George Eustice told the Environment, Food, and Rural Affairs committee yesterday that the schemes are the “main tool in the box” and that the country will only “move the dial” on species abundance and water quality if there is wide ELMS uptake.
ELMS are set to replace the EU subsidy scheme for farmers and reward them for creating ‘public goods’. The Sustainable Farming Incentive (SFI) is the most basic of the three ‘standards’, with the Local Nature Recovery and Landscape Recovery schemes requiring more substantial environmental projects.
Eustice told the committee that the recent announcement that the funding for ELMS will be split evenly between the three schemes “is only an indicative thing” rather than a hard and fast rule.
This, the environment secretary said, is to ensure that the right tool is used for the right job, with there being some overlap between the different standards.
Eustice also pushed back on the idea that SFI is not sufficiently ambitious for the environment, an accusation put to him by the committee following previous evidence given by environmental groups, some of whom fear that if the standard is too easy to achieve it will discourage farmers from engaging with the higher level schemes.
“It’s wrong to say that the SFI won’t deliver for the environment”, said Eustice, adding that DEFRA’s analysis has shown that SFI is “actually the key to doing the heavy lifting” on environmental targets, as it is the scheme which will restore soil quality and reduce pesticide and fertiliser use.
When questioned on how the Australian trade deal will affect UK farmers, and if international treaties trump domestic law on animal welfare, Eustice said that the UK “will certainly be pressing very hard for Australia to modernise its laws in this area”.
He added: “What we have got in the agreement in principle with Australia is a chapter on animal welfare, a commitment to work together on that.”
The secretary did clarify however that this chapter is no more than a statement of cooperation, and would not stipulate, for example, that sheep cannot come into the UK if mulesing has been used - a practice where strips of skin from around the buttocks of a sheep are removed to prevent the parasitic infection flystrike.
On how Australia may be pushed into changing its laws, Eustice referenced the example of New Zealand, which he said changed its laws to prevent the practice of mulesing - “partly because of consumer pressure” including from UK retailers.
Australia, he said, would “probably” have the same experience.
Speaking to Paul Caldwell, CEO of the Rural Payments Agency ahead of the environment secretary, the committee was also told that one of the lessons from past experiences of implementing schemes such as ELMS was to avoid “an almost pantomime status of ‘oh no it is, oh no it isn’t’” where agencies’ performances were pitted against one another.
Tony Juniper, chair of Natural England, confirmed that discussions are on-going about how different agencies will work together to deliver ELMS.
Guidance on what the aims will be of the SFI pilots can be found here.