1. Agriculture World

Farmers of This Country To Be Compensated For Maintaining Soil Health

Chintu Das
Chintu Das
Soil Health

From next year, when the first stage of the government's new support payments begins, farmers will be rewarded for looking after England's soil for the first time. 

Environmentalists slammed the measures as ineffective, accusing officials of failing to follow through on their promises to use the UK's exit from the EU to boost environmental laws and minimize the negative effects of farming. 

Farmers in England will be paid between £20 and £58 per hectare for basic soil protection and nurturing measures, with nearly all farmers likely to be eligible. The payments will cover arable soils for crop production, as well as grassland, moorland, and other soils. 

The payments, along with others to come in the future for additional conservation measures, are expected to total £900 million per year by the end of 2024, in order to meet the government's pledge to phase out old taxpayer subsidies based on the amount of land farmed – under the EU's common agricultural policy (CAP) – and replace them with "public money for public goods" payments. 

Following repeated government promises to prioritise the UK's soils, which are a critical storage of carbon, soil protection has been chosen as the first such payment. Some of the procedures that farmers will be obliged to perform in exchange for the payments are already commonplace for many farms, such as sowing cover crops on bare soil during the winter. Because bare soils are vulnerable to erosion and runoff, it's critical to cover fields with a crop that can return nutrients to the soil. 

The measures will be announced on Thursday by Environment Secretary George Eustice at the Country Land and Industry Association (CLA) rural business conference in London. 

"UK soil has 10 billion tonnes of carbon," said Mark Tufnell, head of the CLA, which represents 28,000 farmers and rural businesses. Without proper soil management, there is no way to reach net zero. These payments are a solid start, and they demonstrate a clear desire to help and reward farmers who are committed to environmental stewardship." 

However, the presidents of three of the UK's largest environmental and conservation organisations, the Wildlife Trusts, the RSPB, and the National Trust, have accused the government of failing to recognise the critical need for environmentally responsible farming. They cited the severe decreases in native species over the previous three decades, claiming that the government's plans will do little to address the problem. 

"Nearly four years have gone since the government set forth its vision for the future of food, farming, and the environment," said Hilary McGrady, director general of the National Trust. However, the future of animals and the environment now appears to be in jeopardy, since today's declaration falls short of the bold measures promised. Farmers require a clear road to a future in which nature is at the heart of sustainable and secure food production, not the detour created by this new programme." 

"There's so much that farmers might be rewarded for doing, such as repairing peatlands and applying ambitious ways to prevent dirt and pollutants from pouring into rivers - to benefit wildlife and store carbon," said Craig Bennett, chief executive of the Wildlife Trusts. It's a complete embarrassment that the government has failed to grab this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to boost agriculture." 

Farmers used to get between £2 billion and £3 billion each year under the former CAP. After Brexit, subsidies were initially maintained at £2.4 billion per year, but will be reduced to £900 million by the end of the current parliament. Basic payments based on the quantity of land farmed will be phased out entirely by 2027, but in the interim, farmers who earned the highest subsidies under the old plan will see their basic payments cut by 25% next year, while smaller farmers will see their basic payments cut by 5%. 

Farmers will eventually sign environmental land management contracts, promising to take steps to protect air and water quality and offer wildlife habitat in exchange for compensation that will be detailed later. In the meanwhile, funding for fundamental environmental measures will be made through the sustainable finance initiative, of which the soils plan is the first phase. 

Farmers face an uncertain future as a result of the Covid pandemic's effects, which are causing sharp drops in farm exports due to reams of new red tape, the end of the old subsidy regime, and the government's new trade deals, which some fear will unleash a flood of cheap imported food produced to lower standards than are allowed in the UK. 

Farming groups cautiously welcomed the new regulations, which the government claimed were designed to be flexible, easy to apply for, and avoid "punitive" circumstances in the event of unintentional violations, but some are concerned they will not go far enough. 

When combined with other government incentives, such as the stewardship system, which pays farms for achieving basic environmental criteria, the funds offered were "attractive enough," according to Lynette Steel, farm policy consultant of the Tenant Farmers Association. However, she acknowledged that current high food prices will deter farmers from applying: "Given today's commodity markets, many farmers would take the view that, given the pricing structure outlined, it is more financially profitable to cultivate for [food] production than for soil conservation." 

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