A MODEST CARROT OR A LEGISLATIVE STICK – THE UGLY CHOICE FACING FARMERS AS SFI IS LAUNCHED
Published 20 July 2022
This month saw applications open for the rather underwhelming Sustainable Farming Incentive – and it’s a case of ‘take the rather modest carrot, or you might end up being beaten with a legislative stick.’
The SFI is the first part of the jigsaw which will eventually become the Environmental Land Management Scheme, designed to replace the Basic Payment Scheme which has disappeared with the UK’s membership of the EU.
Any farmers who believed the promises made at the time of the referendum that a new national payment scheme would fully compensate for the loss of the BPS post-Brexit may be feeling a little let down: the introductory level of payment for SFI is just £22 a hectare, with intermediate level payments coming out at £40 a hectare – compared with BPS payments which averaged above £200 a hectare.
The SFI has four main aims: improving water quality, increasing biodiversity, mitigating climate change, and improving animal health and welfare. This first tranche focuses on improved soil health, assisting owners and managers of moorland, and improving animal health through payments for veterinary inspections.
It is not much to get the heart pumping. Pretty modest in its outlook, the new scheme is clearly hoping to attract farmers in large numbers. The problem is that it lacks the financial incentive for farmers to engage given the bureaucracy involved, whilst the environmentalists will criticise the lack of ambition in these early stages of the scheme.
It’s true that this is the first tier, and there may be further, more ambitious initiatives to come. Although with the state of the government finances, and with most of the candidates to succeed Boris Johnson as prime minister promising tax cuts rather than increased spending, it is difficult to see the SFI being anything other than squeezed in months to come.
It is now more than six years since the Brexit referendum, and still the development of ELMS moves at a glacial pace. The SFI has been launched before feedback from the SFI pilots has been processed – one can only hope that the scheme is improved once that data is available.
The problem is that if farmers don’t engage with the SFI in any numbers, the alternative will be legislation for higher environmental standards. If the sector isn’t attracted by the rather modest carrot being dangled in front of it, we can expect a legislative stick to follow in short order.
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