Backtracking on green policies would threaten our food security

Jordan Lee

August 4, 2023

With wildfires in Europe, droughts in North America, and heavy rainfall in India, the impacts of climate change on our weather have been devastating to food prices. 

The cost of sugar has increased 50 per cent in the last year, largely a result of heavy rains in India cutting production. Olive oil is up 47 per cent due to drought across the Mediterranean – particularly in Spain – and since 2021, the price of pasta has risen by 40 per cent because of a painful drought in Canada, a major wheat exporter. 

According to the Office for National Statistics, overall food inflation remains stubbornly high at just over 17 per cent. This is a direct result of extreme weather caused by climate change and Russia’s illegal invasion of Ukraine, pushing up energy bills and wreaking havoc in the breadbasket of Europe. 

The UK is particularly vulnerable to instability in the global markets,  importing 40 per cent of the food we eat. Urgent action is needed to avoid further price increases and protect household budgets. 

Two of the most serious medium and long-term threats to food security are loss of biodiversity and climate change. Protecting and restoring our natural world is key to combating the effects of climate change and boosting food security. 

Brexit provided a once-in-a-generation opportunity for the UK to create a bespoke agricultural policy which puts nature first. The EU’s Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) gave payments based on the amount of land a farmer-owned or managed, meaning larger landowners received higher subsidies regardless of their income. The CAP also failed to attract new farmers into the sector, improve productivity, or incentivise sustainable farming methods, undermining the UK’s long-term food security and delivering poor value for taxpayers’ money. 

The Conservative Government has fully seized this opportunity for change with the world-leading Environmental Land Management schemes (ELMs). 

Based on the principle of ‘public money for public goods’, ELMs will replace all EU-derived subsidy schemes by the end of 2024 and reward farmers for improvements they make to the natural environment that are not necessarily rewarded by the market. 

ELMs will deliver much greater value for taxpayers’ money and create a new revenue stream for farmers to complement the money they receive for food production. ELMs will also tackle long-term threats to our food security by encouraging more sustainable farming practices and improving key assets for food production like soil health and water quality. 

A range of payment options are now available under ELMs. The Sustainable Farming Incentive (SFI) will fund improvements to soil and animal health. Countryside Stewardship schemes are already paying for habitat creation on pockets of unproductive land to tackle flooding and pollution, with 40,000 farmers already in agreement. Landscape Recovery schemes will also support large-scale habitat restoration projects that restore biodiversity and sequester carbon. 

The recent outrage at the pollution of our waterways demonstrates the public’s appetite for bold action like this to conserve our green and pleasant land. Agriculture has a key role to play and more sustainable farming practices, enabled through ELMs, are vital to cleaning up our rivers. 

Any delay in the implementation of ELMs risks undermining the Government’s targets on nature recovery, water quality in rivers, and climate change. This, in turn, will impact food prices and damage public confidence. 

Put simply, there is no way to meet the UK’s existing targets on nature restoration or climate change without increasing sustainable farming practices. Seventy-five per cent of the UK’s land area is utilised for agriculture, but only around a quarter of farms operate under existing agri-environmental schemes. The most farmer-friendly way of effecting this positive environmental change is through financial incentives, like those available through ELMs. 

During the rollout of ELMs, the government has rightly been responsive to change. For example, earlier this year, the imbalance between payment rates for upland and lowland farmers was levelled. New payments to compensate for the administrative burden of signing up to SFI have also been introduced and changes to the duration of SFI agreements were made to allow more tenant farmers to join. 

At the recent Farm to Fork Summit, the Prime Minister also confirmed that no new trade deals would undermine British environmental or animal welfare standards. New support for horticulture and reviews into the food supply chain to ensure farmers receive a fair price for their goods was also introduced.

With people worried about the cost of living, water quality, and climate change, the Conservatives should champion their nature-friendly farming reforms. 

Labour and the Liberal Democrats’ positions are opaque at best. Both have called for the rollout of ELMs to be delayed, and in Wales, Labour’s botched agri-environment scheme means that farmers continue to receive subsidies predominantly based on how much land they own. This does nothing to guarantee our long-term food security or ordinary farmers’ finances. 

Of course, more work remains to be done and the government has a long way to go to retain the trust of rural communities. But we must not lose focus. ELMs are key to securing our food supply for the future and fighting climate change

Author

Written by Jordan Lee

Conservative Environment Network’s Nature Programme Manager

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