Serving the Farming Industry across East Anglia for 35 Years
Large amounts of land are being taken out of food production and put into the government’s flagship agri-environment scheme, the Sustainable Farming Incentive, say... ‘Unforeseen consequences’ as land is taken out of food production

Large amounts of land are being taken out of food production and put into the government’s flagship agri-environment scheme, the Sustainable Farming Incentive, say agronomists.

Contractors and farmers could struggle to survive where large areas of arable land are being put into the scheme, which is being seen by some growers as less risky than producing food crops.

The Association of Independent Crop Consultants issued the warning after being briefed by Defra representatives at their annual technical conference earlier this year. It came as the government unveiled its 2024 scheme offer.

An interactive poll at the conference found that the vast majority of AICC members are actively involved in SFI applications – either taking control of the process or advising clients on the most suitable actions for their farms.

Impartial advice provided by AICC members is seen as particularly important in the implementation of integrated pest management (IPM) options within the SFI, along with soil and nutrient management plans.

Attendees at the conference reported significant areas of arable land being taken out of food production and put into non-food producing SFI options, with Defra increasing the payment rates increased for farmers opting into the scheme this year.

Whilst there is an acceptance farmers need to be incentivised to produce food more sustainably, there is a fear it could have devastating consequences for associated agri-businesses, including agronomy services.

AICC chairman Andrew Blazey said agronomists were having to adapt to rapid changes playing out in UK agriculture. “This is in addition to risk management and ensuring the crop production side of the business performs to its full potential.”

Buckinghamshire based agronomist Andrew Cotton said contractors and farmers reliant on contracting their neighbours’ farms could struggle to survive, especially where large areas of arable land were being put into SFI, which is increasingly common.

‘Critical issues’

Once these businesses are lost, it would be very difficult for them to re-enter the industry due to the ever-increasing cost of new machinery, he said. “It has already had a significant impact on a local grain trailer manufacturer, who has seen sales plummet.”

Defra’s Fiona James said the government would act promptly to address any critical issues. The government was keeping a watching brief for any unintended consequences arising from the SFI – whether they were environmental or economic.

Defra had indentified similar concerns, acknowledged Ms James. “It’s how we build up over time from anecdotal evidence to hard facts that [will] enable us to have the evidence base… to course correct, to iterate our measures over time.”

SFI payment rates for 2024 are 10% higher than previously with farmers able to choose from 50 new actions. Stacking these options as part of a three-year SFI agreement is encouraged and Defra hopes 70% of farms will be in the scheme by 2028.

Rothamsted ‘fully focused’ on scientific research

The Rothamsted Reseach centre says it remains fully focused on its scientific programmes amid what it acknowledges is a challenging financial situation.

It follows a report by The Guardian that the research facility has warned staff they will have to pause “non-essential” work – announcing a hiring pause and warning of pay freezes due to what the newspaper described as a funding crisis.

In a statement, Rothamsted said: “We are fully focused on our scientific programme, generating impactful outcomes from our many research commitments, and remain very much ‘open for business’ for all our partners and collaborators.

Peer reviewed

“Our science is in a great place, having been exhaustively peer reviewed for the next five years of BBSRC funding. As an institute we are addressing fundamental issues of food security and valuing environmental services for a sustainable net zero future at national and global scales.

“As the longest serving and most renowned UK agricultural research facility we feel privileged to be part of such vital work. We are an independent institute supported to deliver our strategic science programmes by the BBSRC. We acknowledge the financial situation as challenging, as it is for many similar institutes and universities, and are working hard to implement necessary change as would be expected from any effective management team.”