|What’s the future of farming subsidies?|
The UK’s exit from the European Union meant leaving behind its agricultural subsidies, worth about £2.4 billion a year for farmers in England. Those were largely based on how much land a farmer has, but the UK government’s proposed replacement in England, the Environmental Land Management schemes (ELMs), is based on the principle of “public money for public goods” . Payments will be dependent on farmers managing their land in a sustainable way (reducing fossil fuel fertiliser use, for example) and delivering climate and nature benefits at a landscape level (by planting trees, say) and by collaborating with other farmers (perhaps to connect habitats). Very small trials around net-zero emissions have already run this year, ahead of wider pilots starting next month. Eventually, in 2024, ELMs will cover the whole of England, and in 2027 old-style subsidies will stop entirely.
What does net-zero farming look like now?
Andrew Blenkiron’s farm, in Suffolk just south of the town of Thetford , grows wheat, barley, maize, sugar beet, root crops and has some cows and sheep on grassland. To date, he has installed 13 megawatts of solar power on the farm (a lot, as the largest solar farm in the UK is only 72MW) and a 5MW anaerobic digestion plant. The latter breaks down organic matter to produce biomethane gas and what Blenkiron calls “liquid gold”, a renewable fertiliser which he uses to help grow the wheat and barley, reducing the amount of fossil fuel-based fertiliser. Some of the gas generates electricity on-site at a small combined heat and power plant.
The farm is one of a tiny group taking part in a “net-zero ELM test and trial”, ahead of bigger ELMs pilots beginning next month involving hundreds of farmers. One part of the trial has been working with neighbouring farmers to break up or cultivate soil to help rare plant species to reproduce. That is happening on the margins of fields, across a network spanning almost 5000 hectares, from just south of Blenkiron’s farm and north to Swaffham in Norfolk.
Blenkiron says he’s doing all this because he wants farming to hit net zero, and it’s the right thing to do environmentally. But he says it also, increasingly, makes business sense. “Some [customers] are asking how we move towards net zero, and one or two are asking for 2025 or 2030. Which is good, but we are just short of some of the real practical solutions,” he says.
|The farm’s anaerobic digester plant, which produces biomethane and fertiliser. Photo: Andrew Blenkiron.|
What are his next emission-cutting plans? A far bigger solar farm, a huge 100MW, is in the planning system. “We are planting lots of trees and massive areas of hedgerows,” says Blenkiron. The most significant move is to plant 200 hectares of Paulownia trees on land currently used to grow cereal crops. Paulownia’s various species are fast-growing hardwoods – Blenkiron says they should absorb carbon up to three times faster than alternatives he looked at. However, he acknowledges this will raise concerns because they are considered a potential invasive species in the UK. To minimise that risk, they are using sterile hybrids. There’s no financial incentive for the carbon the Paulownia will sequester, but the wood will be sold for construction and other uses, potentially for energy. The UK government’s climate advisers, the Climate Change Committee, has backed bioenergy and taking land out of food production to lock away carbon.
Unlike some farmers, Blenkiron is sanguine about the shift. “There is plenty of food in the world, massive amounts of waste, so we can afford to move some of the land over to energy production – I think it’s becoming much more accepted. It helps towards net zero.” Other plans include boosting the amount of organic matter and carbon in the soil at the farm, particularly on its 1500 acres of grassland.
Will the new subsidies be enough?
It’s a mixed picture, in Blenkiron’s opinion. For example, one focus of the ELMs pilots starting next month is improving the organic matter in soil, to store more carbon. Blenkiron says it’s “the right thing to do”, but notes not everyone will be able to do it everywhere. The 80,000 tonnes of root vegetables he grows each year involves digging the soil up, which can release carbon, and some sandy soils on the site are limited in how much organic matter they can hold, for example.
On the financial side, it isn’t clear yet whether new payments under ELMs will make up for the ones they are set to replace, which are based on the area of land, and existing environment schemes. Blenkiron says he fears the new scheme will not match the amount of money to cover both those subsidies. His concern is that some farmers will choose to ditch the old environmental measures they implemented, to stay in business.
Still, he is hopeful the pilots being run by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) will address the issue and prevent the switch to ELMs proving a retrograde step. A spokesperson for Defra says: “The money saved on untargeted payments under the current Basic Payment Scheme will go back to our farmers and deliver for our environment.”
Sue Pritchard at the Food, Farming and Countryside Commission charity says the reform of subsidies is vitally important, but the transition is a “massive task” for farmers. “My take is Defra is working really hard to design a scheme for farmers that is practical and will work. But many farmers are suspicious at the intention.” She says the new subsidy regime should be part of wider efforts to reduce farming’s environmental footprint, suggesting the UK government should help farmers take “no regrets” steps towards regenerative farming, which involves practices such as not tiling the soil and growing cover crops such as clover to protect soil health.
Blenkiron remains hopeful that future farming subsides will help the move to net zero. It looks like he isn’t alone: 84 per cent of 400 farmers surveyed are interested in applying for ELMs, according to the National Farmers Union