Michael Gove subsidy promises could seed an era of agricultural and ecological renewal

Michael Gove

Michael Gove is promising a radical overhaul of farming subsidies. 

Michael Gove, the environment secretary, will today announce plans to radically reform the payment of farm subsidies - in the wake of Brexit. If the promise is kept and the changes implemented well these changes could support a growing minority of farmers attempting to end soil depletion and economic destruction.

The subsidy system needs dramatically rethinking, to reward farmers for their stewardship of the land as much as for food production. Sustainable farming should not be an oxymoron.

Britain has had a cheap food policy since the war, but the time has come to re-evaluate our priorities. Pressure on prices has forced farmers to sacrifice ecological protection in the name of productivity.

Government subsidies - while designed to encourage sustainable farming - have unfortunately failed to deliver tangible benefits to wildlife.

Michael Gove is due to make a speech at the Oxford Farming Conference today, pledging to reform the subsidy system so that it rewards the services provided by farmers, rather than simply the area of land owned.

Ecological protection

Although individual trailblazers are creating new models of sustainable farming, this complete overhaul of the subsidy system is desperately needed to ensure that all farmers are required to deliver environmental services.

Brexit – while a threat to the protections enshrined in European Union law – provides an opportunity to reset the balance, ensuring that British farmers are valued for their stewardship of the environment as much as for the food they produce.

Current ‘sustainable farming’ subsidies, under Pillar I of EU structures, consist of the Basic Payment Scheme (BPS) and Greening obligations. Under the BPS, farmers are paid a fixed flat rate per hectare of land, which varies between lowland, upland or moorland.

The Greening obligations, required for further payment, include the rotation of a minimum number of different crops (Crop Diversification), and the creation of Ecological Focus Areas (EFAs). In addition, Pillar II supports the UK Countryside Stewardship (CS) scheme, aimed at maintaining areas of existing high biodiversity, such as limestone grassland, neutral meadows and specific bird breeding habitats.

The BPS, which requires only that land be maintained as farmland, has failed to deliver because it offers no incentive to engage in ecological protection.

Traditional systems

Indeed, ‘non-qualifying’ features - wildlife-rich habitats such as ponds, wetlands and wide hedgerows - are deducted from the area for which farmers can receive payment, encouraging their destruction.

This habitat loss, along with changes to the chemical environment, is a significant contributor to the decline of many species, as well as the catastrophic reduction in invertebrate populations. 

With respect to Greening, the rules for Crop Diversification contain many loopholes, while the EFA obligation is poorly specified; it does not enforce improvement, but allows farmers to claim for already existing ecological features, while catch-and-cover crop obligations have failed to improve biodiversity due to narrow restrictions on the species permitted and the duration that they are grown for.

Ironically, frustration with the present system in which even high inputs and production levels do not enable farmers to compete with cheap food from abroad is driving innovation.

The subsidy system needs dramatically rethinking, to reward farmers for their stewardship of the land as much as for food production. Sustainable farming should not be an oxymoron.

A growing minority of farmers are experimenting with more traditional systems, producing higher quality food that commands a premium in the market, and simultaneously achieving a multitude of ecological benefits.

Crop yields

One farm has been trialling a rotational approach using grass and herbal leys, which gives nature the opportunity to restore soil health and faunal diversity between crop yields.

In 2011 an 11-hectare field, which had been in continuous arable cropping for over 30 years, was drilled with grass seed and white clover and left for five years, untouched save for grazing sheep and cows.

In 2015 the grass was removed and winter oilseed rape and winter wheat were direct drilled into the field. The direct drilling method has precluded the need to cultivate the soil for seven years, and so the field is currently acting as a carbon sequestration facility.

According to the farmer’s data, carbon levels in the soil increased from 1.4 percent in 2011 to 2.6 percent in 2015, and the earthworm population and structural quality of the soil improved. This has, in turn, provided the foundation for stable crop yields, improving commercial revenue. 

On the farm’s other fields, the cropping programme has moved away from narrow, two-crop rotations of wheat and rape to rotations of eight to 10 diverse crops, including spring crops, linseed and catch-and-cover crops which act as green ploughs and cultivators. 

Farming legislation

A suckler herd and sheep flocks now graze the rotational grass leys, and close to 20,000 extra trees have been planted, the area under which will be used for free-range chickens.

The rotations have improved the soil condition enough to allow direct drilling for the foreseeable future.  This has resulted in a 65-70 percent saving on establishment costs and a reduction in the CO2 emissions previously caused by in-field cultivations prior to drilling. 

The longer crop rotation has also improved soil health, and herbicide sprays across the farm have been reduced by 10-15 percent as the ground becomes cleaner.

Other estates are experimenting with various forms of ‘re-wilding’, allowing natural re-diversification and enhanced profitability, while groups such as the Pasture-Fed Livestock Association (PFLA) are working to encourage the restoration of species-rich grasslands, and also producing higher value meat at lower cost.

It remains to be seen how widely these methods can be adopted by others, particularly given current, Brexit-related, uncertainty around farming legislation.

Meadow flora

While it is widely understood that British environmental policy will initially be identical to EU legislation, the current farm subsidies are only guaranteed until 2022.

Speculation suggests that, once farming subsidies are paid directly from the Treasury and not through the EU, the public may increasingly demand quantifiable tax-payer benefits in return for subsidy payments. 

The recent indication from Mr Gove that farmers are likely to be paid by results – whether increases in the ’natural capital’ of the soil and water or better delivery of biodiversity across the countryside – certainly suggests that change is on the way.

Forty years ago, the respected Professor of Agriculture Gerald Wibberley was fond of saying that farmers will always respond to ‘price signals’, growing whatever society pays them to.

This concept could form the basis of a new contract between farmers and their communities. An EU-funded pilot scheme in Wensleydale, for example, awards farmers with grants, dependent on the biodiversity they can produce in the dale’s hay meadows, including re-establishing meadow flora and increasing the population of wet grassland birds, such as the Curlew. Farmers are already discussing their achievements, and even competing for the best result.

Promised overhaul

To restore biodiversity and encourage a shift away from intensive farming methods, government subsidies need to be refocused along similar lines.

From 2014-2020, BPS funding totalled around €25.1 billion, while Countryside Stewardship funding came to only €2.6 billion. Redirecting funds towards programmes such as the CS scheme could yield an increase in tangible ecological benefits.

However, it is not simply a matter of numbers. Grants must be better integrated across landscapes. Regulatory focus in UK, unlike most of Europe, has tended to home in on individual fields, at the expense of a more comprehensive overview of the potential for reconnecting land and restoring soils and isolated or lost features across larger areas.

Strategies targeting soils, geology and drainage, and semi-natural vegetation patterns, must be developed for suites of adjoining farms. As the ‘Making Space for Nature’ report of 2010, led by ecologist Professor Sir John Lawton, stressed, biodiverse areas need to be bigger, better, and better-connected.

These concerns must feed into the promised overhaul of the system, to ensure that each and every farmer is incentivised to become a provider of environmental services.

Sustainable farming

These services could include carbon sequestration, the storage of floodwater to prevent flooding in towns, and the conservation of biodiverse wildlife habitats. DEFRA should change its philosophy from controlling to enabling.

If these indications that reform is on the way do not come to fruition, farmers may begin to act together to improve the ecology of their productive land.

Experiments carried out by trailblazers such as the farmers mentioned above prove that individuals can have a significant impact, both in improving the health of their own land and by acting as an example for others. 

However, this alone is not sufficient. The subsidy system needs dramatically rethinking, to reward farmers for their stewardship of the land as much as for food production. Sustainable farming should not be an oxymoron.

These Authors

Tom Heathcote is a Partner at Fisher German LLP, which offers a range of specialist services across all property sectors including property consultancy, estate agency and chartered surveying. Phil Colebourn is Chairman of EPR (Ecological Planning and Research), an ecological consultancy which focuses on the complex interface between biodiversity and land-use planning.