Government caps land area used for six key SFI payments

The UK Government has capped the amount of land that English farmers can take out of food production to deliver six ecological actions that can earn payments under the Sustainable Farming Incentive (SFI).

While there has been only limited evidence to date of farmers entering large amounts of their land into actions that take away food production, some of these actions were being used more than intended in a small number of cases. The changes will ensure the scheme continues to support farmers to produce food sustainably alongside improving the environment.

The scheme is designed to have maximum flexibility and to be simple to apply for, however we always said we would learn and adapt as new information became available. So, following feedback from the farming community, which has been considered throughout the development of SFI, there is consensus on the need to put in place some targeted restrictions.

Under the changes, SFI applicants will only be able to put 25% of their land into six SFI actions that take land out of direct food production. The actions are:

  • Flower-rich grass margins
  • Pollen and nectar flower mix
  • Winter bird food on arable and horticultural land
  • Grassy field corners and blocks
  • Improved grassland field corners or blocks out of management
  • Winter bird food on improved grassland

The six actions will continue to play an important role in supporting sustainable food production but were always intended to be implemented on smaller areas of the farm – something the new measures will protect.

Farming Minister Mark Spencer said, “Food production is the primary purpose of farming and today we are taking action to clarify this principle.

“The six actions we are capping were always intended to be implemented on smaller areas of land, and these changes will help to maintain this intention and continue our commitment to maintain domestic food production.”

The UK’s farming schemes pay farmers to take actions that improve the environment alongside sustainable food production. SFI has been popular with farmers and to date we have received over 15,000 applications and issued over 14,000 agreement offers. The vast majority of land in the scheme continues to produce food – SFI pays farmers to do this in a more sustainable, resilient way that’s good for both food production and the environment.

Martin Lines, chief Executive of the Nature Friendly Farming Network, said, “Today’s announcement to cap some SFI actions is a sensible step which will help avoid the potential unintended consequences that have been mentioned recently. However, the challenges that have emerged are as a direct result of Defra’s scheme design choices.

“A reliance on unlimited free choice has meant that in a small number of cases large portions of the farm are being put into lucrative actions at a scale that is excessive. In many other cases the opposite appears to be true, with agreements consisting mainly of baselining activities which, although useful, do not guarantee the delivery of positive environmental outcomes.

“These challenges highlight the valuable role a more structured approach to scheme design and farm advice could play in helping to secure a minimum level of environmental action, which delivers benefits for food production, farm business resilience and the environment in an integrated way.”

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