Government U-turn on promise to reform farming post-Brexit

New farming policy stripped of ambition to aid nature recovery

The Government has broken its promise to reform farming post-Brexit. In its National Food Strategy published today, the Government’s commitment to provide a third of its farming budget for Landscape Recovery has been abandoned.

In the run up to the publication of the new strategy, Defra said: “We will not have fixed allocations (or ‘pillars’, as they were known whilst we were in the EU) of money ring fenced to different schemes.” In practice, this means that money will go towards meeting only the most basic of environmental standards instead of ring-fencing funds to reward landowners who want to take a more ambitious and large-scale approach to producing environmental and climate goods on their land.

The National Food Strategy also fails to address the threats to food security posed by biodiversity loss and climate change, despite these being identified as “the biggest medium to long term risk to the UK’s domestic production” in the UK Food Security Report 2021. Our global food systems are reliant on thriving natural systems to provide healthy soils, safe and plentiful water, beneficial pollinators, and a stable climate, and investing in nature-based solutions will be key to securing food security.

Craig Bennett, chief executive of The Wildlife Trusts, says:

“The Government has broken the promise that it has made time and time again to restore nature across large areas as part of the post-Brexit agricultural transition – it’s a disgrace. Out-of-date farming policies have caused degraded soils, polluted rivers, and extreme loss of wildlife including the disappearance of insects and pollinators. Surely taxpayers’ money should be used to reward farmers to grow food in a way that is good for nature, rather than harming it – otherwise the food strategy will ultimately fail.

“There is no such thing as food security if nature is in decline. The Landscape Recovery scheme that has now been side-lined is intended to be big, bold way of addressing the nature and climate crises – it is crucial to us all. Projects include upland peat restoration, farmers getting together to clean-up whole catchments to heal rivers, and reintroducing lost species to aid a natural balance across ecosystems.

“Now the Government is slipping back into the old thinking that has resulted in a tired old agricultural system dependent on imports of fossil fuel-based fertilisers from countries like Russia, and nature in decline. Have we learned nothing?”

Henry Dimbleby’s independent review of the National Food Strategy starkly highlighted the impacts our unsustainable food systems are having on wildlife, but the Government’s response has ignored his recommendations.

Global food production systems are devastating our planet’s natural systems, both on land and at sea, driving biodiversity loss, widespread deforestation, and the pollution of our soils and rivers. Not only is it bad for nature, but the food industry is the second-biggest contributor to climate change after the energy sector. The agricultural sector is also the biggest source of pollution to rivers in England.

Our global food system is underpinned by nature, yet the “invisibility of nature” is one of the most urgent, deeply embedded, problems. The Wildlife Trusts believe that we should be going further and faster to ensure farmers are properly supported to restore nature – not continue with a failing system nor break promises to restore nature at scale.

Instead, the strategy focusses on maintaining current supply chains and further “intensification” of productive land, which keep farmers locked into a system overly reliant on costly inputs such as fuel, feed, and fertiliser. This move to continue the status quo will come at a cost to both farmers and nature, and leaves farmers vulnerable to risks in global supply chain shocks – shocks which will only increase as a result of our changing climate.

The Government has watered down Environmental Land Management schemes

Today’s announcement suggests the Government plan to weaken the long-promised Environmental Land Management schemes of its most ambitious element, which Defra claimed would “represent a new approach to supporting long-term, significant habitat restoration and land use change of the sort that will be essential to achieve our environmental ambitions”.

Originally the Government committed to a three-way split in the ELMs budget between the three types of scheme, saying: “By 2028, we currently expect spending to be evenly split across farm-level, locally tailored, and landscape-scale investment” but has now restricted the funding for this scheme to just £50 million.

Henry Dimbleby’s independent review supported the environmental land management schemes, recommending “that roughly a third of the ELMs budget – £500–£700 million per year – should go on paying farmers to manage the land in ways that actively sequester carbon and restore nature” when it was published last year.

Craig Bennett says:

“In cutting the money available for the Landscape Recovery the Government has also removed the best chance of a decent livelihood for farmers and rural communities in areas with them most marginal agricultural land. Such a narrow focus on ‘food production’ will mean more money going to the biggest and richest farmers, and far less money being available to the smallest and poorest farms.

“Promises for environmental land management schemes must be honoured in order to meet our net-zero target and to reach the commitment to protect 30% of land for nature by 2030. The Government must support farmers need support to make this transition for all our futures, rather than playing politics to land votes.”