Defra's farming minister hinted that the government is considering capping the amount of environmental incentives which farmers can claim - in order to ensure they keep growing food.

Mark Spencer was speaking at the Norfolk Farming Conference, which brought around 400 farmers and rural professionals to the Norfolk Showground.

He outlined the progress on the transition away from EU subsidies, which are being phased out after Brexit, to a new system of environmental incentives which will instead pay farmers for actions to protect landscapes and create habitats.

Last month, Defra announced a major upgrade to the schemes, including the launch of up to 50 new actions and a 10pc average increase in payment rates for Sustainable Farming Incentive (SFI) and Countryside Stewardship (CS) options.

"We believe that producing food and protecting the environment go hand in hand," said Mr Spencer.

But during a Q&A session, the minister was quizzed on how the system would safeguard the UK's food security.

Charles Whitaker, managing partner of rural agency Brown and Co, said the new SFI actions were "generally received pretty well", but he added: "I think the problem I have is several of the whole-field options now pay better than farming, particularly combinable break crops, oilseed rape, peas and beans, where we still face imports that are cheaper. 

"I am concerned we are going to see a wholesale shift from some of these crops into SFI options."

Mr Spencer replied: "What I do not want to see is whole estates being taken away from tenants and farmers to be put into SFI, as a whole estate of wild bird mix. That is not what we want to achieve - we want to see a balance in the environment and, of course, food on the shelf.

"We will have to tweak as we go along to get that sweet spot right, but it is also dependent upon your guts to get that right. 

"If people start to take the mickey, then we will have to take action to stop that from happening, and there is some active consideration as to whether we limit the amount of a holding that you can put into that scheme for certain actions, to stop that from happening."

Eastern Daily Press: The 2024 Norfolk Farming Conference brought around 400 farmers and rural professionals to the Norfolk ShowgroundThe 2024 Norfolk Farming Conference brought around 400 farmers and rural professionals to the Norfolk Showground (Image: Denise Bradley)

Another topical concern was raised by north Norfolk farmer Tim Papworth, who said: "This autumn in Norfolk we had a lot of flooding.

"Significant areas of land were flooded and we were not allowed to abstract the water out of the rivers to use in reservoirs, which is just a crazy situation.

"We need water for our crops, and we have got all this water at the wrong time of year, so why can't we use that water rather than let it do lots of damage, and actually get it into the right place at the right time?"

Mr Spencer replied: "I have met with the minister responsible for water and we are having conversations with our friends at the Environment Agency about how we can intervene to try to assist.

"There are communities up and down the country who are suffering with flooding and I think we as a sector are part of that solution.

"We are the guys who could store some of that water, but we need to be economically rewarded for that service, but we are also the people who are growing the crops we want to see on our supermarket shelves, and we need water at the right time in the right locations.

"So I hear your plea and I know it is particularly challenging in this part of the East of England."

Mr Spencer also outlined two "rapid reviews" launched by Defra - one into food labelling, to ensure British farmers do not face unfair competition from lower-grade imports with misleading labels, and another into the interactions between farmers and regulatory staff, which he said farmers feel often "start from a position of suspicion rather than one of trust".