No time to pause in the quest for a nature positive farming system


This blog is written by Alice Groom, the RSPB’s Head of Sustainable Land Policy for England, and explores what impact the pausing the phase out of direct payments to farmers would have on the UK’s ability to effectively tackle the nature and climate crisis. 

Effectively implemented Environmental Land Management schemes (ELM) will be a win-win for farming, nature and climate. Applying the brakes on the phase out of direct payments would not facilitate a just transition, but instead leave farmers and nature in limbo, all the while taking the UK off course for meeting its domestic and international environmental commitments. Government should continue to roll out the ELM schemes, but this should be accompanied by broader policy reforms and support to ensure a just transition for farmers. 

Our current agricultural system, shaped as it has been by decades of policies, is one of the biggest drivers of nature’s decline and globally agriculture is responsible for a third of all emissions. Farmers manage over 70% of land in England and have a central role in helping tackle the nature and climate crisis, alongside feeding the nation. Whilst agricultural intensification has been part of the problem, farmers are a pivotal part of the solution, and we cannot reach Net Zero or halt and reverse species decline without the widespread adoption of nature-friendly farming practices. 

The UK Government has committed to policy reforms that reward farmers for delivering the public goods we all value and rely on, such as clean air and water, increased pollinators, or healthy and resilient habitats for climate mitigation. The Public money for public goods approach provides the opportunity to redirect money which is currently allocated based on how much land is owned or managed.  DEFRA’s Environmental Land Management schemes (ELMs) break away from the past and provide the opportunity for farmers to take actions that are mutually beneficial for both farming and nature.

Getting off on the wrong foot 

From 2018-2022, DEFRA struggled to provide farmers with the necessary details on the new ELMs, which led to an understandable level of concern, compounded by the backdrop of Brexit changing our trading relationship with Europe, the COVID-19 pandemic, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, and a cost-of-living crisis. Without certainty and detail from the schemes, uptake was severely hampered as farmers could not make the informed, long-term decisions necessary to transition to nature-friendly farming whilst staying profitable. 

In January this year, DEFRA finally published details on the three ELMs, providing much-needed clarity to the farming sector. This includes a rounded Sustainable Farming Incentive (SFI) offer from summer 2023, an expanded Countryside Stewardship scheme, with a significant capital offer, and another round of the popular Landscape Recovery pilots.  

With the details in the public realm and farmers finally provided with some semblance of certainty to transition to ELMs, DEFRA must not press the brakes on phase out of direct payments. Pausing the shift from direct payments in 2023 would divert £770 million away from helping farmers to take action to tackle climate change, reduce water pollution, plant trees, and recover nature.  

How ELM is shaping up 

In 2023, the SFI scheme will reward farmers for a range of actions including: 

- Planning and managing the use of nutrients 

- Reducing pesticide use and boosting pollinators 

- Managing hedgerows 

- Providing resources for wildlife 

- Improving soil health 

- Managing pastures 

Many of these actions are win-wins for both farming and nature, and farmers will have complete agency to decide which options work for them, their farm type, and their circumstances. Packaged together these options will provide farmers with the ability to produce high-quality food, whilst helping to protect and enhance the natural environment.  

Any further delay to the phase out of the Basic Payment Scheme (BPS) would reduce the funding available for the SFI and seriously disrupt efforts to reward farmers who want to unlock rewards for regenerative farming, including reducing pesticides, carefully managing nutrients, and providing resources for wildlife. 

An Expanded Countryside Stewardship scheme: 

Beyond SFI, DEFRA has recognised the need to reward those farmers who want to go further and increased Countryside Stewardship (CS) payment rates and removed caps to enable farmers to access more money to invest in farm infrastructure and deliver public goods. Further options to enable farmers to unlock rewards for a greater range of actions will also be added. 

Yet DEFRA could go further to improve the offer. One element that would really benefit those wanting to do the most for nature, including hill farmers, would be to increase access to higher tier options. Currently limited to 300-500 farmers a year, an improved Higher Tier could provide a flexible, effective, and attractive offer to many more. 

Halting the transition to ELMs would be a choice to halt environmental delivery 

ELMs are a key component to getting to grips with some of the issues at the forefront of our political discourse, such as climate change, water quality, and threats to our pollinators.  

DEFRA has set out in the Environmental Improvement Plan 2023 (EIP) just how critical ELMs will be to meeting our domestic and international commitments to tackle the nature and climate crisis. For example, ELMs will fund: 

- 90% of tree planting needed to meet the environment act target to increase tree cover to 16.5% of England’s land area by 2050. 

- securing at least 80% of the progress required to deliver the target to reduce nitrogen, phosphorus, and sediment pollution from agriculture into the water environment (alongside regulation). 

- 80 to 100% of the target to restore or create more than 500,000 hectares of wildlife-rich habitat outside of protected areas by 2042. 

- And following COP15 we also have international commitments to pursue more nature-friendly farming: UK has committed to, by 2030: 

  • Reduce the overall risk from pesticides and highly hazardous chemicals by at least half including through integrated pest management 
  • Ensure that areas under agriculture are managed sustainably, while conserving and restoring biodiversity, and  
  • Rewarding high uptake of nature friendly farming, with 65-80% of farmers providing resources for wildlife across 10-15% of land. 

On tackling climate change, agricultural emissions contributed 27.3 MtCO2e in England in 2020 and ELMs are the government’s main means of supporting farmers to cut their carbon emissions. Furthermore, analysis by Green Alliance demonstrated that a two-year delay to the phase out of direct payments would half the contribution of ELM to the fifth carbon budget (2028-32) leaving a substantial gap in the UK’s net zero plans. Retaining the previous EU scheme for an extra 2 years would also mean at least £1.2 billion (£770 million in 2023) will continue to be spent on the wealthiest farms in England, i.e., those receiving more than £100,000 each in public subsidy in exchange for no public goods. 

On water quality, the impact of sewage overflows has grabbed the headlines, but agriculture is actually a more significant source of water pollution and causes 40% of our rivers, streams and lakes to be in poor condition. Currently, about 40% of nitrogen fertiliser is lost to the environment, at significant cost to the farmers and health of our waterways, yet evidence shows reductions of fertiliser can be made with no diminishing of yields at all. ELMs enable farmers to carefully manage nutrients and any delay in the BPS phase out reduces funding available to support nutrient management this year. 

To reduce pesticide-use and improve the health of our pollinators, ELMs will fund Integrated Pest Management (IPM), which is an approach that helps farmers manage insect pests, weeds and diseases without harmful impacts on the environment. Managing pests is a significant challenge for farmers, but actions covered by ELMs, such as introducing strips of flower rich habitat on farm, can boost pollinators and beneficial insects whilst reducing the need for insecticides with no impact on yields. 

The UK is one of the most nature-depleted countries on the planet, and the ELMs are mission-critical to putting us on a path to Net Zero, restoring our natural environment and species populations, and a farming system that works to heal the planet whilst feeding us. The mutual benefits of ELMs for both farmers and nature are widely understood and any faltering of commitment or delay from DEFRA would be choosing to leave our farmers in limbo whilst the natural world continues to decline and sends us veering off course for meeting our domestic and international commitments. People, nature, and the planet cannot afford DEFRA to make the wrong choice here. 

Further Resources 

What the RSPB wants to see by 2030 - RSPB Decade of Action Report 

Nature Positive Farming Report - here.

RSPB Farming and Land Use Policy Page - here.  

  • What a very important and informative blog ! This has to the biggest game in town as far as terrestrial conservation in the UK is concerned. I’ve had a look at ELMS. It’s complex, but as you say, it gives a real prospect of a step change for the better in farming’s impact on the environment. There is lots and lots of sense in measures to reduce overuse of fertiliser and pesticides, and so many measures of direct conservation and carbon benefit. It has taken a long time and whilst sadly not surprised by Defra backsliding it would be a tragedy if they fail to carry it through. The restriction on higher tier is, as you say, a critical issue – it would be wonderful if upland farmers in particular were able to wind back the intensity of their management to restore traditional hay meadows and release the insane pressure on the open hill. Less intensive management and rewilding are complimentary approaches to achieving a richer natural environment. I wish RSPB would bring this sort of work more into its mainstream communication. Yes, its complex, but you would benefit from the support it would give you from informed and interested members.