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The Agriculture Act and Land Management

4th December 2020

The brand new Agriculture Bill has become law and could transform agriculture and help the environment in the UK.

The Bill was created to replace and simplify policies from the EU, ahead of Brexit at the end of the year. It’s hoped that the new legislation will make sure farmers and landowners are rewarded with public money in the future, including for land used to help wildlife thrive or to tackle the effects of climate change. This replaces the previous system which was largely based on the amount of land farmed, favouring those with the largest amounts of land and encouraging farming of unproductive land purely to qualify for payments.

What does the Agriculture Act say?

Farmers and landowners in England will be rewarded with public money for ‘public goods’, which ranges from improvements in air and water quality to better soil health. It all comes under the Environmental Land Management (ELM) Scheme, and should go towards helping the government reach its goal of achieving net zero emissions by 2050.

Environment Secretary, George Eustice, said: “The funds released as a result of the phasing out of the legacy Basic Payment Scheme (BPS) will be re-invested into a roll out of our future farming policy, which will be centred around support aimed at incentivising sustainable farming practices, creating habitats for nature recovery and supporting the establishment of new woodland and other ecosystem services to help tackle challenges like climate change.”

So, as well as supporting farmers to produce food, there is a focus on wider environmental and biodiversity issues.

What difference will the Agriculture Act make?

There’s going to be a seven-year transition period from the BPS to payments made as a result of the new Agriculture Act, so it could be a while before any major differences are noticeable.

However, it means farmers and landowners have time to decide which aspect of the new set up will suit them best. The Countryside Stewardship Scheme will still be open for a few more years to help those who want to take part in the ELM scheme.

The government is currently running a series of tests, trials and pilots and it’s hoped the ELM scheme will be rolled out in full in 2024. It will reward farmers and landowners for delivering what are being termed ‘public goods’ – things we all benefit from, but which don’t have an obvious marketable value:

  • Clean air
  • Clean and plentiful water
  • Thriving plants and wildlife
  • Protection from environmental hazards
  • Beauty, heritage and engagement with the environment
  • Reduction of, and adaption to, climate change

The rewards may take the form of payments, replacing some of the payments made as part of the BPS.

The focus on the ELM scheme should help to redress some of the damage our current agricultural systems cause to the environment. Agriculture is responsible for 10% of the UK’s greenhouse gas emissions, and is the most significant source of water pollution and ammonia emissions.

By allowing farmers and landowners to financially benefit from assisting the environment, it should reduce the pressure to make money purely through traditional farming methods, as well as assisting the recovery of our ecosystems.

It is likely that this means land use will change – land which has traditionally always been farmed may be turned over to conservation use, for example, and farmers may need to take on a stewardship role as well as a farming role in order to remain financially viable.

Of course, wherever there is change, there is resistance, but the overall benefits should see the scheme work effectively in improving our environment if it is managed properly.

What will happen next?

While trials and pilots continue, we won’t know exactly what will be rewarded, or if it will be an action or results based system.

Defra have stated that they intend to create three tiers, so farmers can pick the tier which best suits their lands and needs:

  • Tier 1
    • Long-term, sustainable farming, more focused on yield, but with environmentally friendly methods with reduced pollution and other negative impacts.
  • Tier 2
    • Less productive land which also carries wildlife benefits, encouraging low-chemical methods of farming where wildlife can also thrive.
  • Tier 3
    • More wild land and nature-based solutions to encourage certain wildlife which need wilder landscapes, and to encourage land which can store carbon, reduce flood risks or remove pollutants from water.

This should benefit all farmers and landowners, as an increase in wild or semi-wild areas should increase the number of pollinators in the area, which also increases the number of predators removing pests from the land.

There are concerns among environmental groups and experts that ELM won’t go far enough, and that this is a unique opportunity to overhaul the whole agricultural system for the good of us all. It’s feared that if the measures don’t go far enough, there will be even more environmental damage and further depletion of natural resources.

As the trials continue, it’s hoped that a results-based system will prove the most successful, rather than the action-based system which sometimes resulted in minimal effort in order to qualify for monetary benefits in the past.

If you’d like to discuss using your land in a more environmentally-sensitive way, or want to discuss what the Agriculture Act could mean for your farm, contact us on 01225 459564 or email enquiries@engain.com

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