The Government has shown commitment to organic in its Sustainable Farming Incentive (SFI) scheme, detailing exactly how it will reward and incentivize farming practices which protect soil health.

For the first time since discussions about Environmental Land Management began, new guidance from Defra includes a commitment to organic farming through the Sustainable Farming Incentive, with the department saying it ‘recognizes the benefits that organic farming can offer to the wider environment’. In a document outlining its approach, Defra confirmed it is exploring options on how to reward organic producers; this could include ‘a future organic standard’ which would provide ‘easily accessible, holistic packages for organic farmers’.

Speaking at the Country Land and Business Association conference, George Eustice (pictured), Environment Secretary, outlined opportunities to increase food security while delivering on ‘environmental priorities to tackle biodiversity loss and climate change’, emphasizing the importance of ‘self-sufficiency’ and domestic food production, as well as regenerative agricultural. “There is a food manufacturer in every parliamentary constituency in the UK – except Westminster. These manufacturers provide employment opportunities in areas where there might otherwise be deprivation.”

Details were shared of the SFI, due to be rolled out in 2022. Under the scheme, farmers will be free to choose the elements which work for them and will receive payment for ‘taking actions which generate environmental benefits, such as improving grasslands and soil’. The pilot has so far attracted almost 1,000 farmers.

“While it is not for me to tell an individual farmer what to do, I accept that we need to be clear about the policy outcomes we seek. These are to halt the decline in species abundance by 2030; to reduce our greenhouse gas emissions; to plant up to 10,000 hectares of trees per year in England, to improve water quality; to create more space for nature in the farmed landscape; and to ensure that we have a vibrant and profitable food and farming industry which supports the Government’s levelling-up agenda and helps safeguard our food security,” Eustice told delegates.

Commenting from the Soil Association, Gareth Morgan, head of farming and land use policy, says this ‘long-awaited recognition’ is welcomed: “We are delighted to see a commitment to organic in Defra’s new Sustainable Farming Incentive plans. This is a long-awaited recognition from Government that organic farming delivers benefits for the environment and should be incentivized.

Support for organic … is the first step towards recognizing that we need to work in harmony with nature across the whole farmed environment

“Alongside organic and environmental groups, we have been lobbying hard for many months to ensure farm payment systems acknowledge the fact that organic farms have on average 50% more wildlife, thanks to practices that protect nature and store carbon. Support for organic, including those converting to organic, is the first step towards recognizing that we need to work in harmony with nature across the whole farmed environment.

“But this needs to go further. Outside of organic, there is no commitment to rewards for farmers who protect the environment across their entire farm – instead the focus is on isolated practices. We can’t fix the climate crisis without halting the declines in wildlife we are seeing, so it will not be enough to protect one area of a farm while damaging another. Small tweaks to the status quo will not suffice. Farming policy should incentivize a widespread shift to nature-friendly, agroecological farming. We hope this is the first step towards Government providing clarity on the type of farming it wants to see in the UK, so farmers can have confidence in making long-term changes now.

“The plans also covered new standards for protecting soil health – acknowledging that ‘soils are one of our most important natural assets’. In his speech … Eustice said the SFI ‘focuses on soil health because the health of our soils is critical to improving both biodiversity, water quality and the production of a healthy crop.

“The move by Defra to provide incentives to farmers for protecting soils is a welcome step in tackling the climate and nature emergencies. Holding more carbon than the earth’s atmosphere and vegetation combined, soils are an essential tool in tackling climate change.”