Farmers can boost incomes and revitalise nature if paid to restore habitats on lowest grade agricultural land

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Using existing budget to restore poorest quality land would support rural communities, increase bird populations by 50 per cent and slash sector emissions

A new report from the think tank Green Alliance has found restoring habitats on the least productive agricultural land could drive up farming incomes while tackling both carbon emissions and plummeting bird populations.

The report, Land of opportunity, finds that the least productive ten per cent of land in England produces only around 0.5 per cent of the food we eat. It suggests that supporting farmers to restore natural habitats on this low grade land would not only increase bird populations by almost 50 per cent by 2050 but boost incomes for farmers of this land by around 20 per cent.

This would require the government to fulfil existing promises around nature restoration rather than provide additional funding. It urges the government and prime ministerial candidates to allocate just under a third of the existing £2.4 billion rural payments budget to restoring native woodland, peatland and heath on land that produces the least food.

Despite publishing plans in 2021 to allocate a third of the farming budget to its Landscape Recovery scheme, the government has so far made only two per cent of the budget available via pilots. These have proved extremely popular, with over three times more applicants than the government has said it will fund.

In the short term, allocating £600 million to recovering 10 per cent of the English landscape would provide those farming the most unproductive land with an opportunity to establish more stable incomes, combining income from food production with payments for environmental goods. In the longer term, it would provide over half the carbon savings needed from agriculture and land use by 2035.

Farmers are currently facing an unprecedented mix of challenges: record temperatures and the driest July in England since 1935, soaring costs and new trade deals projected to undercut domestic production. The government is also set to withdraw the Basic Payment Scheme while delaying the roll out of new nature friendly farming reforms, leaving many farmers facing a financial loss.

Green Alliance supports landscape recovery being part of a three-pronged farming system: producing the majority of our food on the most productive land with reduced fertiliser use; supporting farmers to integrate more nature into their land; and, under the Landscape Recovery scheme, using the least productive land to restore nature and reduce emissions.

A YouGov poll, commissioned by Green Alliance, showed that a majority (52 percent) of 2019 Conservative voters were in favour of redirecting farm subsidies to pay for environmental and animal welfare benefits, with just 11 percent opposed.

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James Elliott, senior policy adviser at Green Alliance, said:
“The government looked to set to realise a genuine Brexit opportunity when developing new plans for agriculture, but there are now fears we will return to a climate destructive EU-style system or ignite a race to the bottom where farmers and the environment both lose.

“This is about making sure we use the least productive land in the best way – boosting farmer incomes while restoring nature and starting to tackle the increasingly destructive effects of climate change.”

Tom Lancaster, head of farming and land management policy, said:
“Land is a finite resource with many competing demands paced upon by it. We need space for nature, climate change mitigation and adaptation, and food and timber production.

“This report shows the vital role farmers and land managers will play in achieving all this and more. They need better support to tackle the nature and climate crises, whilst providing the food we need now, and in the future.”

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