Long awaited proposals for Environmental Land Management scheme announced, as government looks to reward farmers for environmental efforts such as tree planting, flood protection, and wildlife restoration
Long awaited plans to reward farmers for planting trees, restoring wildlife, protecting against floods, and undertaking nature-based efforts to combat climate change are set to take a major step forward today, with the unveiling of further details on how the government's proposed post-Brexit agriculture subsid reforms will work in practice.
The proposed Environmental Land Management Scheme (ELM) is designed to pay farmers for carrying out work that enhances the environment - so-called 'public goods' - rather than for the amount of land farmed, as the current EU subsidy system operates, according to Defra.
The Department said the new subsidy system would put farmers "at the forefront of reversing environmental declines and tackling climate change" by rewarding them for efforts that benefit society, such as enhanced protection against flooding and moves to deliver cleaner air and water.
Launched for a 10-week consultation today, the new proposals outline plans for a three-tier ELM scheme, in a bid to enable all farms or land types to participate "at the right level", Defra explained. As such, the new subsidy mechanisms are designed to incentivise a range of outcomes, including the adoption of sustainable farming methods and projects to deliver locally-targeted environmental outcomes, right through to large-scale "transformational projects".
A key focus of the new ELM scheme will be delivering on targets in the government's 25 Year Environment Plan and the UK's statutory goal to reach net zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050, according to the documents released today. Consequently, the new subsidy regime is expected to encourage practices that increase carbon emission reduction, such as reforestation and improved soil management.
Under the new plans the government intends to start operating the ELM scheme in late 2024, as part of a broader transition period away from the current EU framework that phases out direct land-based payments from 2021-27. It said it would now be consulting with farmers and other stakeholders across the country over the coming weeks to ensure the ELM "does not repeat the mistakes of the EU's burdensome Common Agricultural Policy" (CAP).
Observers are broadly optimistic the plans can command widespread support, with green groups hailing the opportunity to incentivise more sustainable farming practices and drive emissions reductions and the NFU having also welcomed the proposals in principle having publicly committed to delivering a net zero agricultural sector by 2040. However, some within the farming industry harbour concerns that the reforms could result in reductions in payments while the NFU is also continuing to warn against the prospect of new trade deals that would force UK food producers to compete with cheaper imports that are produced to lower standards.
From 2021, the government said it would be offering new grants to farmers to help them invest in equipment and technology to boost productivity, in addition from further support for research and development (R&D) projects from 2022 aimed at supporting innovation in lowering emissions.
The Environment Secretary George Eustice is set to officially launch the latest green agriculture plans tomorrow at the National Farmers' Union's conference in Birmingham, at which he is expected to say that "no group has more power to reverse environmental decline than our farmers".
"We can all agree that we want British farming to be sustainable in the truest sense of the word, an industry which is profitable, competitive, and productive while feeding the nation and taking care of our landscapes too," he is set to say.
However, it comes as the Environment Secretary faces growing pressure to rule out lowering food and environmental standards in order to secure free trade deals outside the EU, such as with the US.
The EU is expected to demand the UK rule out so called 'chlorinated chicken' and other lower standard products in order to secure a free trade agreement with the trading bloc, but over the weekend Eustice faced criticism from green and farming groups for failing to explicitly rule out the import of such food products in future.
Any move to open up the UK market for lower standard food products would be fiercely resisted by the NFU, however. Speaking at the trade body's annual conference this morning, NFU president Minette Batters reiterated her opposition to any reduction in UK environmental, food and animal welfare standards in future.
"This year the government must show global leadership, insist that UK farm standards are the benchmark for climate-friendly farming around the world and that whoever wants to trade with us trades on our terms," she said.
NFU President @Minette_Batters takes to the stage at #NFU20. "This year will be the most significant year for British farming - for British food - in living memory. 2020 promises to be the biggest agricultural reform since the 1940s." pic.twitter.com/oCHU7li7QE— National Farmers' Union (@NFUtweets) February 25, 2020
Alongside the new consultation, the government has also today revealed further details of its flagship Agriculture Bill, which is expected to go before Parliament for its second reading this week. Its sister piece of legislation - the Environment Bill - is also set for its second reading this week.
Leading green bodies and business groups are continuing to call for the government to amend the bill so as to ensure environmental standards are maintained post-Brexit. The government has repeatedly argued it will not dilute standards in the future, but campaigners have countered that stronger legal safeguards are required, including a firm non-regression clause.
Environmental professionals' body IEMA said the Environment Bill was "a good start", but warned it "falls short of the 'top to bottom' governance framework needed to translate national targets into private sector investment and action on the ground".
"Tackling the environmental challenges of our time - climate change, flooding, plastic waste, biodiversity loss, air pollution and more - requires a robust governance framework that puts society and the economy on a transition to a sustainable future," said IEMA's chief policy advisor Martin Baxter, adding that the group was proposing a number of amendments to strengthen the bill, including transparent criteria and processes for setting targets and interim targets and requirements that mechanisms are in place to enable targets to be met.
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