Agriculture, Brexit, Environment, Food, Landscapes

The Agriculture Bill (Wales) White Paper and the Quest for ‘Sustainable Land Management’: A note on some of the key issues for debate.

Terry Marsden


In December 2020, just before the ‘thin’ Brexit deal was struck, the Welsh Government published its Consultation Agriculture Bill White Paper, following its earlier ‘Brexit and our Land ‘ consultation exercises in 2019, and 2020.

This sets out the post-Brexit set of principles upon which devolved agricultural (and, not so clear, food policy more generally; and even less clear, rural development policy), will be progressed as Wales disentangles itself from the EU CAP arrangements. The key principle here is the adoption and endorsement of  a ‘Sustainable Land Management Scheme’; which is generally defined as (para 2.52, p35):

“The use of land resources, including soils, water, animals and plants, for the production of goods to meet changing human needs, while simultaneously ensuring the long-term potential of these resources and the maintenance and enhancement of their environmental benefits”.  

It is argued that (para 2.53, p35):

‘This policy approach will ensure the economic, environmental and social outcomes from land management practice can be delivered for the long-term benefit of the people of Wales. This reflects the obligations placed upon the Welsh Ministers and public bodies set out in the Well-being of Future Generations (Wales) Act 2015 and the Environment (Wales) Act 2016. Further details on the ways in which our proposals are consistent with both Acts were set out in Sustainable Farming and Our Land’.

The plan is to remove the ‘twin pillars’ of the former CAP (Basic payments, and rural development/environment payments) with a single ‘holistic’ farm funding mechanism which will explicitly target payments only for positive environmental enhancements (improvements in soils, water, air quality, bio-diversity and net- zero climate targets), so-called ‘public goods’. As such it will not support particular agricultural production systems or their production directly- so it suggests. However, as any farmer or land-holder will argue, to achieve these generalised as well as farm-level, public good environmental outcomes, it will necessitate changes in farm productions practices associated with production intensity, stocking densities, land use and landscape management. These farm-based issues and the implications for farm practices are currently side-stepped in the documentation in favour of a generalised reliance on assumed aggregated improvements in standard environmental indicators. I will come back to this point below regarding direct and indirect public goods.

  • National Minimum Standards

Sustainable land management principles and funding will be conditional upon meeting nationally agreed minimum standards (yet to be finally specified, but would include baselines for soil and water quality, biodiversity, reductions in carbon emissions, animal welfare, and public health ( the latter is narrowly defined as associated with pollution and potential disease risks, but not including dietary health).

Useful worm comes up from the fresh earth

Clearly a key issue and question here is where and how demanding these National Minimum Standards are likely to be.  As well as how specific and focussed they are with regard to such critical areas as flora and fauna habitats, pesticide use, nitrate and phosphate pollution, landscape conservation and peat and soil management and restoration. These areas need far more detail and discussion given that we are not starting from a ‘blank’ regulatory page here; nor is Wales performing well in terms of agricultural ecological recovery- as recent NRW state of nature reports indicate. Clearly there are opportunities here to ramp up minimum standards beyond what currently exist, such that the SLMS funding does not end up being another ‘polluter- gets- compensated’ scheme. Thus the clarity and ecological ambitions of the National Minimum Standards (NMS’s) is a major forthcoming opportunity to reset the ‘ecological license to operate’ for Welsh Farmers; and thus then to apply selective public funding (SLM) to real restoration and  agro-ecological and landscape enhancements. So far these discussions are avoided by the assumptions that the WG will initially ‘roll over’ existing and inherited environmental regulations thus it argues:

‘We propose the National Minimum Standards would initially be based on the existing legislation which underpins Cross Compliance requirements. This would maintain the existing legal requirements we already have in place. As mentioned above, all SMRs and most GAEC’s (‘Good agricultural and environmental conditions’) are already reflected in domestic legislation. Therefore, we are not proposing to significantly change the current legal requirements, but to consolidate what is already in law into one place. As described in Section 2, the National Minimum Standards are proposed to have a new proportionate enforcement regime which will be subject to further consultation. We do not propose to carry over the current system of BPS penalties for a failure to meet the requirements of Cross Compliance. However, as described in Section 3, given regulatory compliance is required for the proposed new Sustainable Farming Scheme, failure to comply with regulation may put scheme payments at risk. We will consider and consult on this further as part of our detailed scheme design’(para 2.7,p16).

The danger is then that NMS’s will become at minimum a bureaucratic ‘tidying-up’ exercise aimed at reducing ‘environmental red-tape’, rather than a much needed ratcheting up of national safeguards for enforcing higher ecological, biodiversity and landscape standards across the whole of the farmed landscape in Wales. In addition the work ‘landscape’ is largely absent from the narrative.

It will be important to set minimum regulatory standards at a higher and more spatially specific level than has been the case under EU and CAP rules, such that SLM grant funding does not end up continuing to subsidise environmental damage on the vast majority of farmed landscape. This could then give farmers the correct incentives under SLM to undertake additional and truly restorative land use and agricultural practices. Hence it is important that the SLM represents the very top echelons of the environmental and ecological pyramid, necessarily supported below this by national minimum standards.

  • Sustainable Land Management
Rearview shot of a farmer standing on a field

Clearly, and of course depending upon where and how NMS’s are located, defined and constructed, SLM provides a real opportunity to re -set Welsh farming by incentivising necessary agro-ecological transitions.[1] This argues:

‘We propose the Bill should contain provisions establishing SLM as the overarching principle for future agricultural policy, including future support. This will improve farm business resilience by providing an income stream not tied to the markets for agricultural products. It will also offer a way of making Welsh agricultural products unique in the marketplace (through demonstrating evidenced sustainability) and should reduce farm business’ reliance on external inputs (and therefore costs) through a focus a circular economy approach to resource management.  (Para 2.48, p27) .

And more specifically:

‘To realise these benefits, we propose replacing the BPS and EU agri-environment support schemes with the Sustainable Farming Scheme (SFS). The SFS will be a business improvement programme, increasing long-term farm business resilience by rewarding farmers for the delivery of societal outcomes alongside, and as a consequence of, food production. This new income stream will not be market dependent and should increase the farm’s ability to manage in a future, potentially more volatile, market environment. The SFS should reward farmers appropriately for the production of outcomes (healthier soils, clean air, clean water, improved biodiversity, actions to reduce global warming) at levels above those set by regulation, through and alongside the production of food in a sustainable way. We will need to consider the different opportunities for the delivery of these outcomes on each farm as it enters the scheme. This work will define the actions needed to deliver sustainability for that farm business. This is why we set out the need for detailed advice and support for each farm entering the scheme (the Farm Sustainability Review) in our previous consultation. We consider that this initial review is so important to future success that it must be a mandatory part of entry into the scheme.’  (Para 2.60 p29)


‘ The SFS is intended to reward farmers for the delivery of outcomes rather than compensate them for the cost of their inputs. This will offer farmers an income stream not subject to market volatility and whose outcomes cannot be substituted by imports. We propose moving away from traditional agri-environment schemes which paid farmers on the basis of compensation for income foregone and additional costs incurred. We want farmers to regard their input costs to meet the requirements of the scheme as an investment in order to reap the reward of continued payments for the outcomes they deliver.  As part of our economic analysis work we will be undertaking cost-benefit analysis to ascertain the best way to incentivise farmers to do the additional work required to deliver the outcomes we seek. We plan to further develop the option or options that demonstrate the greatest cost/benefit ratio as part of the proposed scheme design. ( para 2.63 p31)’

Moreover, there is a passing reference to the encouragement of short and local food supply chain development as part of SFS:

‘Whilst the supply chains established by food retailers meant they were largely able to maintain the supply of food, the pandemic has led to an increased focus upon food security and the international nature of some supply chains. There is also likely to be increased focus on the maintenance of supply chains at the end of the EU transition period. Whilst it is not possible for Wales (or the UK) to be self-sufficient in terms of food supply, there is an opportunity to consider how we might shorten the supply chain, improve food security and retain the value of food produced within Wales based on its local and sustainable credentials.’  (Para1.51., p7).

There are some important opportunities contained in these principles which will need building upon in the very near future. The fact that Wales will (unlike the ELMs in England) ditch ‘income- forgone’ arrangements in any funding payments is to be welcomed; and the focus upon the delivery of ecological outcomes, assessed by ‘whole farm planning’ and a regular ‘Farm Sustainability Review’, is a recognition that micro- farm-by -farm business planning, supported by necessary advice will be critical in the delivery and efficacy of the scheme. Of course, the ‘devil’ is in how these infrastructural changes will be developed and funded as part of the scheme, how they will involve at least if not more of the 16,400 current claimants of the current CAP system, and how a ‘whole-farm’ approach will be rolled out and by whom. Farm-by- farm ecological planning will need expertise, the development of constructive partnership with landholders, and extension and education. This is potentially ground-breaking and innovative, not in principle unlike what was accomplished in the 1930s, New Deal, where top-down and bottom-up planning and participation processes were based not least on over 10,000 local county agricultural committees made up on farmers and experts across rural America.[2]

  • ‘Out of the box’ issues and the need to open it for indirect public goods

Because there has been created such a binary of thinking in the UK discussions about post- Brexit agricultural policy between what constitutes ‘private-market’ and ‘public common’ goods this framing has somewhat ‘boxed in’ the current Welsh agricultural proposals. Under SLMS it would seem that public funding for farmers will (as in England) only be granted on the basis of delivering, or promising to deliver direct public goods, not marketized goods i.e products. That is public environmental  facilities like clean water, soils, air and bio-diverse natures.

But in reality, in farming especially compared other economic activities, ‘goods’ are produced for the  commodity markets (local, national and international) which  are in themselves of critical public worth. The whole point should be to develop a compatible sustainable farming system which produces both public and private goods simultaneously and in harmony with each other. As, indeed the farming industry has been doing for centuries.

The logic of too stricter definition here in the new policy proposals restricts their framing, and reduces or excludes the possibilities for providing targetted support for initiatives like organic conversions, agro-ecological and horticultural conversion of some land uses, payments for extensive grazing, and conversions from intensive dairying, beef and poultry production. Because the framing says that the state should not support directly changes in commodity production.

Thus the current proposals need confront this too rigid definition of public versus private goods. Why wouldn’t you want the flexibility with the SLM scheme to incentivise directly conversions from intensively farmed arable and dairy land- or at least some of it- to horticultural or organics production. Why box your policy options in to such a restricted binary?

This also extends to promoting an already significant wave of farm-based diversification and energy production practices which as we know can sit compatably with other sustainable farm practices. In addition it currently excludes post-Brexit opportunities farmers might have for forging new green food procurement links (thus new markets) with local public and private bodies (like schools, local authorities, and town and city-based food poverty campaigns.

Thus we can sense a rather conventional and conservative ‘market-thinking’ going on behind the scenes in the current proposals which fails to understand the very definition of farming and the producer of both public and private goods- the question is which and in what combination, and where?

I would therefore suggest, at the very least we define the production of public goods from farming far more flexibly and indeed encompass this flexibility into what the public purse might support. Here I suggest the idea then that there are both direct and indirect public goods in farming  and landscape support, and have been for a long time. Sheep and cattle have been indirect public goods as well as privatised market goods; farmers have been incentivised to produce them on hill lands not just for their commodity worth. They have maintained farm families, and they have continued to shape upland landuse and the landscape, rightly or wrongly. Today state support, through tax breaks and reductions in business rates continue to uphold polluting forms of intensive agricultural production- not such a public good, but it needs recognising.

To create a transformation in Welsh agriculture we have to address farm practices and what it is that we want, as a public, farmers to qualitatively produce. And make this clear in any sustainable land management policy. As a result, we need to understand that both, direct and indirect public goods, make up the mix for a sustainable agri-food transformation. As such, and in fact I predict this will need to be an essential element of whole-farm sustainable plans and reviews, policy support, extension and advice will need to harmonise both the objectives of direct and indirect public goods. This involves not only managing the environmental protection of the farm land, but also planning with the farmers in situ, what is sustainably going to be invested in, produced and what practices this implies. That is what I think we should mean by a ‘whole-farm’ approach.

On a more general level, agricultural and farm policy leadership needs to give clear guidance as to what it wants its farmers to produce. As such politicians and policy makers cannot just leave this to some binary notion of ‘the market’. Farmers need help to shape ‘the market’, and the state needs to foster these more sustainable markets in a post-Brexit world.

  • Conclusions: Placing the Sustainable land management scheme for the future: building a new democratic infrastructure.

Brexit has providing the opportunity for Wales to develop a more distinctive national agricultural policy which could contribute to a significantly distinctive direction of travel for Welsh farming not witnessed since after the war. The basic principles and framework are outlined in this consultation document, but with little detail as to how this will contribute to wider and more holistic goals surrounding food policy or rural development more generally. There is nothing on the direction of travel in which we see specific land use change in Wales beyond net zero targets for carbon emissions, and suggestions that certain land use changes (more woodland and forestry in the order of 2000 has per year as specified in the Future Wales National Development Framework; organic and horticulture hectarage) need to be given special priority in the sustainable land management scheme. ‘Building resilience’, ‘circular economy’, changing the reliance on existing farm inputs and ‘improving resource efficiency’ all get a mention, but need more specification as to how they would inform farm-level sustainable plans and reviews. We have to recognise that ‘Sustainable Land Management’ does not revolve around the ‘head of a pin’. It is both farm and landscape specific. And so to achieve these goals each farm, nested in their particular and communal landscape, needs to evolve specific ecological and farm business plans. This is far more challenging than completing compliance farm mapping exercises for current single farm payment or Pillar two compliance. And it will require a different farm-based ‘skill set’ for the army of planning advisors who will need to work with the farmers.

Moreover, the work of the NRW in its area statements, catchment plans and existing environmental monitoring and enforcement work will need directly aligning to this framework. In addition the top-down nature of the policy development thus far now needs to develop a more collaborative and co-produced approach with farmers and landowners, such that they can become the owners of the new , potentially innovative approach. There are plenty of good examples around the world where landholders, NGOs and community groups collaborate to produce integrated land-based policies.

The SLM scheme needs to empower more collaborative place-based working, and be sensitive to the particularities and different environmental priorities in different parts of Wales. It will require a new institutional architecture built upon sound expertise, advice and education, involving groups of family farmers engaging in collaborative environmental restorative ventures. Here Wales has good practices to build upon with former schemes like Ty Cymen and Glastir, but this will need mainstreaming. Here the vast areas of Designated landscapes in Wales, covering 25% of the total area, can also take a devolved and innovative lead. In short, to progress SLM will require an inclusive and holistic rather than a narrowly defined sectoral, centralised approach. In the absence of other funds for rural or regional development it may become the only funding ‘game in town’. As such it needs to be a farming policy for the rural community, and as such needs to encourage transformative changes over the next decade.

[1] See not least these arguments outlined in ‘ A Welsh Food System Fit for future generations.’ Sanderson-Bellamy, A and Marsden T.K. Sustainable Places Research Institute and WWF Cymru, March 2020; and Food Policy Alliance Cymru, Manifesto 2021: Our Priorities for a Food System Fit for Future Generations.

[2] See Jess Gilbert’s (2016) history of the agricultural new deal in the US: ‘Planning democracy: agrarian intellectuals and the intended new deal. Yale University Press, USA.


  • Paul Sinnadurai

    Good analysis Terry! Some further observations: given the scale of adjustments required to achieve the scale of nature recovery and climate change mitigation and adaptation required, perhaps all the country agencies, NPAs, AoNBs, NGOs etc should agree to stop everything else we’re doing to provide the essential advice and support required for the agriculture and land management sector; seriously. This is the scale of effort required, say, over a 10 year period. The potential benefits and added value would significantly outweigh the extent and scale of what is currently achievable through current actions. Noteworthy, essential and valuable as these are, we all know that they have never been enough and State of Nature and SoNaRR reports underline that fact and the fact that far more needs to be done outside and between the statutory sites, nature reserves and so on. After all, humans have already occupied, changed, subjugated and corralled the best ecosystems for our own benefit and comfort, marginalising nature in these areas, and even exterminating it, whilst identifying and designating the vulnerable fragments where nature subsists as our “jewels in the crown”.

    So, just as Professor Sir Ian Boyd stated in 2018, that in order to reverse the collapse of nature we need to achieve disruptive change and we have until about 2030 to stop irreversible losses, that disruption might apply equally to the nature conservation sector as it does to any other.

    “Ecological licensing” is a good concept. In our various roles as members of society (parents, children, patients, consumers etc.), we rely heavily on the skills, licensing, vetting and auditing of other sectors that provide other essential services, e.g., education, health care, social services, energy supplies, water supplies etc. and we take what these services to do for granted because the regulatory processes involved guarantee matters for us. Indeed these sectors are not permitted to operate without the appropriate licences, checks, standards and targets set by the regulatory authorities and so on. So, if the public benefits that agriculture and land management are to be asked to provide are equally important, and all the evidence and policy direction demonstrates that they are, how will the regulatory processes guarantee equivalent standards and transparency of what are mainly private and frequently, family-run businesses?

    There is a range of great initiatives available to help contextualise and support the SFS and its participants, including the regional and local nature recovery action plans, local nature partnerships, Wales’ four Local Environmental Records Centres (a real feather in Wales’ environmental cap, achieved bottom-up), ecological network mapping, efforts to build long term surveillance and monitoring and so on.

    And yes, there is clearly a role to be given to Wales’ designated landscapes; but they will need to be given the tools for the job if they are to serve as the leaders and pathfinders that policy statements like Valued and Resilient ask of them.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *