A SENIOR MP has called on Defra to publish a full impact assessment of its Environmental Land Management (ELM) and Sustainable Farming Incentive (SFI) policies, in the context of the government’s Food Strategy commitment to maintain national food production at current levels.
Conservative MP for York Outer, Julian Sturdy, who is a member of the House of Commons EFRA Committee and also chairs the APPG on Science and Technology in Agriculture, recently tabled a written Parliamentary Question, asking whether Defra has conducted an impact assessment of the ELM and SFI schemes on farm-level production, national agricultural productivity, and domestic food self-sufficiency.
In an article for Science for Sustainable Agriculture, Mr Sturdy said it was important to understand the full implications of ELM and SFI options, such as paying farmers not to use approved insecticides, to reduce fertiliser use below optimum productivity levels, to plant wildflower meadows rather than food crops, and to take productive farmland out of production.
He said, “I am concerned that the policy emphasis on lower-yield farming practices such as these will inevitably take its toll on our domestic food production capacity, and increase our dependence on imports.
“I am equally concerned that other ELM policies which support the loss of productive farmland to ‘landscape-scale recovery’ schemes are not framed within a coherent land use strategy, or with a clear vision of how national food production will be maintained.”
Martin Lines, the Chief Executive of the Nature Friendly Farming Network, has pushed back. He said, “Mr sturdy clearly hasn’t been keeping up to date with the latest evidence. Study after study demonstrates that approaches to farming that effectively harnesses natural processes can maintain and increase yields, restore ecosystems and reduce input dependency. His remarks represent an outdated world view, typified by a fixation on false trade-offs, a reliance on extractive practices and a blind faith in flawed solutions. It’s an approach which has led us here, with a degraded natural asset base and the production of commodities that make no meaningful contribution towards genuine food security.”
Mr Sturdy, however, said that the government’s approach appeared to be based on NGO-inspired greenwash and wishful thinking, and that “Defra’s suggestion that reducing the use of fertilisers or pesticides will lead to ‘lower inputs and higher productivity’ is just magical thinking.”
Adele Jones, Executive Director of the Sustainable Food Trust disagrees. She said, “Core to the principles of regenerative agriculture is farming in harmony with nature. The use of chemical inputs as part of the so-called sustainable intensification model will lead us in the opposite direction – separating nature from food production, negatively impacting wildlife and insects and well as depleting soil health – ultimately leading to even more of a reliance on synthetic inputs over time. It is therefore critical that the government’s new farm support schemes reward and measure progress towards implementing farming practices which deliver for nature, climate health and food security by promoting natural fertility building, diverse pastures and rotations as well as improvements in in-field biodiversity alongside natural habitats.”
Mr Sturdy concluded, “It is not enough to conduct ex-post assessments of UK food security once every three years, as set out in the Agriculture Act. By then, the trees may have been planted, the solar farms constructed, the tenanted farms rewilded, the farm infrastructure plans cancelled, and the R&D investments diverted elsewhere.”
ffinlo Costain, founder of the Food & Global Security Network, said that the MP’s view of food security was based on historic needs. “Mr Sturdy’s comments suggest that he’s failed to comprehend the depth and impact of the nature and climate crises we face today. To deliver ecological security (which includes nutritional security) we have no choice but to transition rapidly from fossil-energy-dependent food production to resilient farm systems that harness natural energy cycles to deliver good food integrated with climate mitigation and adaptation and biodiversity regeneration.”