Farmers in England can receive government funding for up to 280 different actions that protect the environment, from maintaining hedgerows to maintaining peatlands, under a comprehensive review of farm subsidies.
The much-anticipated announcement on Thursday shows farmers what is expected of them when they apply for government incentives called environmental management programs (ELMs) worth £2.4bn a year for this parliament.
Farmers welcomed the announcement as it brings clarity to the new payment plans, which have taken five years to prepare and are a post-Brexit replacement for the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy (CAP).
Unlike the CAP, which offered farmers incentives based primarily on the area they cultivated, the revision aims to reward farmers for protecting nature and improving the environment. But critics warned large arable farmers are still likely to reap the biggest benefits from the new plans, with meager harvests for smallholders and farmers in harsh environments, such as mountainous and moorland areas.
Payment rates for most of the 280 measures were set out in a 101-page document. The payments cover almost every aspect of farming and are designed to help farmers become more environmentally sustainable, use fewer insecticides, and reduce pollution and other impacts on the natural world while producing more food.
Payments will vary greatly depending on the actions farmers take. For example, farmers will receive as much as £537 per acre for establishing lowland moorland and £1,920 per acre for maintaining land to produce fruit to organic standards, up to £22 per acre for soil assessment and £10.38 for building a skylark.
Some are broad – £22 per acre for adding organic matter to the soil, or have green cover on at least 70% of the land in winter – and some are detailed, such as £120 to £150 for maintenance of peat moss to capture and store carbon.
The prospectus will be studied by farmers, who will be able to “stack” different payments and incentives, using as much as possible for their business. The payments are intended as “public money for public goods”, replacing the EU’s common agricultural policy subsidies, and the interim measures have taken almost five years to prepare, with varying degrees of success.
Thérèse Coffey, Secretary of State for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, said: “Farmers are at the heart of our economy – they produce the food on our tables and are also the custodians of the land it comes from. These two roles go hand in hand and we are accelerating the rollout of our agricultural programs so that everyone can be financially supported in protecting the planet and producing food in a more sustainable way.”
Applications for some payments will open in February, others will follow in March, and some will roll out later in the year and next year.
Officials said application and payment systems had been streamlined so farmers should find it easy to apply, with forms that should take no more than 45 minutes to fill out, without any professional help.
Mark Tufnell, president of the Country Land and Business Association, which represents around 28,000 rural farmers, landowners and entrepreneurs, said: “This is a time of crisis for an industry that has stoically tolerated years of turbulence and uncertainty. These standards and payout rates are broadly in line with what was expected and will encourage many arable farmers to take the leap into the new farming schemes. But there is little news for those living on moors, or the farmer in the hills struggling to make a living.
He added: “The move towards payment for ecological delivery is welcome – it will benefit the planet, the public and, in time, the farmer. It places England as a world leader in greener agriculture. But this major change in agricultural policy comes at a time of rampant inflation, low labor supply and continued extreme weather events. The stakes for farmers could not be higher, and it is the job of the UK Government to make these schemes accessible to all types of farms, giving the industry the confidence we need to make these schemes work.”
Previous improvements to the payment regime, announced earlier this month, have been widely criticized for being too few, and farmers have been slow to take up the measures. The Guardian revealed that only 224 farmers received payments last year.
Sustainable agriculture experts said the plans did not go far enough to bring about the changes needed to save the UK’s natural environment, which has been degraded after decades of intensive farming and a lack of attention to conservation .
Last week, the regulatory watchdog, the Office for Environmental Protection, criticized the government for failing on almost every environmental measure. Martin Lines, the president of the Nature Friendly Farming Network, said Thursday’s announcement was positive but did not go far enough. “With individual actions alone, we will not achieve our climate and nature goals,” he said. “There remains a need for collaboration between actions to avoid a piecemeal approach.”
Gareth Morgan, head of agricultural policy at the Soil Association, added: “The government is not clear on how it will give farmers the confidence to invest in the radical changes needed for a resilient and sustainable agro-ecological farming sector. We are facing a climate emergency and ecological collapse – there are welcome elements in today’s announcement, but we need to stop tinkering with the edges.”