At a visit to a local primary school last week a pupil asked me for an example of a piece of legislation that I had been involved with that I was proud of. It was a very thoughtful question and a few possible answers sprung to mind, including a major energy bill which has since helped to reduce UK carbon emissions. But having just talked about the rural nature of our constituency I chose some legislation I led which introduced fines of up to £100 million for large retailers who deal unfairly with our farmers through the Groceries Code Adjudicator. It has since helped to rebalance the power dynamic between purchasers, such as our supermarkets, and producers. Last year Amazon was added to the list of retailers who are bound by it.
I have always supported our local farming sector and vigorously defended them against those who portray it as the enemy of climate change. I am not denying that agriculture is a contributing factor to global warming (particularly in countries have livestock industries that are far less sustainable and efficient) but I know from the many farms I have visited in Central Devon how deeply our farmers care for our environment. In fact the sector is working to become carbon-neutral by 2040 (a decade earlier than our economy as a whole).
Since we left the EU and its Common Agriculture Policy, the government has had the flexibility to change how farming subsidies are awarded. Previously, subsidies were awarded on the basis of how much farmable land someone owned, therefore benefiting the largest landowners the most and giving farmers a perverse incentive to turn valuable woodland into land which could be farmed. Now, subsidies link more to the hugely important role farmers play in looking after our environment.
Last week the government provided more detail on what these subsidies will be awarded for. The accelerated roll out of the Sustainable Farming Incentive - a key part of the Government’s Environmental Land Management schemes - will pay farmers for actions on hedgerows, grassland, arable and horticultural land, pest management and nutrient management. This builds on the three existing standards to improve soil health and moorlands introduced in 2022 – which nearly 1,900 farmers already have in agreements.
The Government also detailed what farmers will be paid to deliver through an enhanced version of the Countryside Stewardship scheme, which will see around 30 additional actions available to farmers by the end of 2024. The expansion builds on more than 250 actions farmers can take at present. The scheme has seen a 94% increase in uptake since 2020 and is now part of thousands of farm businesses.
Big changes to an entire sector are never straightforward and it will take time for many farms to adjust, but the end goal of making farming more sustainable, and rewarding farmers for protecting our environment is the right one.