Farming and ELMs: the plan so far

Management & Regulation, Natural Environment

Farming and ELMs: the plan so far

A shaggy looking highland bull

Farming is a sector that likes to plan ahead, from crop rotations to generational management transitions. This has felt a little difficult in recent times with the disruption of unknown changes as the UK leaves the EU and agricultural policy returns to each of the UK’s four governments.

However, Defra recently published a policy statement on the development of England’s new Environmental Land Management scheme (ELMs) alongside a policy discussion consultation document, giving everyone a better idea of current thinking and a chance to influence future development.

So what is current thinking on England’s new Environmental Land Management scheme?

The new scheme fits into the wider backdrop provided by the 25 Year Environment Plan and the Agriculture Bill which is drafted to “make sure that food production today does not come at the expense of food production tomorrow”. Alongside environmentally sustainable production, the scheme is also expected to address several other issues including animal health, plant health, productivity and research.

It’s probably no surprise then that instead of one scheme we’re looking at a series of schemes, with three distinct tiers proposed for the main ELM scheme:

  • Tier 1- focuses on sustainable farming and forestry practices that provide most benefit when delivered at scale
  • Tier 2- links incentivisation for environmental delivery to local targeting to make sure most benefit is being delivered for the public money paid. Under this tier improved local collaboration may be incentivised.
  • Tier 3- looks to provide support for landscape scale land use change with the aim of delivering benefits that help address the climate and nature emergencies.

There are currently over 40 active tests and trials focusing on priority elements of the proposals, including increasing collaboration and innovative delivery methods.

Another important detail currently being explored is how payments will be calculated. As we’re moving across to a public money for public goods approach, in an ideal word payment would be based on delivery of benefits. However there are several practical difficulties with implementing this; there’s often a time lag before benefits from management actions materialise, the risk of non-delivery due to external factors needs to be fairly apportioned between government and land managers, delivery metrics are not yet fully developed, and valuing the public benefits provided is difficult given that there’s no established market demonstrating fair payment rates.

The payment methodologies Defra’s currently exploring include administrative price setting, market-based price setting (for example through use of reverse auctions) and payment-by-results. Each method will need to be tested before a decision is made and introduced.

Following the tests and trials and refinement of elements of the scheme, a national ELM pilot is expected to begin in 2021 before the finalised scheme is rolled out in 2024, accompanied by a phasing out of the Basic Payment Scheme. During this transition Defra is keen to “make sure that the environmental benefits currently being delivered through CAP agri-environment schemes aren’t placed at risk as we move to our new Environmental Land Management (ELM) scheme”.

The other schemes being developed each have their own timeframes and purposes, but to give you a feel for the priorities being addressed the schemes look at:

Defra have coupled the release of their policy statement with a policy discussion consultation document which everybody has the opportunity to respond to by 5th May.

The development of ELMs is something CIWEM is particularly interested in given the importance of agriculture in managing 69% of land in England and consequently the clear opportunity it has to contribute to combatting the climate and nature emergencies.

In considering the policy statement and discussion paper it’s really important not to forget the wider context. ELMs will likely have a huge impact on the management of farmland but there are a number of other factors at play too. We need to remember to view ELMs in its wider context, particularly:

  • Agriculture Bill provisions- including for fair trade and tenancies reform
  • Potential changes in the regulatory culture off the back of the Dame Glenys Stacey Farm Inspection and Regulation Review, and
  • Any future trade deals.

Out of these, trade is the biggie. Particularly as the UK-US Free Trade Agreement document setting out the UK’s approach to negotiations contains passages that have raised concerns in the environment sector. For example, “Changes to the output of the agriculture sector may have implications for agricultural land use in the UK. Increases in agricultural land use are expected to negatively impact other environmental variables, such as biodiversity“. This could also be seen to undermine the proposed strategic objectives of ELM,

1. To secure a range of positive environmental benefits, prioritising between environmental outcomes where necessary

2. To help tackle some of the environmental challenges associated with agriculture, focusing on how to address these in the shorter term.”

CIWEM is similarly concerned by the lack of suitable assurance that imports will need to meet our environmental production standards, without which we run the risk of farmers being undermined by cheap imports that offshore our impacts. An unacceptable approach given the global nature of the climate and nature emergencies.

We all need to eat (as will future generations!) and we can all benefit from interacting with nature. Securing sustainable land management through the best Environmental Land Management scheme possible and appropriate trade deals should matter to us all.

If you want to influence the future of land management, you can do two things today:

Sarah Anderton


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