Michael Gove says in the future, payments made to farmers would not be for food production, but for environmental goods, such as enriching wildlife habits, preventing flooding, improving the quality of air and soils, and planting trees.
The case for change has been made strongly in the past few years by the evidence of significant declines in the UK’s wildlife and soil.
The UK is among the most nature-depleted countries in the world, according to the RSPB’s most recent State of Nature report, with more than one-in-10 species threatened with extinction. Insects and other invertebrates, which make up 97 per cent of all animal species, are particularly struggling, with 59 per cent in decline since 1970.
These provide vital services relied upon by farming, the report highlights, such as pollination and keeping soils healthy.
According to RSPB conservation scientist Mark Eaton: “The work they do for us is just immense. If they were to disappear, I think we would see environmental breakdown very quickly. They are about the most important things out there.”
In response, the Government has made its commitment, both in The Agriculture Bill and the 25-Year Environment Plan published last year, to support farmers in protecting and enhancing wildlife and soils.
Defra says its plans for a new environmental land management system (ELMS) will provide an income stream for farmers and land managers who protect and preserve the natural environment, and find ways of integrating this into their food, timber and other commercial activities.
NFU environment forum chairman Mark Pope, who runs a 283-hectare arable farm in the Blackdown Hills, Somerset, says: “We should be viewing the environment as another crop.
“If you see it as another potential income source, you are creating a win for the environment and your business. Up until now, the answer to opportunities to benefit the environment and your business was agri-environment schemes. In the future it will be ELMS.”
It is a step change in agriculture, but one which presents a new revenue stream for farm businesses open to finding ways of adapting and benefiting, says Roddy McLean, director of agriculture at NatWest.
He says: “If the UK Government is going to offer support for farmers to turn over fields to meadows rich in herbs and wildflowers, to plant more trees, to restore habitats for endangered species or recover soil fertility, then farm businesses must remain open to the opportunity.
“Rather than write it off, everyone should be asking themselves whether it could work for them on their farm? Is there land which is not being used effectively for productive agriculture and that could be turned over for wildlife conservation?”
The question farmers should be asking, says Mr McLean, is that yes, there is change coming, ‘but could there be something in it for us?’
For Mr Pope, there is no question farming for the environment can work alongside productive agriculture.
As an arable farmer, he is particularly passionate about working to improve his soil health.
Researchers at Sheffield University warned in 2014 that the UK had only 100 harvests left in its soils due to declining nutrient levels. Already, soil scientists say, depleted soil health is holding back yields.
Mr Pope says: “We only get one lot of soil on our farms, so poor management could have major, irreversible impacts for many years to come.”
In addition to spreading muck, he plants cover crops, including black oats, phacelia and berclover, to protect and enhance his soil’s health.
“A lot of farmers across all farm sectors are really sitting up and looking at their soils. They are becoming more aware of organic matter in their soils and trying to improve it through cover crops, for example. But you cannot change and reverse things overnight, despite what some NGOs might expect.”
Enhancing soils is beneficial for livestock farm businesses too, says Mr Pope: “Working to improve soil drainage is an example of making changes that are win-win for the environment and food production.
“It means being able to get the livestock out onto it sooner and also less run-off, so less potential problems downstream.”
Defra has been clear it does not see farming for the environment as a trade-off for farmers. It has highlighted how planting trees, for example, could help reduce flood risk and sequester carbon to help mitigate climate change, with farmers rewarded as a result.
Mr Pope says planting trees in the right place, backed up by research and clear proof, makes sense, but the key is in creating a balance.
He says: “We have to get the right balance between feeding the country and enhancing the environment.”
The long-term nature of improving the environment could potentially be addressed by Defra’s plans for conservation covenants, voluntary agreements to protect nature.
They would allow landowners to make a commitment to enhance the environment, such as planting trees, which would be binding on future owners of the land.
This would ensure environmental benefits in the long-term and the landowner has a secure source of income.
One example could be if there is an area of woodland upstream of a river which passes near homes and has helped to mitigate localised flooding.
A covenant between the landowner and responsible body could agree the obligations on the landowner for maintaining the woodland in return for a yearly payment.
Mr McLean says: “Farmers need to make business-like decisions. If delivering public goods brings a return on investment, they have to be open-minded about those possibilities. The challenge is to make the most of the changes that are taking place.”