OFC 2020: Defra to push ahead with new farm support scheme

Defra secretary Theresa Villiers has confirmed government plans to phase out direct payments in favour of a new scheme requiring farmers to protect the environment.

Speaking at the Oxford Farming Conference today (8 January), Ms Villiers will confirm that the government’s Agriculture Bill will be re-introduced this month to parliament.

See also: Consumers support UK farmers on food standards

This will pave the way for a new system of farm support based on “public money for public goods” to replace direct payments after the UK leaves the European Union.

The government says it will encourage farmers to take action such as tackling climate change, enhancing biodiversity, and raising animal welfare standards.

But industry leaders say the plan must include a legal guarantee that farmers’ efforts won’t be undermined by food imports produced using methods that would be illegal in the UK.

The government says farmers will have greater opportunities to boost their productivity, leading to more successful and resilient farm businesses.

Transition period

In England, there will be a seven-year transition period for farmers to plan and adjust for these changes, during which direct payments will be gradually phased out.

Ms Villiers says the government will seek views throughout 2020 from farmers in England on how the future Environmental Land Management scheme (ELMs) can best work for them.

“We want our new scheme to deliver value for money as well as boosting sustainable productivity to support farmers in their work of feeding the nation,” she is expected to say.

“We have the potential to create a virtuous circle between agriculture, tackling climate change, protecting biodiversity, and securing investment in our rural economy.”

Ms Villiers is expected to promise that the current annual budget for farmers in England will be maintained in every year of the parliament.

And she will pledge that government will stand firm in trade negotiations to ensure future trade deals live up to the values of UK farmers and consumers.

“We can maintain and indeed enhance UK standards as we negotiate new trading relationships with friends and neighbours in the EU and leading global economies,” she is expected to say.

Legal guarantee

But the NFU says government promises don’t go far enough.

It says a new food standards commission must be a fundamental part of how the government approaches trade deals – backed by legislation in the Agriculture Bill.

The NFU says the commission would ensure that UK production standards won’t be undermined – with a requirement for the government to act on these recommendations.

“The decisions made by this government will be felt for decades to come,” NFU president Minette Batters will tell the conference.

“We must once again recognise that there is nothing more important to our economy, our health and our environment than the very food we eat.

“One year ago, I declared that British farming could achieve net zero by 2040. The defining factor to reach that goal and help tackle climate change is a willing government.

“We are already leading the way in producing climate-friendly food in this country and this government has a chance to enshrine the UK as global leader in sustainability.”

UK standards

The Soil Association, which represents organic farmers, has also called for legislation in the Agriculture Bill to guarantee UK farm standards will be protected.

Soil Association head of food policy Rob Heath said: “If the government is truly committed to ensuring that trade deals live up to the values of farmers and citizens, they should have no objection.”

The government’s commitment to “sustainable productivity” also looked promising – but urgent clarification was needed on what it meant, added Mr Heath.

“If ‘productivity’ is poorly defined, it could damage the natural environment and undermine efforts to tackle climate change,” he said.

“The Agriculture Bill must ensure that the climate and nature are fully incorporated into productivity payments. This should incentivise agroecological and nature-friendly farming.”