The National Audit Office is urging the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) to ensure a plan for UK farming is in place to give farmers time to prepare for changes.
It says, the government’s new farming policy will be a significant departure for farmers across England. Every farm in East Devon will be impacted by the plan.
Fears have been expressed that Defra is already under considerable pressure, making preparations for the UK’s exit from the EU. The National Audit Office warns that the government “must approach its roll-out carefully to ensure farmers can prepare in the way they need to”.
Currently, the UK farming industry provides over half of the food the UK eats, employs 474,000 people and comprises 217,000 farms.
The key part of the new programme is the Environmental Land Management System (ELMS). Defra hopes to have 82,500 farmers enrolled on ELMS by 2028. Under CAP, most payments to farmers are based on the amount of land they farm.
These direct payments will be gradually phased out over a seven-year period starting in 2021. Under ELMS, farmers will be encouraged to enter into a contract with the government to produce environmental land management plans, and be paid for the environmental outcomes they deliver, often working in collaboration with other farmers.
The policy represents a major shift away from traditional farming towards a system that pays public money primarily for delivering environmental benefits.
“Farmers will have little time to prepare for participation in a three year national pilot of ELMS, which will run from 2021 to 2024, because Defra is not planning to set out the environmental outcomes it will pay for or how much it will pay until April 2020.,” says the National Audit office.
“This is less than a year before the start of the pilot and when their payments will start to be reduced. Defra has consulted with farmers as it designs the Programme, but it has not provided the necessary guidance to enable farmers to plan how to adapt their businesses or how to work collaboratively with other farmers.”
Defra has recently scaled back its ambitions for the level of take-up of ELMS during the first year of the three-year national pilot, from 5,000 farmers to 1,250, but is seeking to increase participation as the pilot progresses.
The National Audit Office claims It is not clear whether this lower number in the first year of the pilot will provide sufficiently robust evidence across the range of farm types and locations to inform further development of the Programme.
This means that Defra only has two years to test how well ELMS will work at scale.
The success of the Programme depends on government assumptions about how the farming community will respond to the new policy. Direct payments from the EU currently account for an average of 61% of farms’ net profit.
Without these, 42% of farms would have made a loss between March 2014 and February 2017.