ELMS is a bridge – don’t blow it up

Something prevented me from wading into the Twitter storm sparked by Ranil Jayawardena’s appointment as Environment Secretary under Liz Truss, and the ensuing ELMS drama that caused absolute uproar (explainer below in case you missed it).

Don’t get me wrong – I wanted to shout and rant with the best of them, but the sadness held me back. I was too weary to write a blog. You see, I don’t come at this from either ‘side’. I’m not a farmer, or an environmental campaigner – my job is to communicate, and tell stories about our countryside. And, oh, how wonderful that job has become in recent years – what a privilege to track these historic times. By far the most rewarding part has been a palpable sense of coming together; a new age of more unified thinking around farming and the environment. The tired old rivalries between ‘Fergs and Greenies’, which I write about extensively in my book ‘Divide: The relationship crisis between town and country‘, are slowly being replaced with something fresh and new.

Or at least they were.

In 2019 (or was it 2018?) I witnessed then Environment Secretary, Michael Gove, receive a huge round of applause at the Oxford Farming Conference and the Oxford Real Farming Conference. I never thought I would see the day both conferences – one traditionally serving conventional ‘Big Ag’, the other championing small, organic and ‘alternative’ farming systems – could unite around a common aim. That aim was ELMS.

Though far from perfect, the core principle cut across divides and brought people to the table. It built a bridge, in my mind, for the first time. And that – to me – is worth protecting.

But the ELMS bridge is wobbly. If it falls down (or worse, we blow it up) – we risk retreating into division even darker than it was before. Farmer friends – haven’t you noticed things have got a bit kinder in recent years? Yeah, there’s still some #farmerbashing on Twitter, but scroll back four years or so – I guarantee it was worse then (remember animal rights activist Joey Carbstrong and the dairy farmers on This Morning?) Conservation friends – haven’t you noticed farmers are a bit easier to work with these days? Natural flood management, regenerative practices, meadow creation, even beaver reintroductions – positive, practical landowner engagement is happening all over the country.

We are on to something with ELMS.

For those who need a bit of background to all this – here’s my take on it in a nutshell (deep breath everyone):

Defra (the Government department in charge of farming and environmental policy) has been working its socks off since Brexit to develop a new farm support system for England called the Environmental Land Management Scheme (ELMS). It will pay farmers ‘public money for public goods’ instead of the direct area-based payments they received under the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy. In very simple terms, they’ll be paid for looking after the environment instead of/as well as (depending on how you look at it) producing food. It’s been a rocky road since then with snail-like policy development, lots of uncertainty and unaswered questions and Putin losing his mind, invading Ukraine and disrupting global energy and food supplies. That sent the price of fertiliser, fuel and feed through the roof which then led some people (including many farmers) to question whether so much emphasis on environmental land management was a wise move with the price of food rocketing. Some wondered why food couldn’t also be a ‘public good’, considering it keeps us alive, but the Government argued farmers already get paid for food – by us, the Great British Shopper (i.e. ‘the market’). The National Farmers Union continued to lobby the Government to support “food security” alongside environmental protection but critics worried this was simply code for “give us our BPS back” and, therefore, a backward move (the Basic Payment Scheme was EU money paid directly into a landowner or farmer’s bank account. The more land you owned or farmed, the more money you got. Many people, even some farmers, believed this system was unjustifiable.) 

Enter Liz Truss and Ranil Jayawardena who threw a big fat cat among the pigeons. As proud free-marketeers, they’ve long trumpeted the opportunities for British agriculture in new trade deals. They wanted to sell “fantastic British produce” around the world – which, in the quid pro quo world of free trade, means, of course, importing fantastic…global…food….ah (cue sad trombone, lead balloon, damp squib analogies). This ran slap-bang into a deep and collective fear; a passionate belief uniting farm groups and green groups: importing food which undercuts the UK’s environmental and animal welfare standards will decimate farming businesses and spark a race to the bottom that threatens our environment even more.

But “fighter” Liz and a perpetually grinning Ranil had a plan called ‘deregulation’. They’d just get rid of all that annoying red tape, which poses barriers to trade and growth and, while they’re at it, launch a “rapid review” of farm support (i.e. ELMS). Old wounds immediately opened up.

And that’s when Twitter went into meltdown. All-out panic ensued with many believing ELMS was doomed, direct subsidies were coming back, small family farms would transform into evil industrial feedlots overnight and you may as well forget about Net Zero. Some in the media blamed (even smeared) the NFU, claiming it was all their handiwork and they’d wanted rid of ELMS all along. Incensed NFU president Minette Batters hit back by saying the union’s stance hadn’t changed at all – the NFU had helped develop ELMS and wanted to make it work. In short, the whole debacle made us turn on each other. That was the real damage.

To be fair to Ranil and Liz, they didn’t last long enough to tell us what they actually had planned.

I’m not saying I predicted their downfall, sat back, had a pint and waited for it all to blow over (though, I kind of wish I had). No, the whole handling of the ELMS thing was so farcical and pantomimish, all I could do was look on in open-mouthed dismay. Like the cringey video of Ranil standing in a random field in a double-breasted suit; pomping it up about farmers who “curate” our countryside. I mean…someone filmed that, thought ‘yeah, that looks good’ and put it on Twitter.

The whole thing was so utterly bonkers, I found myself thinking, ‘I’m just going to let this play out’. I could conjure no energy for commentary.

But I feel different now. I cautiously welcome Thérèse Coffey’s appointment. She represents a rural constituency and was a junior minister at Defra for three years so let’s hope she can read the room better than Ranil. I have colleagues at the BBC who’ve met her and they shrugged and said she seemed ‘alright’ (that’s an endorsement in journo land). As for the “rapid review”, there’s a debate on food security scheduled in the House of Commons tomorrow (October 27th 2022). I hope with all my heart we can breathe life back into that flickering spirit of unity that so desperately needs nurturing.

I want to end on a passage from my book Divide: “We hold in our hands the most precious and fragile opportunity to protect nature and food security for generations to come, as the four nations of the UK develop their own domestic agricultural policies – the first in nearly half a century. These delicate seedlings will be nurtured equally by people traditionally on opposite sides – philosophically and politically. Farmers and wealthy landowners in wellies, brown brogues and tweed; environmentalists in walking boots, Gore-Tex and holey jumpers, and politicians and civil servants in suits and ties. It’s a crude depiction – I know it’s shamelessly stereotypical, but I also know it’s real. I see these tribes all the time and I can spot them a mile off. They are very different types of people, often with different lives, values and politics, but right now they are aligned and united in their mission more than ever before – to build a better country post-Brexit and post-Covid. It won’t last long – it is a window of wonderful opportunity to bring liberal and conservative together, to heal some of the polarisation in our bruised society. Practical, durable and tough – tweed and Gore-Tex have more in common than you might think.”

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