OPINION: Farmers need to prove green payments will make a difference

Farmers will need to prove that public payments will make a difference for the environment, says Sim

Farmers will need to prove that public payments will make a difference for the environment, says Simon Evans of Arnolds Keys. Picture: Chris Hill - Credit: Chris Hill

The farming sector cannot expect funding for environmental change unless it can prove public money is being well spent says SIMON EVANS, agricultural partner at Arnolds Keys - Irelands Agricultural.

Simon Evans, agricultural partner at Arnolds Keys, says farmers will need to prove that public payme

Simon Evans, agricultural partner at Arnolds Keys, says farmers will need to prove that public payments will make a difference for the environment. Picture: Arnolds Keys - Credit: Arnolds Keys

In an era when public spending seems to be undertaken more freely than for many years, in response to the coronavirus, it’s easy to forget that in normal times politicians rightly expect to be able to demonstrate that they are getting value for the taxpayer pounds they are splashing.

And in the coming years, as the country starts to get to grips with the Covid economic hangover, that will be more important than ever.

All of which gives us pause for thought about the introduction of the Environmental Land Management Scheme (ELMS), the new system of channelling funding to the agricultural sector which will replace the current direct support in 2027.

As with any new programme of public expenditure, the benefits will need to be demonstrated. And it will be incumbent on the farming sector to do that.

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ELMS will be about sustainability, preserving the countryside, and above all helping agriculture tackle its impact on climate change. If we can’t show that the money is making a difference, it won’t be forthcoming – and therein lies the problem.

Agriculture is currently under the spotlight with the perceived unacceptable emissions from livestock production and the considerable use of fossil fuels in the production of nitrogen fertilisers. Carbon sequestration is seen as positive benefit that the industry can embrace in achieving the government target of carbon neutrality over the coming decades.

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Currently there are over 50 ways that the agricultural sector can measure its carbon footprint, taking into account emissions from machinery, livestock and other agricultural production. Each of these methods of measurement results in a different answer. So how are we ever going to prove that the ELMS money is having a positive effect, without a robust, consistent metric?

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2027 may seem a long way away, especially with the world having to deal with a plethora of more urgent problems right now. But if we cannot establish a baseline measure for the industry’s carbon footprint, then it will be almost impossible to persuade a future cash-strapped government, struggling with the financial impacts of both Covid and Brexit, to loosen the purse-strings.

In any case, the government is already running pilot ELMS schemes to establish how agreements can work in practice. So this is urgent, and something which needs addressing now.

Clearly, establishing and agreeing a robust and consistent way of measuring agriculture’s impact on the environment is not something that individual farmers, or even regional farming groups, can do on their own.

So we need to be lobbying national representative groups such as the National Farmers’ Union and the Country Land and Business Association, in conjunction with the scientific world, to work together to agree a single method of measurement – otherwise we will be giving a future government an easy excuse to reduce the support given to farming.

• Simon Evans is agricultural partner at Arnolds Keys - Irelands Agricultural.

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