'Hopelessly wrong': Farmers' anger over green-payments plan with no incentive to grow food

  • Watch Hannah Pettifer's report for ITV News Anglia

A post-Brexit payment scheme to farmers based on how environmentally friendly they are has been criticised for being confusing and without any incentive to grow food.

After leaving the EU, payments made under the common agricultural policy started to be phased out, and replaced by payments dependent on how much a farm gives back to the environment.

Initially the farming industry supported the scheme, which is being managed by the department for environment, food and rural affairs (DEFRA).

But one year into the seven-year transition period and farmers are warning more clarity is needed from the government, or they risk farms going out of business.

Freya Morgan's family has farmed in Keysoe in Bedfordshire for more than sixty years. It is a large arable farm just north of Bedford, covering 900 hectares of land.

The wheat, barley and oil seed rape farmed here is sold locally to companies like Weetabix and also internationally.

But Freya says her business is being hampered by a lack of clarity and detail on the new subsidy payments for farmers post Brexit.

She argues it gives her no incentive or encouragement to produce food and feels the government has no confidence in the industry as a whole.

Freya Morgan said: "With all these new environmental schemes coming in, food doesn't seem to get a mention, we really feel as if we're not needed to produce food in the country at the moment.

"There seems to be no support for that and as an island I think food security is very important for this country and for us to be able to export stuff to other countries.

"We farm land, we farm land for other people and the other people are wondering how they're going to make any money on the bits of land we farm for them.

"Because at the moment with the environmental land management scheme that's been introduced drip by drip the figures don't add up for us to be able to keep producing food and do all the environmental work as well."

  • Freya Morgan's family has farmed in Bedfordshire for more than sixty years

It is a disheartening time for farmers like Freya. She says she can't make business decisions when she is being drip fed information one month after another, when six months before she has already planted her crops.

The old EU common agricultural policy allocated payments to farmers according to the amount of land they owned.

Under the new system of Environmental Land Management contracts, or ELMs, farmers will be paid for delivering sustainable, environmentally friendly farming. For taking measures that contribute to cleaner air and water, healthier soils and wildlife habitats.

It is a wholesale change in how government supports and encourages farming. But its aim is for farms to be sustainable businesses that no longer need to rely on public subsidies.

Tom Bradshaw farms in Fordham near Colchester, Essex. As the vice president of the National Farmers' Union he is the voice of 55,000 members of the farming community across Britain. He, too, is frustrated by the lack of detail provided by DEFRA and the long-term implications it may have on the industry as a whole.

Tom Bradshaw, NFU Vice President, said: "When I look at the overall policy, we're trying to deliver clean air, clear water, net zero, biodiversity recovery, these are huge goals in themselves.

"Sustainable food production has to be at the heart of that and yet we don't have a food plan and the incentives don't look like they're high enough to make farmers want to be part of it.

"That's really worrying because it just doesn't seem like a coherent strategy. It appears it's all about cheap food and it's not about truly sustainable food production.

"Our ambition is for the UK to be genuinely world-leading in sustainable climate friendly food production and yet at the moment we're being opened up to these trade deals which risk undermining that."

Tom Bradshaw farms in Fordham near Colchester, Essex, and is vice president of the National Farmers' Union. Credit: ITV News Anglia

Tom says the industry still lacks a clear policy and plan on how it is going to feed the country for the future.

"For us the worst result would be a reduction in the self-sufficiency of UK food," said Mr Bradshaw.

"So we're about 60% self sufficient at the moment and we believe we have an opportunity to increase that.

"But what we risk doing at the moment is undermining UK food production, exporting our food production overseas to where they don't have the same level of protection for the environment, for animal health and welfare we have here in the UK.

"And so we reduce the amount of food we produce here and we also don't have the profitability to invest in sustainable food production at the same time."

Equally worried about the long-term impact on the sector is Tom Martin, also known as Farmer Tom to his 10,000 Facebook followers.

Tom's family have farmed in Haddon near Peterborough for the past 80 years. He is an arable and sheep farmer but Tom also describes himself as a passionate environmentalist.

Despite his support for the scheme's overall direction for farming, he says being drip-fed information from DEFRA means he cannot get a firm grip of what is happening and what the industry is transitioning to. He also fears the current confusion around the scheme means some farms could go out of business.

Tom Martin said: "I'm passionate about the environment about stewarding the countryside around me, but I can't do that if I can't run a business.

"You can't be green if you're in the red. That's why it's important that the numbers stack up, that we have the ability to plan ahead and the information is there and readily available.

"At the moment it's really piecemeal and that isn't helpful for farming which is a business.

"I think we're left in the doldrums at the moment, we don't have much information, we don't have a firm idea of direction, we can't make plans.

"And I think particularly for small scale farmers trying to adopt quite complex new schemes about which they have very little idea will push them to the wall."

Farmers say the new post-Brexit scheme to replace the Common Agricultural Policy is 'confusing'. Credit: ITV News Anglia

Dr Sean Rickard is the former NFU chief economist and also a former academic advisor to DEFRA. He sees the new payment scheme as a downward path to a shrinking agricultural sector.

"I see productivity growth slowing down," said Dr Rickard. "I see, therefore, incomes in agriculture being very difficult to generate.

"I see an industry that becomes increasingly dependent on public handouts, and I see the food processors in this country relying more and more on imports of agricultural products in order to satisfy the food needs of this country.

"The government's got it completely, hopelessly wrong really, but I suspect they know that, I suspect they've always been prepared to sacrifice agriculture on the altar of Brexit because Brexit means more food imports."

With ELM's focus on paying farmers to re-wild and attend to the environment, Dr Rickard describes it as paying farmers to do anything but produce food. He believes the government has been so caught up with Brexit, they have written agriculture off despite its enormous potential. 

"If there's one industry in this country that really should be at the forefront of the fourth industrial revolution, it's agriculture," he added.

"If we were to adopt that in government policy we would deliver not only affordable food to everyone, reduce the trade imbalance, we'd deliver a better environment and better standards for everyone. It's all there if only we change the direction of policy."

Farmers are undergoing the biggest change to how their industry is supported since the post-war period when subsidies were first introduced. Then, farmers were paid to grow more food after Britain's reliance on European imports was exposed. 

The past two years of the pandemic have also highlighted the vulnerabilities of being an island nation in terms of the food-chain. But with the government now having decided upon the direction of sustainable farming, farmers say at the very least, they need to be shown the way.

Farming minister Victoria Prentis said: "We've all learnt over the course of the last two years, very sadly, how critical it is we have decent food security in this country.

"We are absolutely committed to ensuring that our farm businesses continue to produce food in the way that they always have done.

"In fact, we have quite a high level of food security at the moment, producing about 74% of the food that we can grow here. We would very much hope that we can produce food at about that level.

"This is a challenging time for Britain's farmers. Traditionally we've been paid for simply owning the land. The Common Agricultural Policy paid us per hectare even if we grew no food or did no environmental work at all.

"We're now moving to a system of paying public money for public goods and I think that farmers are on board with that.

"The best proof I've got of that really is that 52% of farmers, my own farm included, have now signed up for some form of countryside stewardship scheme and we've absolutely guaranteed that those in one of these stewardship schemes will transition seamlessly into the new policies."