By Hope Steadman (she / her)
The UK government have recently released their new Environmental Improvement Plan, which announced a range of goals to tackle climate change and biodiversity loss in the UK. The plan proposes that farming and nature can go ‘hand in hand’, balancing the country’s needs for economic growth and food security with environmental goals (Higgens, 2023). Particularly important to reaching these goals are the financial incentives also announced to incentivise farming in more sustainable ways. The government have finally given some level of clarity to the farming industry, who have expressed serious concerns about the removal of the Common Agricultural Policy post-Brexit. The CAP was a European Union policy which paid farmers based on the amount of land they owned. Payments were worth about £3.5 billion annually, but did not incentivise environmentally conscious behaviours, and were often critiqued for benefitting the wealthiest who already had significant plots of land (Marshall and Prior, 2023).
The UK’s environmental land management schemes, Elms, intends to replace CAP by offering farmers extra income for environmental activity (Wach, 2023). It consists of several types of payments. The first is the Sustainable Farm Incentive scheme, paying farmers for environmentally beneficial activities, such as improving the carbon storage capacity of soils, or looking after hedgerows (Hughes, 2023). This is married with Countryside Stewardship Plus, rewarding farmers for working with neighbouring farmers and landowners to introduce natural flood management, enhanced woodland and peatland restoration (Marshall and Prior, 2023). The final payment will be provided via the Landscape Recovery Scheme, which funds projects that boost biodiversity and move towards Net Zero, especially ‘rewilding’ projects on a larger scale that restore peatlands and woodlands, for example (Hughes, 2023). This is all in support of the newly published Improvement Plan, with ambitious goals including turning 40% of England’s agricultural soil to sustainable management by 2023, protecting 30% of land for nature and cutting emissions and flood risks (DEFRA, 2023). All in all, there is a definite shift to be more supportive of ‘nature-friendly farming’ (Wach, 2023).
Despite the government’s emphasis on environmental, social and economic goals going ‘hand in hand’, both environmentalists and farmers alike have already criticised the plans. Environmentalists say they don’t go far enough towards regulating polluting activity because of the voluntary nature of environmental activities proposed, while farmers are concerned that the payments won’t be enough to sustain their already squeezed livelihoods (Bourke, 2023). What is important to note is that the issue is not as black and white as it may seem, with farming in the UK facing numerous challenges from international turmoil, national policy and cultural legacies of farming. It’s worth discussing both sides of the argument.
It’s plain to see why environmentalists are discouraged by the voluntary nature of the improvement plans. The Natural History Museum found in 2021 that the UK’s biodiversity is in the bottom 10% of the world’s countries, a result of a long history of intensifying agricultural and industrial work transforming the landscape. Over two-thirds of the UK is farmed, and 8% has been developed on, meaning very little is left for nature to flourish (Natural History Museum, 2021). Intensive agriculture has been found to be responsible for removing carbon stores from soils, important to mitigate the impacts of climate change (Wach, 2023). Water pollution from pesticides and fertilisers is another highly damaging factor, particularly caused by intensive poultry and pig operations (ibid.). Agriculture is reportedly responsible for 88% of the UK’s ammonia gas emissions, caused mostly by manure, livestock and the use of nitrogen fertiliser (DEFRA et al., 2018). Combined with other pollutants, this can cause a risk to health by producing very fine particulate matter (ibid.). Farming has been criticised for causing air pollution, deforestation, removing natural flood defences and slashing biodiversity. This has fuelled the imagined divide between nature and farming.
But is it so surprising that this has been the case? Since the First World War, farmers have done what has been asked of them in the UK – produce food (Higgens, 2023). Nature recovery and climate action pose a very different way of life, and this continues to be balanced with ensuring food security. The Office for National Statistics predicts the UK population will reach 72 million by mid-2041, a huge and growing population to keep fed (Government Office for Science, 2021). And the food security issue has been rearing its head more frequently as of late, with egg production plummeting in 2022, and limits put on the sale of fruit and vegetables in supermarkets in February 2023 in response to shortages (Timmins, 2023). The UK government has said this is down to bad weather in Europe and Africa, with Spain facing seasonally cold weather, Morocco facing flooding and ferries being hit by storms (ibid.). These stories are increasingly common, with climate change bringing more extreme weather across the globe.
As for egg production, avian flu in the UK has hit farmers particularly hard, with the number of eggs produced at their lowest in 9 years (Partridge, 2023). Research has found that climate change may be a contributor, likely responsible for altering bird migration and potentially the survival rates of the virus outside of host bodies (Gilbert et al., 2008). And this is not the only challenge farmers have been facing. Thanks to the war in Ukraine, energy prices have sky-rocketed, alongside growing costs of feed, fuel and fertiliser (Partridge and Markortoff, 2022). Milk prices are expected to fall below the costs of production, and many farmers are leaving agriculture altogether as it becomes too unsustainable to maintain (ibid.). The increasingly unpredictable climate brought drought and severe hot spells in 2022, damaging some yields (Partridge, 2023). What’s more, Brexit (amongst other things) has been blamed for driving labour shortages on farms, meaning some £60 million of food was wasted in 2022, as not enough seasonal workers were available to pick fruit and vegetables (Partridge and Markortoff, 2022). This is an incredibly worrying period for UK farming, and one that doesn’t seem to be getting better any time soon. In an economically challenging situation, it’s not hard to see why farmers are concerned about the environmental plans proposed, and what this might mean for the survival of their farms. A wider concern might be, what could this mean for food security, and the price we pay for food, in the UK? During a cost-of-living crisis, this may take priority over climate action for many people.
And so the National Farmers’ Union (NFU), perhaps unsurprisingly, have expressed concern that the new Elms scheme is not designed to be profitable for farmers (Bourke, 2023). Support for climate reform seems to be continually hamstrung by economic pressures in the agricultural sector. Furthermore, Minette Batters, NFU President, has suggested the new reforms do not address several areas, such as helping farmers to measure their soil health and carbon sequestration potential (ibid.). While praising the government for finally providing some sort of clarity over what the future of farming payments might look like, there is still a need for farmers to be provided with a longer-term view to encourage certainty that larger investments in environmental improvements will be beneficial to their farms going forward (Higgens, 2023).
Whilst farmers are keen on the payment incentive schemes being flexible, to enable them to deliver solutions that suit their farm and income, this characteristic is frequently the source of critique for environmentalists. For example, Wach (2023) writes that the Sustainable Farming Incentive scheme may encourage farmers to choose environmental improvements which don’t require significant changes to how they farm. She writes, “Farmers can continue doing things which harm soils and wildlife on the (majority) productive parts of their land while receiving benefits for sprinkling pro-environment measures around the edges.” The weakness of the regulations put in place are therefore subject to scrutiny, and aren’t believed to make significant steps towards mitigating climate change and biodiversity loss in the UK going forward.
So then, what’s the alternative? What’s clear is that this isn’t an easy call to make, and can’t be decided by the government alone. One alternative which is increasingly popularised is plant-based diets. Poore and Nemecek (2018) write that this could reduce food emissions by up to 73% depending on where you are in the world, including both greenhouse gas emissions and water pollution, and free up 76% of farmland for nature recovery. But unsurprisingly, farmers are concerned by suggestions that meat and dairy farms should be cut in this way, especially seen as there are few financial alternatives provided at this point. Some farms are turning to regenerative agriculture practices to encourage plant diversity, for example through agroforestry, or using manure on farms to maintain soil nutrient levels (Wentworth, 2021). These practical changes are likely to become more common, and yield more environmental benefits, when UK policymakers provide more clarity as to how these activities will be supported economically long-term.
The government’s new announcements are undeniably a step in the right direction. It’s true that the new environmental incentives need to be less voluntary, more focused on the long-term and provide better support for farmer livelihoods during the cost-of-living crisis. It’s also true that climate action can’t be the sole focus, at the expense of jobs and food security. And yet doing nothing at all to mitigate emissions and biodiversity loss will inevitably cause long-term damage to the socioeconomic state of the UK and its agricultural industry. It’s expected that this debate will continue to be a contentious policy area for many years to come, and focusing on farming alone won’t be enough. There will need to be radical changes in consumption patterns, as well as industrial action to mitigate climate change alongside agricultural improvements. One solution won’t be enough – whether it’s widespread diet changes, environmental incentives, regenerative agriculture or rewilding, it’s vital that the issues of biodiversity loss and climate change are addressed urgently, collaboratively and from many different directions.
Bourke, I. (2023) ‘Minette Batters: “Food cannot be the poor relation to the environment”’, The New Statesman, 21 February [online] Available at: Minette Batters: “Food cannot be the poor relation to the environment” - New Statesman (Accessed 22 February 2023).
Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs (2023) ‘Environmental Improvement Plan 2023: Executive summary’ [online] Available at: Environmental Improvement Plan 2023: Executive summary - GOV.UK (www.gov.uk) (Accessed: 22 February 2023).
Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs, Environment Agency, and The Rt Hon Thérèse Coffey MP (2018) ‘New guide for farmers to help reduce air pollution from ammonia’, 27 July [online] Available at: New guide for farmers to help reduce air pollution from ammonia - GOV.UK (www.gov.uk) (Accessed 23 February 2023).
Gilbert, M. Slingenbergh, J. and Xiao, X. (2008) ‘Climate change and avian influenza’, Rev Sci Tech, 27(2), pp.459-466.
Government Office for Science (2021) ‘Trend Deck 2021: Demographics’, 28 June [online] Available at: Trend Deck 2021: Demographics - GOV.UK (www.gov.uk) (Accessed 23 February 2023).
Higgens, G. (2023) ‘Watch: Getting the balance right between farming and nature’, DEFRA Farming, 24 January [online] Available at: Watch: Getting the balance right between farming and nature - Farming (blog.gov.uk) (Accessed: 22 February 2023).
Hughes, J. (2023) ‘Environmental land management schemes: details of actions and payments’, DEFRA Farming, 26 January [online] Available at: Environmental land management schemes: details of actions and payments - Farming (blog.gov.uk) (Accessed: 22 February 2023).
Marshall, C. and Prior, M. (2023) ‘Elms: England greener farming payments detail unveiled’, BBC News, 26 January [online] Available at: Elms: England greener farming payments detail unveiled - BBC News (Accessed 22 February 2023).
Partridge, J. (2023) ‘Britain’s farmers battered by Brexit fallout and rising costs, says union’, The Guardian, 21 February [online] Available at: Britain’s farmers battered by Brexit fallout and rising costs, says union | Farming | The Guardian (Accessed 22 February 2023).
Partridge, J. and Markortoff, K. (2022) ‘UK risks sleepwalking into food supply crisis, says farmers’ union’, The Guardian, 6 December [online] Available at: UK risks sleepwalking into food supply crisis, says farmers’ union | Food & drink industry | The Guardian (Accessed 22 February 2023).
Poore, J. and Nemecek, T. (2018) ‘Reducing food’s environmental impacts through producers and consumers’, Science, 360(6392), pp.987-992.
The Natural History Museum (2021) ‘Natural History Museum reveals the world has crashed through the ‘safe limit for humanity’ for biodiversity loss’, Press Release, 11 October [online] Available at: Natural History Museum reveals the world has crashed through the ‘safe limit for humanity’ for biodiversity loss | Natural History Museum (nhm.ac.uk) (Accessed 24 February 2023).
Timmins, B. (2023) ‘Why is there a shortage of tomatoes and other fruit and vegetables in the UK’, BBC News, 23 February [online] Available at: Why is there a shortage of tomatoes and other fruit and vegetables in the UK? - BBC News (Accessed: 24 February 2023).
Wach, E. (2023) ‘Environment plan for England asks farmers to restore nature – but changes are likely to be superficial’, The Conversation, 3 February [online] Available at: Environment plan for England asks farmers to restore nature – but changes are likely to be superficial (theconversation.com) (Accessed 22 February 2023).
Wentworth, J. (2021) ‘Reducing the environmental and biodiversity impacts of agriculture’, POST UK Parliament, 29 April [online] Available at: Reducing the environmental and biodiversity impacts of agriculture - POST (parliament.uk) (Accessed 22 February 2023).
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