Government stakes green ambitions on farming transformation

A new Environmental Improvement Plan (EIP) published this week has revealed the extent of the government’s reliance upon farming to meet its green ambitions in England.

Previously, Defra ministers said they were aiming to have about 70% of farmers enrolled in the Environmental Land Management (ELM) scheme by 2028, but this target has been upgraded in the EIP.

Now, 65-80% of landowners and farmers will be expected to adopt nature-friendly farming on at least 10-15% of their land by 2030.

See also: Defra adds six new standards to SFI scheme for 2023

Concerns have been raised, however, that the income foregone payment rates under two tiers of the scheme – the Sustainable Farming Incentive (SFI) and Countryside Stewardship Plus (CS+) – are not high enough to encourage uptake.

Defra intends to offer top-up payments such as the SFI “management fee” of £20/ha for the first 50ha in the scheme, plus bonuses for “doing the right thing in the right place”.

But former Defra secretary George Eustice, who spent seven years as a minister at the department, told Farmers Weekly he was of the view that the base payments themselves needed to increase.

“There is no place for the outdated income foregone methodology in future agri-environment schemes, which is a vestige of the EU era,” he said.

“If we are to hit our ambitious targets for nature recovery, we need widespread uptake of the new schemes across the farmed landscape, and the government must let the market price for management options rise to the level required to get the uptake needed.”

Policy framework

Environmental group The Wildlife Trusts, meanwhile, claimed a “dramatic” increase in funding of £1.2bn a year would be necessary.  

The EIP, published in the week Rishi Sunak reached the milestone of 100 days as prime minister, also said farming would be expected to contribute 80%-100% of the target to restore or create more than 500,000ha of wildlife-rich habitat outside of protected areas by 2042.

It is expected that farmers will also take the government halfway to its goal of bringing 75% of protected sites into favourable condition by 2042, by reducing the impact of invasive non-native species and improving water quality.

NFU president Minette Batters said the union shared the government’s environmental aims, but questioned where the “equally ambitious” plans for food production to protect and enhance food security were.

“As recent months have shown, food supply chains are fragile, but we can and must do so much more, supported by the right policy framework that values both food and the environment in which it is produced,” she said.

Mrs Batters also warned that all the targets in the plan must be “deliverable”, adding that its success would depend on the government working closely with farmers across all sectors and systems.

Anger over lack of soil strategy

The EIP has been slammed by the Sustainable Soils Alliance, which branded it “hugely disappointing”.

Concerns had already been raised that the importance of soil was being downgraded, after ministers chose to shelve a standalone Soil Health Action Plan for England (Shape) and wrap it up in the broader EIP.

Less than two pages of the 262-page document are dedicated to soil. They include pledges to establish a soil health indicator and publish a baseline map of soil health for England by 2028.

Matthew Orman, director of the Sustainable Soils Alliance, said it was “striking” that the only new soil announcement was to downgrade the ambition to manage all soils sustainably by 2030, to a target of 60% by this date.

“Other than that, the EIP feels like a re-hash of existing announcements, loosely threaded together with no clear explanation of how the 2030 target will be achieved,” he said.

“The impression is that the government is putting all its eggs in the ELM basket – despite worryingly low uptake.

“There is no mention of regulation, and no detail on guidance or on-farm metrics – just loose promises on guidance and measurement – despite the fact that the SFI soils standards have been up and running for nearly nine months.”

Green Party peer Natalie Bennett, whose amendment to insert soil into the Environment Act was voted down by Conservatives, said MPs and peers who had been promised Shape in return for doing so were “angry and disappointed”.