28 October 2021

New report cites Sheffield researchers in call for government to improve agricultural transition

Sunset over a maize field

Research from the Institute for Sustainable Food has been cited in a new report from the House of Commons EFRA Committee which calls on the Government to fully assess the impact that the biggest change to agricultural policy in 70 years will have on farm businesses, and to properly support the sector as it navigates the transition.

The report highlights evidence given to the committee by Dr Ruth Little, Lecturer in Human Geography at the University of Sheffield’s Department of Geography and member of the Institute for Sustainable Food. 

Part of the evidence highlighted in the report is the uncertainty that remains around the seven year agricultural transition - initiated by the UK’s decision to leave the EU -  and how it will affect English farming. 

This includes evidence that says limited communication has hindered farmers ability to plan for changes and Defra needs to develop a clear engagement strategy. 

In the report, Dr Ruth Little outlined four scenarios that could arise as a result of the transition from direct payments under the EU to a new system of paying farmers to provide (primarily environmental) “public goods”. The first is that farmers intensify production to make up for the loss in direct payments, which could be detrimental to the environment. Secondly, farmers could take up the new Environmental Land Management (ELM) schemes.

The third is that farmers exit the industry, for example through the planned lump sum scheme, which Dr Little said is very unlikely, and the last is that farmers will “just hang on” which could also lead to “environmental disbenefits”.

Dr Little noted that “seven years may seem like a long transition period” but, for agricultural timescales, it is “pretty much the blink of an eye” with the EFRA report recommending that Defra need to put more emphasis on managing the transition process.

Some farmers may have experienced teething problems in previous agri-environment scheme rollouts and therefore may adopt a more ‘wait-and-see’ attitude until the new environmental land management schemes are running more smoothly before they engage. 

Others may struggle to engage with Defra on new agricultural policy due to limited time and resources or poor internet connectivity that limits their ability to keep up to date with policy changes or online engagement activities.

Research led by the University of Sheffield, in partnership with the University of Reading, has highlighted the need for skilled intermediaries who can support farmers through the post-Brexit agricultural transition, and help mitigate the impact that the COVID-19 pandemic has had on farmer engagement with the ELM scheme.

Dr Ruth Little, Lecturer in Human Geography at the University of Sheffield, said:

“This is a period of significant uncertainty for farmers. Even before the pandemic, the period between 2021 and 2028 represented significant uncertainty and change for farmers within England, due to policy changes and post-Brexit trade deals.

“The COVID-19 pandemic could lead people to focus on the here and now, and start to discount thinking about the future which could be a bit of a perfect storm with the rollout of ELM.

“Defra needs to take all this into account when designing the implementation of the ELM scheme. They need to mobilise a network of intermediaries that understand the individual needs and circumstances of farmers and land managers at this challenging time, and can facilitate the involvement of these groups in the co-design of pilot implementation schemes. Without this, we believe Defra will see a low uptake of the ELM scheme resulting in a reduction in the delivery of environmental goods and climate change targets not being met.”

Jess Lyon,  Research Associate in Dr Little’s team and co-author of the written evidence submission added: 

“To achieve the necessary environmental gains and support farmers and rural communities through the transition, ELM schemes need to be the default solution to farmers' loss of the direct payments from the EU. This means that schemes need to be accessible and workable for farmers on the ground. Trying to find a balance between simplicity and flexibility for farmers, whilst ensuring they are ambitious enough to reach environmental targets, will be the greatest challenge in working towards a meaningful and effective agricultural transition.”

You can read the full EFRA committee report here: https://committees.parliament.uk/committee/52/environment-food-and-rural-affairs-committee/news/158286/mps-urge-government-to-assess-risks-of-phasing-out-farm-payments/

Flagship institutes

The University’s four flagship institutes bring together our key strengths to tackle global issues, turning interdisciplinary and translational research into real-world solutions.