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Defra’s new ‘stepping stone’ scheme should not delay the ELMs timetable

Defra is planning to introduce a new ‘stepping stone’ scheme to bridge the gap between BPS and ELMs, but it should not weaken the resolve to introduce a long-term policy, or delay the timetable, says Vicki Hird, head of sustainable farming at Sustain.

As if we did not have enough dark clouds on the horizon, a no-deal Brexit is back on the cards.

 

But when asked on BBC Radio 4 his opinion, using the example of a possible 40 per cent tariffs on UK beef exports, Defra Secretary George Eustice said it would be a ‘good deal’ if no deal happened and that it would give the UK ‘independence’.

 

And Trade Secretary Liz Truss is pushing on with US trade negotiations this week, despite massive public opposition and a US election with the potential to upturn any promises made.

 

Sometimes it feels like we are in a world unencumbered with anything so irritating as common sense and evidence.

 

I don’t need to detail the huge implications for farmers and growers from these developments – from lost EU markets, to additional costs and bureaucracy and so on.

 

Negative

 

It also has negative implications for consumers, on food prices, safety and availability.

 

Lest we forget, in February last year, in the build-up to the first of 2019’s potential EU exit dates, George Eustice’s no-deal Brexit emergency plans also included the UK dropping tariffs on food imports, to secure imported supply and stabilise food prices, in a plan that would do little genuinely for low income consumers but further undermine British farmers and food businesses.

 

All this puts ever more pressure on the policy and financial framework that Defra, and devolved administrations, are developing for a resilient and sustainable post Brexit farm policy: the environmental land management, productivity, ancillary, animal health and welfare and plant schemes and so on; a huge raft of stuff that still needs to be finalised.

 

In England, and into this already hectic landscape, a new transition scheme has been proposed – with the working title of the Sustainable Farm Incentive (SFI) – to work alongside the Countryside Stewardship Scheme in supporting farmers in the transition before the new scheme is launched for all.

 

Unclear

 

It has not been agreed and it is unclear what the scheme would require of farmers.

 

I’ve been wondering if the budget for this comes from BPS reductions.

 

Is it really an ‘ELMs Tier 1 lite’ to tide farmers over the gap in income and to get some UK-appropriate ‘greening’ requirements started?

 

Given the uncertain trading conditions, farmers who need targeted support in the transition should get it.

 

No farm should have to go under for want of a fair, stable market and support for maintaining nature friendly practices.

 

Resolve

 

But the SFI should neither weaken the resolve to introduce new, long-term schemes nor delay the timetable.

 

Meanwhile, the legislation that underpins all this, the Agriculture Bill, reaches its final stages this autumn (we hope).

 

There is much more to the Agriculture Bill than the gaping hole where agri-food import trade standards rules should be.

 

The major shift towards sustainable farming it facilitates, as well as fair dealing statutory codes for supply chains, could be really game changing if secured in law and implemented well.

 

But we all know if UK canteens and shelves are flooded with far more imported produce made to lower, cheaper standards of safety, animal welfare, and environment and worker treatment, most farmers will have to compete by intensifying production or get out.

 

Pesticide

 

The recent Toxic Trade report Sustain co-published with Pesticide Action Network showed just what differing pesticide rules there are in the US, Australia and India.

 

Supermarkets and food service industry have said they don’t want to use such produce, but if a no-deal Brexit is on the cards will they stick to that?

 

Farming and Trade Secretaries George Eustice and Liz Truss are setting out a direction of travel that is deeply alarming and the new Trade Agriculture Commission is far from helping relieve anxiety.

 

I have no problem with global trade at all.


Wrong

 

But to put trade deals above the need to promote sustainable farming, tackle the climate and nature emergency, and ensure food safety and worker treatment is just plain wrong.

 

We should be driving global standards up – not negotiating towards the lowest denominator.

 

If farmers have the energy and enthusiasm for democratic processes (and I can see why they may be sceptical about these) then they have a job to do.

 

Well, two.

  • Get involved in the ELMs pilot process and all the other schemes where you can. Consultations will be happening with increasing frequency and the pilot will open for applications in early 2021. All types of farmers’ voices, not just the usual suspects, need to be heard.
  • And, as ever, pester your MP and get your family, friends, even the postman, to contact their MP to say a no-deal Brexit is a disaster for our food and farming, and we must insist on our standards for new agri-food imports.

Vicki can be found tweeting at @vickihird


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