The new Sustainable Food and Farming Scheme (SFFS), launched by the Game & Wildlife Conservation Trust alongside other rural organisations including the NFU and LEAF, proposes a refreshing, flexible approach to environmental land management.
As farmers prepare for life outside of the Common Agricultural Policy, policymakers should seize the opportunity to reinvent the national approach to agriculture and conservation. The proposals in the SFFS provide a means to grab this opportunity with both hands. Crucially, it focuses on the individuals and business at the heart of our countryside, recognising that the greatest chance of conservation success is by engaging with those who can make a difference on the ground.
Key to this is recognising that no two farms, or famers, are alike. If we are to ensure a high uptake in any future environmental scheme, it must be flexible and allow farmers more freedom than previous options. The SFFS proposes increased flexibility, including variable agreement lengths, and embraces the rich diversity of our countryside. The scheme aims to empower farmers to do their best for the environment, with the ambitions that ‘all farmers, growers and land managers of the farmed environment’ can access the scheme.
By listening to farmers and removing existing barriers to entry, we hope to also remove the barriers to biodiversity success. To do this, the scheme also appreciates the need to improve farmers’ ability to deliver environmental good. Payments would not only incentivise capital investment in the technology and infrastructure that can offer more for the environment and farm more smartly, but also encourage farmers to share their knowledge and experience through demonstration farms.
We also recognise that a farm’s environmental and business successes do not exist in isolation and hope to tackle the perception that food production and biodiversity gain are conflicting, rather than complementary goals. By increasing productivity, farmers can remove pressure on unfarmed areas and achieve the goals not only for food production, but also for the environment and also those who use the countryside. Central to this approach is improving the business performance of our farms, making them more resilient to future challenges. Future schemes should have the ambition to keep farmers on the land, as if we lose farmers we also lose the people planting hedges, digging ponds and planting wildflowers.
From a GWCT perspective, we were also delighted to see the inclusion of many of the suggestions from our 2018 report, Farming Through Brexit. These include a broad and accessible scheme, as discussed above, but also a tier to include collaborative, landscape-scale conservation measures. By working together, like in the Farmer Cluster approach, farmers can not only produce a larger scale of environmental good, but also share knowledge and build strong community relationships. The SFFS also includes consideration for biological pest control, such as integrated pest management and, importantly, recognition of the importance of soil health.
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