MEPs criticize Defra’s handling of new agricultural subsidy programs, call for urgent clarification of environmental benefits

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UK ministers are accused of not providing enough information on how new post-Brexit farm subsidies will contribute to national environmental goals, or of seeing farmers fairly paid for their work.

The report urges Defra to ensure that new programs do not duplicate past mistakes of the EU CAP. Pictured: a sheep farm in Yorkshire

A new report Members of the Public Accounts Committee (CAP), released today (9 January), examine the UK government’s plans to replace the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) subsidy programs after Brexit.

In January 2020, the UK’s post-Brexit Farm Bill was introduced, including measures to prevent farmers from being financially incentivized to overproduce at the expense of the environment. Instead, new subsidies were promised to farmers providing “public goods” such as healthy soils and improvements in biodiversity.

Defra has subsequently provided more information in recent weeks on the Basic Payment Scheme under the New Environmental Land Management (ELM) Package, as well as the local Nature Recovery Scheme and the landscape recovery regime. The announcements have been criticized, with business groups, individual farmers and green groups all calling for more detailed information on program operations and expected results, faster deployment and higher payments.

The new PAC report makes these calls to action worse. Based on consultations with industry, the report warns that the Ministry of Food, Environment and Rural Affairs (Defra) is “blindly optimistic” about the potential environmental results of the new programs and is overestimating the farmer confidence in government.

On the environmental front, the PAC says that Defra has not provided information on the metrics it will use to track environmental improvements, such as biodiversity gain or improved soil quality.

According to recent research from the Natural History Museum in London, the UK has on average only 53% of its native fauna intact, which puts it in the poorest 10% of countries in the world. Additionally, UK soil organic matter is estimated to have declined by 50% over the past 60 years, according to Future Food Solutions.

The report also accuses Defra of failing to provide adequate forecasts showing how the new programs will help land use in the UK, which accounts for around 12% of national emissions, to align with the net zero climate target. long-term. The PAC requests that detailed information be published this year.

Moreover, the report fears that the programs may simply lead to an increase in the import of food into the UK, potentially from countries with lower ecological standards for food, such as Australia, Brazil and United States. Indeed, farmers are encouraged to free up land currently used for food production for other uses, such as the creation of forests or hedges, and to switch to less intensive food production methods. In 2020, the UK imported 47% of its food.

Defra told PAC, the report notes, that “environmental benefits can be brought along with improvements in agricultural productivity, and these improvements will mean that despite removing land from production to provide environmental benefits, farmers can produce more food from the rest of the earth. “However, MPs and industry still want more detailed information on Defra’s plans to make this vision a reality. The PAC urgently calls for an explanation.

Social sustainability in the spotlight

In addition to the environmental implications of the new programs, the report questions the likely ramifications for the economy and the well-being of farmers. It says the average English farmer will see a 50% reduction in income from government direct payments by fiscal year 2024-5, which will weaken farmers’ confidence in Defra and could be a death sentence for some. companies.

“As the report makes clear, without subsidies the average farm in England makes a net profit of just £ 22,800 per year, including all labor and business investment,” said the PAC vice-chairman. , Sir Geoffrey Clifton-Brown.. “The fear, therefore, for small farms and smallholdings that operate on very thin margins is that many will close their doors and the average farm size will increase and some of the environmental benefits of ELMs will be lost.”

In addition, the report argues that Defra will need to do more to convince farmers that it will implement the programs effectively, thereby protecting their incomes. He points to past delays in payments and problems with ‘confusing’ advice on eligibility and claims processes, warning that at present, Defra’s approach could be ‘plagued by many of the same. problems that have undermined ambitious government programs in recent years ”.

edie has contacted Defra for comment.

Sarah george

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