Tractor farming field

Chasing net zero via the government’s ELM scheme could hamper food production and see food imports surge, the Commons Public Accounts Committee warned

The House of Commons’ Public Accounts Committee has said the government’s new Environmental Land Management scheme lacks detail and is based on “blind optimism”.

In an often scathing report published on 9 January, parliamentarians slammed the scheme, which replaces the EU’s Common Agriculture-based subsidy system, as “beset with many of the same issues” that undermined other recent government blueprints.

Defra had given “no detail about how either the necessary productivity increases or environmental benefits [demanded by the new scheme] will be brought about”, they added, with under-pressure farm incomes set to be further hit by a halving of direct subsidy payments by 2024-25.

Instead of paying farm subsidies based on the area farmed under CAP, the ELM scheme will pay British farmers to use their land in what the government deems a more environmentally friendly way, including by re-wilding or planting trees as part of the government’s drive to reach ‘net zero’ by mid-century.

The committee, however, said it was “not convinced that the department sufficiently understands how its environmental and productivity ambitions will impact the food and farming sector over the next decade”.

“We have known we were replacing the CAP since 2016 and still we see no clear plans, objectives or communications with those at the sharp end – farmers – in this multi-billion pound, radical overhaul of the way land is used and, more crucially, food is produced in this country,” said committee chair and veteran Tory MP Sir Geoffrey Clifton Brown.  

“Farmers, especially the next generation, who we will depend on to achieve our combined food production and environmental goals, have been left in the dark and it is simply wrong that Defra’s own failures of business planning should knock on to undermine the certainty crucial to a critical national sector.”

Sustainable farming incentives must be balanced against protecting UK industry

Without subsidies, the report pointed out the average farm in England made a net profit of just £22,800 a year, including all labour and investment in businesses.

“The fear therefore for small and tenant farms who are operating on wafer-thin margins is that many will go out of business and the average size of farms will increase and some of the environmental benefits of ELMs will be lost,” Clifton Brown added.

Defra secretary George Eustice last week told the Oxford Farming Conference of a “vision” for “a more sustainable agricultural industry where we produce a significant amount of our own food”.

But the committee report accused the government of not spelling out “how the scheme’s changes in land use will not simply result in more food being imported, with the environmental impacts of food production being ‘exported’ to countries with lower environmental standards”.

The UK already imported around half the food it consumed in 2018, the report said.

The NFU, which has criticised the imnpact of the land plans and recently signed trade deals with the likes of Australia and New Zealand, told the committee the UK “cannot simply export our environmental conscience”.

Addressing the Oxford Farming Conference, Eustice had pushed back against claims the plans, along with the trade deals, could see the UK “sleepwalk into a food crisis”. 

However, Edwin Poots, the agriculture minister in Northern Ireland’s Assembly, told the online event that the trade deals could mean “we import cheaper products from other parts of the world which are produced in a less environmentally sustainable way”.

“The biggest concern is that these schemes result in reduced food production in the UK, leading to the need to import more food from countries with production standards that would be illegal for our farmers here”, added NFU vice president Tom Bradshaw in the wake of Eustice’s conference speech.

According to the Central Association for Agricultural Valuers, the UK’s farmers face “a generation’s change in just one decade, with the removal of support payments combining with Brexit, the drive to net zero and changing political and public demands” all placing immense pressure on the sector.

In a raft of recomendations in its report, the committee called on Defra to report back as soon as possible, and annually thereafter, with further detail on how it would action the new ELM scheme, how it could better communicate it to the food sector, how it would reduce its overly bureaucratic nature and how it could meet the government’s encironmental plan, while also maintaining food production.