£500m backing for shift towards healthy farming

By Geoffrey Lean, Environment Editor

08 December 2002

Ministers will this week announce a shift towards environmentally friendly farming, in the biggest change of direction in British agriculture for half a century.

They will signal the end of a policy of maximising production, adopted at the end of the Second World War, and point farmers towards producing healthy food and conserving wildlife and the countryside.

And they will launch a £500m "framework for change" which will direct government agricultural subsidies towards promoting conservation, boost food quality, and persuade farmers to offer low-lying land, in return for compensation, as "water storage areas" to take the strain during flooding.

Farmers' leaders are likely to fiercely resist the changes, to be announced by Margaret Beckett, the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Secretary, on Thursday.

But environmentalists will say they do not go far enough. The policy is a direct result of last year's foot and mouth epidemic, which caused Tony Blair and senior ministers to reappraise British agriculture, one of the most intensive in the world.

In line with the recommendations of the Policy Commission on Food and Farming, headed by Sir Donald Curry, ministers are to bring in a system of subsidies which, for the first time, will enable farmers to receive government grants for environmentally friendly agriculture.

Four pilot schemes for the grants are being launched, around Tiverton in Devon, Mortimer in Berkshire, Market Deeping in Lincolnshire and Barnard Castle in Durham. Farmers will identify environmentally significant features and areas on their land, and be paid to manage them for conservation. After two years the scheme will go nationwide. Half will be financed by the Treasury, and the rest by redirecting EU subsidies which would otherwise have gone to promoting intensive production.