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Subsidies boosted in bid to win over skeptical UK farmers

The United Kingdom is trying to launch an innovative new approach to sustainable land management, but the country’s volatile governance has left farmers facing an uncertain future.

(CN) — The British government on Thursday announced an uplift in the value of new agricultural subsidies set to be introduced, in a bid to quell uncertainty after a volatile year in governance.

The move comes amid rising frustration among the country's agricultural producers. Many farmers in the United Kingdom are expected to be heavily reliant on the new subsidies, which are being phased in to replace European Union agricultural payments. But the plans have been beset by indecision, opaqueness and backtracking, leading to mass anxiety across the countryside and anger directed at the government.

The radical new subsidies known as the Environmental Land Management Scheme – or ELMS – were initially billed as a primary benefit of Brexit. When first proposed back in 2018, they were intended to replace the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy payments, which farmers receive for meeting quotas on agricultural production.

Instead of rewarding productivity, ELMS payments are designed to promote sustainable land management – practices which contribute to the reduction of carbon emissions, improvement of soil fertility, and promotion of biodiversity. The policy was introduced under the mantra of "public money for public goods" and was regarded as innovative at the time, seeming set to form a key plank of the U.K.’s net-zero carbon emissions target.

However, farmers have long complained that the scheme has not been explained in sufficient detail, that ambiguity around the value of payments has made it hard to plan for the future, and that the aims of the new approach are either too localized or entirely unclear.

British farmers are currently reliant on the Basic Payment Scheme – an interim measure modeled on the EU’s approach – to maintain their incomes. However, the value of these temporary subsidies is being reduced on an annual basis, leaving recipients in an increasingly perilous financial position. The government has insisted it will not postpone the phasing out of the temporary payments.

Farmers further complain that the existing threshold for payments does not take into account inflationary pressures, which have increased the cost of key production inputs by up to 30%. Notably, the cost of synthetic fertilizers are highly influenced by gas prices, which have skyrocketed in Europe over the past 12 months. Landowners have been hit further by reduced migration of seasonal workers due to Brexit, which have increased their labor costs.

The situation has been exacerbated by the U.K.’s unstable governance throughout 2022, which has repeatedly thrown the new scheme into doubt. The country experienced the collapse of two separate governments in the space of three months last year, with each administration appearing to hold contradictory views on the costly schemes.

The proposals were first introduced under the premiership of Theresa May, who was later removed by her party. Her replacement, keen Brexit supporter Boris Johnson, committed himself to the scheme as he was eager to demonstrate the environmental benefits of leaving the EU. However, farmers frequently complained that under his leadership the proposals remained lacking in detail, and spoke of their difficulties trying to obtain information from the government’s rural affairs department.

A parliamentary report published in October 2021 found that “communication delays have not enabled farmers to prepare adequately for the transition,” that there remained “no measurable objectives for the ELM scheme's success” and that limited contingency planning meant the government was unable to “act flexibly in response to unforeseen circumstances.”

Johnson was also ousted in July last year, with the subsequent government of Liz Truss placing the scheme under review. The decision sparked anger across the countryside, amid widespread speculation that the proposals were to be scrapped. Many farmers complained that they had already invested heavily in transitionary measures, leaving them footing the bill for potentially futile reorganizations.

Truss’s government itself then subsequently collapsed, plunging the scheme into further disarray. New Prime Minister Rishi Sunak had initially sounded lukewarm about the measures, but eventually announced a scaled-back set of proposals last December. As part of the reformulation the Local Nature Recovery Scheme, designed to promote the idea of "rewilding" rural ecosystems, was reduced in scope. But the more accessible scheme encouraging sustainable farming has survived the political turmoil in tact.

The announcement of increased subsidies on Thursday was designed to calm anxieties among farmers – traditionally a crucial constituency within the ruling Conservative Party’s electoral coalition – who are threatening to abandon the scheme en masse.

In a speech to the Country, Land and Business Association last month, the organization's president Mark Tufnell railed against the scheme’s implementation, warning that “time is running out before confidence in the likely success of these schemes disappears altogether.”

“You don’t buy something from the shop without knowing the price, you don’t invest in a new business without knowing the outcome, and you don’t as a farmer enter into a new environmental scheme without knowing whether it’d be worth it for your business,” said Tufnell, adding “there is nothing Conservative about holding rural business back, there’s nothing Conservative about letting rural communities fail.”

The National Farmers Union cautiously welcomed the announcement of increased payments of up to 1,000 pounds ($1,207) a year, but warned that more needed to be done to regain the confidence of farmers.

“It’s a sad reflection of the scheme’s progress and development that NFU members know more about what they will lose in direct payments than what they will gain from taking part in these new schemes,” said David Exwood, the union' s vice president, summarizing the uplift as “too little, too late.”

In a speech to the Oxford Farming Conference on Thursday, Britain's farming minister Mark Spencer acknowledged that mistakes had been made but insisted the government remained determined to see the scheme through.

“We remain as ambitious as ever,” he said, “for the quality of our services and the huge positive impacts you can make, with the right support – by providing food for our country and improving our natural environment.”

While the ambition of replacing the unpopular EU subsidies and prioritizing ecological land management have been generally praised, it is the implementation of the policy that for many may have scuttled its chances of success. Whether Britain's bold new plans for agriculture can survive the upheaval of the past few rocky years depends – as so much now in British politics does – on whether the government can regain the confidence of those it represents.

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