors representing 11 different organisations, who considered the impact of 741 different environmental actions.

The Executive Summary says these reviews were “undertaken rapidly” and captured more than 2,400 individual sources of evidence.

The study mainly focuses on the environmental benefits of different actions, with “habitat creation” seen as particularly impactful, although improvements will take considerably longer to materialise than for things such as air quality and soil improvements.

But it also notes that the ELM scheme will involve “trade-offs”, as there is such intense competition for land.

In particular, it points to the shift between agricultural production and environmental outcomes, with 31 ELM scheme actions likely to have “moderate or major disbenefits”.

It also warns that connecting fragmented habitats is “complex” and can also have disbenefits; “for example, new corridors may allow pathogens to spread”.

The report concludes that “greater effort to create an improved evidence base is urgently needed”.

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