The new UK plan for future greener farming announced by newly appointed environment secretary George Eustice will make sector operators sit up and take note, after underlining how DEFRA plans to address some of the omissions in the landmark Environment Bill.
The Environment Bill’s broad intention was to “ensure the environment is at the heart of all government policy making and that this government – and future governments – are held to account if they fail to uphold their environmental duties”.
These duties include commitments to achieving net-zero by 2050 and other long-term targets on biodiversity, air quality, water, and resource efficiency and waste management.
However, the Bill lacked in binding targets and clarification as to how specific standards may be enforced.
Furthermore, in areas such as soil quality and pesticide use, the Bill does not in its current form state that punitive measures will be taken if certain standards are not upheld.
In the wake of the Environment Bill, the UK Soil Association’s Gareth Morgan pointed out “a gaping hole in the bill where soil restoration should be”, adding that he wanted to see “binding targets for soil recovery and effective ways to ensure soil health is monitored and prioritised”.
The Soil Association said in a statement: “There needs to be a target on the reduction of pesticide use...if we’re to reverse the huge decline in insects and biodiversity”.
It also called for more trees to be planted on farms, adding that that this was “crucial to increasing wildlife, improving soil health and animal welfare whilst also combatting climate change.”
The latest announcement made by Eustice goes some way toward addressing these concerns about soil quality and pesticide use, and indeed fulfilling the hopes of another industry operator, Environmental Crop Management, which works with 1,200 farmers throughout north west England.
Managing director of Environmental Crop Management, Peter Clare, had told The Parliamentary Review ahead of Brexit: ''The future of the UK as an independent, self-determining country presents an opportunity to review our approach to agriculture.
“UK farming, in spite of the increased pressures of reduced land to farm and reduced tools to farm with, will meet the pressures of sustaining food production, and develop farm systems that put the environment at the heart of farming, and UK agriculture should be recognised for the delivery not just of food but also of good practice such as soil management for optimal fertility, reduction in emissions, conservation of wildlife and an ability to adapt and innovate’’.
Eustice’s speech indicates that the "review" Clare mentions may well be underway.
Eustice said: “By the end of 2024 we will roll out our new policy which will be open to all.
“We envisage three components to Environmental Land Management. Firstly, there will be a sustainable farming incentive which will be open to any farmer and will incentivise participation in farm level measures such as integrated pest management, sensitive hedgerow management and soil health.
“Secondly, there will be a local environment tier which will incentivise interventions including the creation of habitats, improving biodiversity, tree planting, and natural flood management.
“Finally, there will be a landscape scale tier which will support woodland creation, peatland restoration and other potential land use changes.
"Soil health is critical both for our environment and for farm productivity so that is added as an objective and the often under-appreciated value of our rare and native breeds is recognised at last."
Of course, how the plans are implemented will be a major factor in the outcomes and whether the UK will hit its climate targets, but Eustice's desire to overhaul the previous Common Agricultural Policy and create an alternative that "is not only right for the farmers of today, but which is also right for the farmers of tomorrow" with a renewed focus on green agriculture, is a positive step.