How Truss’s post-Brexit farming policy descended into chaos

The chaos in the English countryside began with the click of a civil servant’s mouse. At the end of last week, farmers who had been working with the government on environmental subsidy schemes saw that their regular meetings about it had been removed from their online diaries without warning.

This appeared to hint at what had been feared – that the new post-Brexit farming subsidy scheme was in danger of being scrapped.

When the UK was in the EU, landowners were paid simply for managing land. The more land someone owned, the more money they received.

Michael Gove, who at the time was the environment secretary overseeing post-Brexit changes, decided to build a scheme under which landowners would only get paid if they provided “public goods” such as environmental protections.

This became the environmental land management scheme (Elms). The idea was that this would be a fast and effective way to transform the countryside, make it more nature-friendly, store carbon and create a sustainable farming system that is resilient to climate change and less reliant on inputs such as pesticides.

However, creating it has been an uphill battle, with farmers and other land managers spending hundreds of thousands of hours on pilot schemes and wading through bureaucracy. Not only that, but the National Farmers’ Union (NFU) was lobbying hard to water down environmental aspects and “focus on food productivity” – though any regenerative farmer would tell you that these go hand in hand.

Rightwing Tories also loathed Elms, too, thinking it was “woke” to spend taxpayers’ money on eco-friendly policies. Many of those who lobbied against the scheme are now part of Liz Truss’s cabinet, so there were fears it would be scrapped once they came to power.

Related: Government poised to scrap nature ‘Brexit bonus’ for farmers

Farmers who had their meetings removed contacted the Guardian, fearing this was the case. At the weekend, sources in government told the Observer that Elms had indeed been put “on pause” pending a review and that “everything is on the table”, including going back to area-based payments. This would effectively mean Elms, a key part of the government’s net zero strategy, would be abandoned.

Perhaps the government hoped that using the day of the mini-budget to cancel meetings and decide to “review” the scheme would help it fly under the radar. However, this was evidently not the case.

As the rumours were confirmed, the rural landscape exploded in anger. Land managers were desperate for clarity from the government, which was not forthcoming, and charities including the National Trust, RSPB and Wildlife Trusts urged their millions of members to pen angry letters to their MPs.

Michael Gove wrote a missive to the Times asking for Elms to be saved, and the Country Land and Business Association (CLA), which represents landowners, said: “As farmers and land managers, we know that you do not have to choose between food production and improving the environment. We can and must do both.” Even Truss’s favourite rightwing thinktank, the IEA, said area-based subsidies “encourage laziness”.

The chaos intensified when Minette Batters, the president of the NFU, welcomed the review and told the BBC that nature recovery should be funded by private investors and taken out of the scheme, with farmers subsidised for producing food.

This incensed senior members of the NFU who have spent years improving their farms for nature and working on Elms – and many threatened to quit.

Bruised, Batters backpedalled, and tweeted: “For the record I want Elms to deliver for environment and food, be profitable for all farmers. We must take time to get this right.”

But farmers are still not convinced. One told the Guardian: “Minette has realised how far away from everyone else’s position the NFU is. I’m seriously thinking about moving my subs away from NFU to the CLA now.”

The outcry even caused the new environment secretary, Ranil Jayawardena, to find a field to stand in, in order to film a video to reassure farmers. He said he was “committed to schemes” to help farmers “curate the countryside” and promised to deliver a “strong environment”. However, there was no commitment to any specific policy, and Elms remains under review with no end date in sight. Clarity is, instead, promised to be given “in the autumn”.

Related: Farmers threaten to quit NFU as leader backs scrapping of nature subsidies

Farmers on both sides of the debate mocked Jayawardena’s “empty words” and compared his bluster to that of Boris Johnson. However, the fact he felt the need to film the video at all reassured some that the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs was listening and a U-turn could be possible.

One prominent nature-friendly farmer said: “It’s good we have Defra on the back foot. They didn’t anticipate the outrage they would cause, but we have still seen no assurances about any of the environmental policies in the schemes. There is still a great danger that it will be watered down. We have to keep the pressure up.”

However, others fear that the fragile consensus that farmers should be paid for nature recovery may still be shattered.

One award-winning regenerative farmer said: “It’s a bloody scary time for farming and the environment. I honestly thought we were getting somewhere with a sniff of the right government support, farmers were beginning to see they needed to change and people who had never even looked at a hedgerow flower or nesting bird had actually started to do some positive things. I hope that small amount of momentum can carry itself forward.”

Even if the government does drop Elms, many farmers are finding nature-friendly farming good for business.

Related: Ben Goldsmith: next PM must back plan for farm subsidies to protect nature

Dominic Buscall manages the environmental schemes at his family’s farm in north Norfolk at Ken Hill. He said: “Embedding nature in our business has caused it to grow and become financially sustainable: our farming is more profitable, we are attracting private and public payments for ecosystem services, and we have a growing nature-based tourism business.”

Another obvious example of profitable farming alongside the environment is the organic farm Riverford, which sends its vegetable boxes across the country.

Its CEO, Rob Haward, said: “We were heartened to see the environment at the heart of new farming subsidies under Elms. To hear that these are to be potentially scrapped under a new drive for productivity is a shocking U-turn.

“At Riverford, we have been farming organically for 30 years, and are living proof that you can produce high-quality, nutritious food on a commercial level while working in harmony with nature. These schemes would open the door for many more farmers across the UK to follow suit, at a time when we drastically need a change in how we produce food, restore nature, and address the climate crisis.”

Across the country, agricultural businesses are struggling with drought and the rising cost of inputs, and will soon be competing with countries with lower regulations after Truss’s trade deals. Expecting them to solve the biodiversity crisis on their own, on top of this, may prove a demand too far.

BPS v Elms

Basic payment scheme
The basic payment scheme is the biggest farmer subsidy scheme. It pays a flat rate per hectare. It is a payment given simply for managing land, and there are few restrictions on what you can do. However, there is a small amount of environmental regulation involved – for example, an arable farmer might need to grow three different crops and use 5% of their land to do specific things that are good for the environment. The cap for England for 2022 is set at £1,845,156,000. the payments are due to be halved by 2024 and abolished by 2028.

Environmental land management scheme
This was intended to replace BPS, which is viewed by many as an inefficient use of taxpayers’ money, as it is given to farmers with few requirements for what they do with their land. This can encourage inefficient farming practices and the destruction of nature.

Instead, farmers will have to meet certain environmental targets, for example improving species abundance or soil quality. The scheme originates from the “sustainable farming incentive”, which pays farmers for environmentally friendly practices everyone can do, to landscape-scale recovery in which large landowners or groups of small farms can collaborate on bespoke schemes to support and protect nature.