Skip to content

Jeremy's Blog 28th March 2024: Farming and Nature; SFI and More

This article by Jeremy Moody first appeared in the CAAV e-Briefing of 28th March 2024

Today’s developing agricultural policies have a twin-track character, embracing both farming and nature, albeit in different ways across the UK. As they develop, so the interactions become more complex. There are clear synergies with farming’s dependence on nature but, even with the well-advanced evolution of England’s new schemes, the tensions here saw this week’s swift decision limiting the use of six of the non-production options under the Sustainable Farming Incentive (SFI – but not counting any CS options) to 25 per cent of a farm.

While we still wait for the latest data, there has been little sign beyond rural rumour and newspaper articles of any significant move of land into larger scale non-production options. The CAAV’s 2023 Land Occupation Survey shows the highest level of re-letting for expiring FBTs in over a decade with no loss of the small volume of land being newly let. Unlike the late 1980s initial and brief offer of 100 per cent set-aside, environmental uses have not been an alternative to letting. Where landlords are now resuming possession, it seems to be more for in-hand operations than environmental conversion.

Overwhelmingly, choices have looked like the pragmatic reactions of farmers confronted with the ceaseless wet weather since the early autumn, not a change of mindset. The challenges might rather be how far such farmers realise the expectations as to outcomes, not prescriptions, and, on finding better weather, how far they might then wish to revise their agreements to revert to production.

It is possible that such a move into non-production was just beginning to develop, especially as the spring planting season passes. DEFRA reports 1 per cent of farmers putting 80 per cent or more of their land into such options but has not indicated actual scale. This would apply the English, rather than the EU, version of the precautionary principle – that uncertainty should not preclude practical action. The swift decision, coinciding with pre-announced downtime at the RPA, may have been intended to prevent the rush that delayed implementation might have provoked.

The decision sits with the Government’s greater focus on the sustainable productivity and business aspects of farming, preserving the capacity to produce. The Secretary of State told this week’s Commons committee hearing that his concern was for the better management of resources. It also answers a developing line of criticism ahead of the election. It can be seen to confirm that SFI offers the options compatible with commercial farming.

While the Lawton principles for nature are for it to be “bigger, better and more joined up”, it is argued here that whole farms of wild bird seed would not make a proportionate contribution. Indeed, there has been little hostile reaction from environmental bodies, perhaps looking for more from other, heavier lifting, schemes, rather than spending on SFI.

The Government action prompts two wider thoughts.

By contrast to England’s evolutionary menu driven approach, Wales and Scotland are designing fully fledged whole farm, take it or leave it, schemes. How might they manage any necessary adaptations as needs change or problems are found?

And then in 2019, the UK agreed on the “30 by 30” commitment to have 30 per cent of land in each part of the UK managed for nature by 2030. Now just 6 years away, DEFRA says that requires a commitment in land use to monitorable lasting outcomes for nature. While not necessarily excluding farming, it seems likely to reduce its scale. If this week shows how fine the balance might be between nature and productivity, what is the outlook for “30 by 30” as productivity and food concerns grow in a more uncertain world?

Return to news