The UK government has launched a landmark financial incentive to get British farmers to engage in more sustainable practices.
Under the Sustainable Farming Incentive (SFI), UK farmers will receive payments if they engage in sustainable farming practices and reduce their carbon emissions.
This scheme is the most significant change to UK land management in the past 50 years. Pressure has been mounting on the Department of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) since the UK left the EU in January this year. This signified the end of direct subsidies to farmers and growing fears that thousands of farming families could lose their businesses. Plus, British meat farmers are feeling the impact of the consumer-led demand for plant-based protein in UK supermarkets. However, the UK government believes that without the constraints of the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy (CAP), they can create a “greener” and more economically sustainable agricultural industry.
The Sustainable Farming Incentive is the first of three schemes to be piloted. It will be followed by Local Nature Recovery and Landscape Recovery, which will be shared later this year.
The goal is to help farmers access the money and advice they need to transition to environmental land management. The scheme eschews a one-size-fits-all approach. Instead, farmers can focus on their unique natural assets to decide what will work best for their own individual holding. Significantly, it will recognise the value of the assets that were dubbed “ineligible features” by the CAP.
Farmers will be financially rewarded for implementing processes supporting biodiversity, cleaner water and air, improving soil, and carbon reduction on their land. For instance, they will receive payment for planting hedgerows to provide year-round food, shelter and breeding cover for birds and insects. Equally, cash incentives are available for boosting the levels of organic matter in soils and promoting animal welfare.
Over 3,000 diverse farms have been participating in the pilot since 2018. Participants select from eight standards to build their own agreements including arable and horticultural land, improved grassland standard, and waterbody buffering standard. Within each standard there are three levels for participants to choose from – Introductory, Intermediate and Advanced. The higher the level, the greater the financial and environmental benefits.
The SFI is part of a wider governmental Agricultural Transition Plan. As UK Environment Secretary George Eustice stressed in its foreword, “There is no doubt that the intensification of agriculture since the 1960s has taken its toll on wildlife and on nature. So, to address this, we need to rediscover some of the agronomic techniques that my Great Grandfather might have deployed, but then fuse these with the best precision technology and the best plant science available to us today.”
Key to the SFI’s success is farmers’ feedback to ensure that it is user-friendly and workable once rolled-out in 2024. “I would encourage farmers to engage in this pilot to help us design the new scheme,” the Environment Secretary stressed. The initial response from farmers is positive. According to National Farmers Union Vice President, Tom Bradshaw, “Like DEFRA, the NFU wants the SFI to be taken up by most English farms.” Bradshaw is convinced that UK farmers are ready to transition to greener practices if they are economically viable. “Most importantly of all, the scheme needs to enable farmers to run profitable businesses.”