Wildlife, nature and climate will benefit from the biggest upheaval in agricultural policy in England in 50 years, according to government plans.
The £ 1.6bn grant that farmers receive each year for simply owning land will be phased out by 2028, with funds instead being used to pay for them to restore wild habitats, create new woodlands, stimulate soils and reduce the use of pesticides.
The wealthiest landowners – those who receive annual payments of over £ 150,000 a year – will face the biggest cuts, starting with 25% in 2021. Those receiving less than £ 30,000 will see a reduction of 5% next year.
Some of the biggest beneficiaries of the existing program have been the Duke of Westminster, inventor Sir James Dyson, the owner of a racehorse, Prince Khalid bin Abdullah al Saud and the Queen.
Farmers will also receive grants to improve productivity and animal welfare, including new robotic equipment. The aim of the plan is that farmers will produce healthy and profitable food in a sustainable manner and without subsidies within seven years.
Environmental Secretary George Eustice has acknowledged the damage to the environment from industrial agriculture since the 1960s and said the new plans would be good for nature and help tackle the climate crisis. Agriculture occupies 70% of England, is the main driver of biodiversity loss and produces significant greenhouse gas emissions and water pollution.
Radical changes in agricultural policy are possible due to the UK’s departure from the EU, whose Common Agricultural Policy is widely seen as a disaster for nature and even Brexit critics see the changes as positive.
Agriculture and environment groups broadly welcomed the plans, but said more details were urgently needed. Brexit looms at the end of December and uncertainties remain over food tariffs and trade agreements. Many groups are also concerned about the potential importation of foods produced to lower animal welfare and environmental standards.
« [This is] the biggest change in agricultural policy in half a century, ”said Eustice. “It makes no sense to subsidize land ownership and tenure where the largest subsidy payments often go to the wealthiest landowners.
“Over the past century, much of our wildlife-rich habitat has been lost and many species are in long-term decline.
“I know that many farmers are deeply feeling this loss and are taking steps to reverse this trend. But it cannot be denied that the intensification of agriculture since the 1960s has taken its toll. Our plans for future agriculture must [also] tackling climate change – one of the most urgent challenges facing the world.
The total of £ 2.4 billion per year currently paid to farmers will remain the same until 2025, as promised in the Tory manifesto. Currently, two-thirds of this amount is paid solely for owning land, but the proportion will drop to one-third by 2025 and to zero by 2028. Environmental action funds will drop from one-quarter of the total to more than half by 2025, with the remaining funds used to increase productivity.
The new green payments will be tested with 5,000 farmers before a full launch in 2024. But the level of payments for works such as natural flood defenses and restoration of peatlands and salt marshes has yet to be set. . The likely reduction in carbon emissions has also not been quantified.
National Farmers Union President Minette Batters said, “Agriculture is changing and we look forward to working with ministers and officials to co-create the new programs.
But she added: “Expect farmers to run viable and expensive farming businesses, continue to produce food and increase their environmental delivery, all while phasing out existing support and without a full replacement program for nearly. three years is high risk and very high demand. . ”
The cuts are expected to reduce ranchers’ incomes, for example, by 60% to 80% by 2024, Batters said.
Kate Norgrove, WWF, said: “Our farmers have the potential to be frontline heroes in the climate and natural emergency, and this roadmap puts us on the right track. He must see increased investment in nature as a way to fight climate change. “
Tom Lancaster, Senior Agricultural Policy Officer at RSPB, said: “This is a watershed moment for the government’s agricultural reforms, which are so important both for the future of agriculture and for restoring the land. nature in England. [This plan] brings welcome clarity, but faster progress is now needed over the next few months. “
But Craig Bennett, CEO of Wildlife Trusts, said: “We are deeply concerned that the pilot [environment] projects simply cannot deliver the promise that nature will be better off. Four years after the EU referendum, we still lack details and clarity on how agricultural finance will benefit the public. “
Other measures in the government plan include funding to improve the way farmers manage animal manure – slurry is a major water and air polluter – and a program that allows farmers looking to leave the sector to cash in all the subsidies they are owed until 2028. in 2022, as part of efforts to help new farmers enter the sector.
The government has said it will cut “red tape” for farmers, with warning letters replacing automatic fines for minor problems and more targeted inspections – but no fewer.
In July, the government said the rules for growing various crops, fallows and hedges would be abolished in 2021, saying they had little environmental benefit. Agricultural policy is a decentralized issue and other UK countries have yet to come up with firm new plans.