When Adam Henson and BBC Countryfile made contact I jumped at the chance to put the case for regenerative farming. You see, farmers find themselves in a unique position. They not only produce our daily bread, they can also cool the planet with farming methods that lock in carbon. And farmers provide places for us and wildlife to thrive. Farmland covers most of the countryside. In England, 74% of the land is farmed. So whatever happens on it matters and, as consumers of food and farm produce, the decisions each of us make will make a difference.
Remember 1962? Farmers do. It was the year of their birth. The average farmer is 59 years old. It was also the year the not very snappily titled Common Agricultural Policy was introduced. It became known as the CAP and was designed to support hundreds of thousands of farmers across much of Europe to feed a growing population by producing plentiful and affordable food. It did, sort of. It doubled the amount of food and the human population grew. Europe was rebuilding after the second war and the CAP started out with all best of intentions. Over the years it has incentivised farmers with hundreds of billions of francs, marks, pounds and euros to produce more and more food. It worked, perhaps too well. Cracks in the system began to show in the 1980’s. Mountains of grain and lakes of milk soon dotted the landscape. The CAP was reformed a number of times to address these imbalances. But now 60 years on, this old banger of a policy is up for change. The UK, with Brexit, now as the opportunity to reform it and the current government is set to do just that.
Critics of the CAP draw attention to it contributing to the two big issues of our time. Climate change and the loss of wildlife. CAP may literally have thrown dark clouds over our land. Climate change is here and policies that promote CO2 emissions are now the devil’s work. Intensive crop farming systems release CO2 and nitrous oxide into the atmosphere through cultivation and nitrogen fertiliser use. Additionally in England, over 70% of farmland birds have been lost, largely as a result of this industrialisation of crop production. Insects numbers have fallen dramatically too. Driving a car back in the sixties you’d have to have stopped every hour or two to clean your screen. Not now. This loss of wildlife was not expected by us agriculturalists! Nor was the almost imperceptible and creeping decline in our soils. We did not foresee the massive rise in the proportion of the population suffering with diabetes and coronary heart disease either. Evidence points to poor diet and loss of quality in foods as the cause. Overfed but malnourished! How can this be? Too few food crops perhaps and not enough diversity? Grain mountains made of carbs but where are the minerals, vitamins, proteins and all?
So what next? Well, farmers like me won’t receive normal subsidy for much longer. Eighty-eight thousand English farmers are under notice that their support payments are going to be phased out over the next few years. This is important as, on average, support payments make up a third of farmers’ incomes. Generally speaking farmers’ incomes are not excessive. Farmers only receive 9% of the money we ‘eaters’ spend on our food. The headlines of mega farmers taking subsidies that they don’t need are somewhat sensationalised as less than 1% of the money goes to them. The fact is that in recent years most farmers have had to search for other ways to support themselves.
As subsidies go one possible lifeline for farmers is the new Environmental Land Management Scheme. Another snappy title from DEFRA. This new scheme has already become known as ELMS and is currently being tested by UK farmers. ELMS is now set to roll out across England and it could change the face of the English countryside dramatically. By how much remains to be seen but there is initially £2.4B to the 88,000 farmers. On average that’s £27,000 per farm. Sounds a lot? It is. But unlike the CAP most of this money will not be used to fund more food; this public money will be used to pay farmers for public good. Things farmers can’t sell. Things like water, air, birds, insects and really, really importantly - soil. Because we depend on this thin crust that covers the earth to grow all the food we eat. Farmers will be offered incentives to do this by protecting natural resources like soil and provide habitats for wildlife. Initially, the Sustainable Farming Incentive will be available to all farmers by 2022. Following closely behind in 2022 will be the Local Nature Recovery package which will be bring farmers to work together and Landscape Recovery scheme which will be targeting large land use change projects.
If I ever meet The Head of Acronyms at DEFRA one day I’ll ask about ELMS. A memorable name it is but I do hope not a metaphor from the 25 million elms lost from this country in the 1960s. Amazingly the seeds of elm still continue to germinate to this day. But they only to grow to last a few years before they wither and die. RIP.
Here at FarmED, we are passionate about finding ways that farming can work alongside nature to capture carbon and cool the planet.We run a not for profit farm and food education centre for farmers, policy makers, academics, students and the general public. We provide learning spaces and events that inspire, educate and connect people to address the issues of our time - climate change, food production and biodiversity loss.
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