Wildlife will thrive, air and water will be cleaner and livestock will be treated more humanely under the biggest change in farming policy for half a century, the government will promise today.

A seven-year plan to phase out paying subsidies to farmers based on how much land they own has been laid out as part of a post-Brexit overhaul of agriculture in England. Instead, farmers will receive money for improving productivity and the environment.

The present system of “direct payments” per hectare under the EU’s common agricultural policy will start to be reduced next year. By 2024 farmers will have lost at least half these payments and by 2028 the government aims to have ended them completely.

The National Farmers’ Union warned that the speed of the reduction in direct subsidies was “high risk” and some farms could become unviable, undermining domestic food production.

The agricultural transition plan, published today, says that ministers are aiming for all farmers by 2028 to be “running sustainable businesses that do not need to rely on public subsidy”.

The plan pledges to use the money farmers receive at present to “restore wilder landscapes” and achieve “enhanced beauty”. New farmers will be helped to start out, with land made available to them by offering lump-sum “exit payments” to existing farmers on condition that they leave the industry.

It will also confirm that the overall amount paid to farmers in England will stay at the present level of £2.4 billion a year until 2024, though they will have to earn it by producing “public goods”.

Animal welfare payments will focus initially on eradicating endemic diseases in cattle, pigs and sheep. Farmers will also receive grants for measures to reduce animal suffering, such as rubber walkways to cut lameness in cattle and better holding pens to minimise stress.

A new welfare labelling scheme will be introduced to make it easier for shoppers to choose products from animals treated well, with a public consultation on proposals next year. A system of payment by results for improving animal welfare will be piloted in 2023.

The existing subsidy that pays a farmer £233 per hectare will start to be reduced from next year, with £1 billion a year made available for the new environmental land management (ELM) scheme, which will be introduced by the end of 2024. The plan states: “We will pay for delivery of land management actions that contribute to clean air, clean and plentiful water, thriving plants and wildlife, reduction in and protection from environmental hazards, mitigation of and adaptation to climate change [and] enhanced beauty, heritage and engagement with the environment.”

Smaller landowners who receive £30,000 or less a year in direct payments will lose 5 per cent next year, rising to 50 per cent in 2024. Larger landowners will lose progressively more, with those who receive at least £150,000 losing 25 per cent next year and 70 per cent in 2024. The government will sweeten the pill by promising to stop issuing fines for what it deems minor breaches of rules.

The proportion of public funding spent on environmental and welfare improvements will rise from 23 per cent next year to 57 per cent in 2024. Nine per cent each year will incentivise improvements in productivity, such as investing in equipment and training.

In a foreword to the 66-page document laying out the plan, George Eustice, the environment secretary, described it as the “biggest change in agricultural policy in half a century”.

In a speech today to farmers and environmental groups, he will say: “Rather than the prescriptive, top-down rules of the EU era, we want to support the choices that farmers and land managers take. If we work together to get this right, then a decade from now the rest of the world will want to follow our lead.”

Minette Batters, president of the NFU, urged ministers to be “mindful of the impact [of] sudden drops in income”.

The government’s plans for the future of farming cover an ambitious collection of aims and promises but the look of many of the regulations and schemes has yet to be finalised (write Will Humphries and Ben Webster).

Included in the 66-page report are a number of plans which will alter the way we grow and rear our food for decades to come and hopefully in a sustainable way that will ensure farmers and nature can survive and flourish posy-Brexit. A new regulatory approach to be brought in from 2024 will have a clear distinction between the basic legal requirements farmers are obliged to meet by law, and land management scheme standards under which they are paid to go beyond this minimum.

New farmers in, old farmers out

Farmers who want to leave the industry will be able to apply from 2022 for a lump sum “exit payment” made up of the subsidies they would have received up to 2027. This will make more farms “available to those who want to start out on their own”, the plan says.

“They would need to meet relevant conditions, including leaving the sector,” the plan says. A “new entrants support scheme” is being developed and Defra plans to open it to applicants in 2022.

Animal welfare

The plan includes a pledge to “ensure every livestock farmer is improving the health and welfare of their animals”.

It says a “pathway” is being developed with the farming industry “to promote the production of healthier, higher-welfare animals at a level beyond compliance with current regulations”.

Payments will initially be focused on improving animal health by reducing disease, such as viral diarrhoea in cattle which costs the industry £35 million a year. Farmers will also be incentivised to make better use of antibiotics to reduce the risk of resistant superbugs.

Grants will be available for welfare improvements, including measures which “allow animals to show their natural behaviour”.

A payment-by-results scheme is being developed and Defra is conducting research to decide which which welfare enhancements will be incentivised.

Those under consideration include ending use of cages for hens and pig farrowing crates which severely restrict the movement of sows. Farmers could also be rewarded for not trimming the beaks of chicks and not cutting off the tails of pigs.

Health and disease support

This will initially focus on controlling or eradicating endemic diseases among cattle, pigs and sheep. A plan will be put in place to better understand antimicrobial-resistant diseases and the use of antibiotics in the food chain.

Air quality

Farmers will be required to cover all stores of slurry to prevent it evaporating and causing air pollution from fine particles. which are swept by winds to residential areas.

Grants will be available for farmers to invest in new slurry stores and low-emission spreading equipment to ensure fertiliser goes into the ground and not into the air.

Labelling

A new welfare labelling scheme will be introduced to make it easier for shoppers to choose products from animals treated well, with a public consultation on proposals next year.

The government says it wants to support livestock farmers financially by using public funds to pay for health and welfare enhancements that are “valued by the public and not currently delivered sufficiently by the market or through existing regulatory standards”.

Innovation

Grants will be given to farmers, foresters, growers and contractors so that they can afford to invest in the latest equipment, technology and infrastructure to improve their profitability and benefit the environment.

It will be a competitive scheme, with applications more likely to be successful in delivering a “public good” gaining larger grants.

Farmers will be encouraged to participate and shape science and technology field trials for new technologies and mechanisms.

Nature and landscape restoration

Farmers and landowners will be paid for “public goods”, covering how farmland is managed, how natural habitats are cared for and how the biodiversity of entire landscapes can be restored.

Payments will be set to make sure that making environmental improvements is “financially viable and fair” and encourages high levels of participation.

The Sustainable Farming Incentive will focus on field and livestock management as well as trees, woodland hedgerows and soil management.

Local nature recovery will focus on creating, managing and restoring habitats such as wetlands, freshwater, peatland, heathland, species-rich grassland, and coastal habitat, as well as connecting isolated habitats to form networks.

Landscape recovery will focus on large-scale forest and woodland creation, restoration and improvement; ecosystem restoration; peatland restoration; and the creation and restoration of coastal habitats such as wetlands and salt marsh.

A new approach from 2024 will distinguish between basic legal requirements for farmers and land management standards under which they are paid to go beyond this minimum.

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