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Rishi Sunak urged not to ‘back track’ on sustainable farming reforms

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Prime Minister Rishi Sunak has been urged not to back track on reforms to agriculture policy that are designed to help farmers improve the environment and nature.

Wildlife and Countryside Link (WCL), which represents 67 environmental organisations, has said that ‘Environmental Land Management’ (ELM) scheme funding should be maintained at current levels, with increases expected from 2025.

ELMs were introduced by Defra in a bid to boost sustainable farming practices such as reducing inorganic fertiliser and pesticide use, taking care of local soils and improving farmland biodiversity, water quality, air quality and carbon sequestration.

It also included programmes to allow nature to thrive within farmed landscapes and payments to landowners who want to take a large-scale approach to producing environmental and climate outcomes through land-use change and ecosystem restoration.

Proposals on the future of farming funding are expected later this month, after the government announced a review of its farming policy. This includes a review of the ELM payment schemes, which were first announced in 2018.

Environmentalists have warned that the potential watering down and cutting back of the scheme is a key concern for nature’s recovery and would impact the government’s ability to meet crucial targets.

A WCL poll of 1,724 adults conducted by YouGov reveals high public demand for ambitious environmental farming measures to restore nature and ensure food security.

Almost 7 in 10 people (69 per cent) supported maintaining public funding for farmers to carry out environmental and animal welfare improvements at or above EU Common Agricultural Policy levels (of £2.4bn a year). Nearly half of Brits (48 per cent) supported increasing funding and only 4 per cent supported reducing it.

Only 9 per cent of Brits said they thought the government was giving farmers the right amount of support to improve the environment and nature, with 55 per cent saying they are getting too little help.

Water pollution is the top environmental issue the public wants the government to pay farmers to tackle: 86 per cent support financial incentives for this. This is followed closely by restoring wildlife, woodland, lakes and rivers (all receiving 84 per cent support); 83 per cent support financial rewards for improved soil health; 79 per cent for hedgerows, and 77 per cent for restoring CO2-capturing land such as peatland and wetlands.

Last year, the Wildlife Trust went so far as to call on the government to ban farming on deep peats entirely as part of measures to cut carbon emissions.

Richard Benwell, chief executive of WCL, said: “The Prime Minister should fast-track environmental farming reforms, not back track, if he is to start rebuilding the government’s environmental credentials.

“Any further delay would leave farmers uncertain about the future and leave the environment susceptible. Instead, the government should accelerate the move to regenerative farming and increase the payments available to support the most ambitious nature-positive agriculture.”

Harry Bowell, director of Land and Nature at the National Trust, said: “Sustainable economic growth depends on a healthy natural environment. ELMs will offer farmers vital funding to improve the countryside for nature and tackle climate change, while producing good food. This is critical to the future of the sector and achieving the government’s 25-year Environment Plan, Environment Act and Net Zero targets.

"Maintaining the farming budget outlined in this government's 2019 manifesto at £2.4bn per year as a minimum until the end of 2024 is an absolute must - and beyond this it should increase to meet environmental need. To cut public investment for ELMs would be shortsighted and go completely against the spirit of the reforms, threatening both the industry and our environment.”

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