Steph Morren unpacks the latest announcement on ELMS.

Earlier in January, we heard from Mark Spencer – farming minister at Defra – about the Government’s plans for the roll-out of the Sustainable Farming Incentive (SFI), and Countryside Stewardship (CS) – two of the three schemes within ELMS. Much of the detail was missing, but overall the ambition did not look overly promising.

Today, Defra published more detail on what exactly farmers could be paid for in the SFI standards being rolled out this year, and the focus on actions that will really benefit nature is very promising. This blog focusses on the detail of the Integrated Pest Management (IPM) standard.

What is Integrated Pest Management (IPM)?

Genuine IPM is an approach to managing pests, diseases or unwanted plants under which chemical pesticides are used only as a last resort, if at all. Pests must be monitored and impacts understood at farm level to decide when and how to act, and natural pest control using ecological principles comes first.

We know the Government wants to support uptake of IPM – and the simple fact that an IPM standard is included in the first batch of standards to be rolled out is important. The Government’s 25 Year Environment Plan committed to: “Putting Integrated Pest Management (IPM) at the heart of a holistic approach, by developing and implementing policies that encourage and support sustainable crop protection with the minimum use of pesticides”. We also expect the now much-delayed pesticides National Action Plan (NAP) to include commitments to increasing uptake of IPM as a means to reduce the risk to people and the environment from pesticides.

What should be included vs what has been proposed

For months or longer, Defra has involved stakeholders including farmers and NGOs in the development of IPM actions that would be paid for in the standard. What was widely acknowledged was the importance of including all the different elements of IPM:

  • Planning and training, including monitoring of pest thresholds
  • habitat creation for beneficial biodiversity – placed within or close to the cropped area
  • ensuring diversity of crops across the farm such as increased rotations and companion cropping

What is key about this, is that farmers and growers must ideally do ALL of these elements in order to genuinely reduce the need for pesticides.

This table sets out what has been announced today in terms of the actions that will be on offer in 2023, in relation to IPM:

Action Payment rate Main positive environmental impacts
Complete an integrated pest management (IPM) assessment and produce an IPM plan £989 per year Not applicable
Establish and maintain flower-rich grass margins, blocks, or in-field strips £673 per hectare Biodiversity, carbon, water quality, soil health, climate adaptation
Establish a companion crop £55 per hectare Climate adaptation, biodiversity, water quality, soil health
No use of insecticide £45 per hectare Biodiversity

Will this achieve what we need it to?

Firstly we must acknowledge what is good here. Taken together, the actions encompass most of what makes up a good IPM strategy. And Defra’s language around the aim being to reduce inputs to support nature and support farm businesses is really helpful for farmers to understand what these actions are trying to achieve. Habitat creation is vital (although as currently written, there is no stipulation that the habitat needs to be anywhere near the crop), and the inclusion of insecticide-free areas is extremely welcome and really shows that Defra recognise the importance of protecting pollinators and other beneficial insects. So this is not a bad start at all, and we are cautiously optimistic about the direction of travel.

However, an important thing to note, is that this is now effectively a pick’n’mix situation, whereby a farmer could simply do the IPM plan action, without any of the practical actions. Therefore, it is not clear how the planning element will avoid being a ‘tick-box’ exercise, without any changes being made on farms, and therefore no discernible impact on pesticide use. Ideally, we would have seen the packaging up of actions together, to make faster progress on increasing uptake of genuine IPM. For example, farmers having to pick a number of practical actions in addition to the IPM plan.

What needs to happen next?

It is absolutely vital that Defra considers and communicates how and when the ambition in the schemes as a whole will be ramped up. For the sake of farmers’ businesses, for future food security, and for tackling the nature and climate crises, these schemes are a lifeline and an opportunity that must be grasped!

For now, a positive start, and some much-needed answers for farmers.

By Steph Morren