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UK unveils post-Brexit environmental restoration scheme

The U.K. plans to incentivize the natural restoration of farmland in an effort to replace EU subsidies and meet climate targets, but many farmers are unconvinced.

(CN) — The United Kingdom has announced plans to give subsidies to English landowners who commit to the regeneration of natural habitats in a landmark policy move aimed at greening the Brexit process.

The multibillion-pound scheme unveiled Thursday is designed to replace subsidies given to farmers as part of the European Union’s Common Agricultural Policy (CAP), which is being phased out in the U.K. by 2024. The proposals are among the first in the world to financially incentivize the concept of "rewilding" alongside agricultural production.

Currently, British farmers receive more than 3 billion pounds ($4.1 billion) worth of subsidies from the U.K. government in a scheme which allocates funds based on the quantity of land cultivated, mirroring the EU’s CAP. However, because the U.K. has left the EU, it is free to develop its own system of subsidies for agriculture.

The Landscape Recovery Scheme being proposed to replace the current system will, according to the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, “support more radical changes to land-use change and habitat restoration such as establishing new nature reserves, restoring floodplains, or creating woodland and wetlands.”

The scheme follows the previously announced Sustainable Farming Incentive aimed at encouraging more environmentally friendly agricultural practices, such as methods to reduce soil degradation.

Announcing the new proposals, Environment Secretary George Eustice said, “We want to see profitable farming businesses producing nutritious food, underpinning a growing rural economy, where nature is recovering and people have better access to it.”

He added, “Through our new schemes, we are going to work with farmers and land managers to halt the decline in species, reduce our greenhouse gas emissions, increase woodland, improve water and air quality and create more space for nature.”

It is estimated that agriculture is presently responsible for roughly 10% of the U.K.’s greenhouse gas emissions – primarily though the release of methane – however these figures do not take into account the impact of deforestation and land cultivation which reduce the amount of carbon sequestered from the atmosphere. Thirteen percent of the U.K. is woodland – far below the European average of 37%.

The Landscape Recovery Scheme is regarded as integral to the government’s aim to restore 300,000 hectares of land by 2027. As part of the United Nations’ climate process, the U.K.’s national contribution commits the country to a reduction of carbon emissions to net zero by 2050. Because agricultural policy is a devolved matter, the new subsidies will not apply in Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland.

The response to the proposals have been mixed. Representatives of British farmers have expressed concern that the scheme could undermine agricultural production and increase costs for producers.

“Only by ensuring these schemes incentivize sustainable food production, allow every farm business to be involved, and pay farmers fairly for the costs they incur, will they attract the participation the government envisages to deliver our collective environmental and net zero ambitions," Tom Bradshaw of the National Farmers Union said in a statement Thursday.

Bradshaw added, “At a time when public support for British food and farming is at a high, our biggest concern is that these schemes result in reduced food production in the U.K., leading to the need to import more food from countries with production standards that would be illegal for our farmers here. This simply off-shores our production and any environmental impacts that go with it and would be morally reprehensible.”

Meanwhile, environmental groups have called on the government to show greater ambition and urgency in transforming land use.

The director of the Soil Association, Jo Lewis, said the new plans "are encouraging, but they still risk falling short of the transformational change needed. To drive that change, we need clearer, quantified targets, such as for reducing pesticide and artificial nitrogen fertilizer.”

“The government must also acknowledge that these schemes won’t work in isolation," Lewis said. "They risk failure if they are forced to compete with mounting commercial pressures that encourage more intensive farming and cheap food production, for which the environment and our health ultimately pays the price.”

Professor Alastair Driver, the director of environmental group Rewilding Britain, described the U.K. as “one of the most nature-depleted countries in the world” with “some 70% of its land given over to farming”. His group is calling for “major nature recovery” across 30% of U.K. land by 2030 – a much more ambitious target than the government’s.

The responses demonstrate underlying tension in the British countryside between farmers who are sceptical of unproductive land use, and a new generation of conservationists who argue that nature restoration and agriculture can co-exist.

The rewilding movement, championed by the new conservationists, has grown rapidly in the U.K. in recent years. The country’s first significant rewilding project in rural Sussex – the Knepp Wildland – has become a major tourist destination for conservationists and a biodiversity success story, with the reintroduction and discovery of many rare species living upon the 1,400 hectares of former farmland.

In 2016, the National Trust – a conservation charity with responsibility for the management of national parks – announced plans to restore 25,000 hectares of land to their natural state, a cause of some consternation among traditional conservationists and landowners.

But perhaps most significantly, the Danish online retail billionaire Anders Holch Povlsen has in recent years bought more than 220,000 hectares of land in the Scottish Highlands, making him the U.K.’s largest private landowner. Povlsen, a committed conservationist, intends to unite his various estates and rewild vast swathes of the Highlands at considerable personal expense.

Amid the many private and smaller scale rewilding projects gathering pace across the country, the Landscape Recovery Scheme marks the first time the government have advocated and sought to incentivize the approach, and demonstrates just how far the conservation movement has come in just a few years.

But to succeed the government will have to reassure an increasingly anxious farming industry for whom Brexit presents a double threat. On trade, farmers are concerned that new free trade deals will open up their businesses to overseas firms charging prices with which they cannot compete. And on subsidies, farmers argue that even small reductions in financial support could render large swathes of the U.K.’s farming sector unprofitable.

While many of the details of the scheme remain at the drawing board stage, it is possible that if successful, the U.K. model could provide a template of reform for the EU’s extensive, complicated and controversial system of agricultural subsidies, which are often criticized for promoting unsustainable agricultural practices. The Common Agricultural Policy faces renegotiation over the next decade.

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