The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and Natural England have not optimised value for money for the almost £200 million scheme to encourage farmers into organic farming and deliver environmental benefits, according to a National Audit Office report published today.
The Organic Entry Level Stewardship scheme is overseen by the Department and run by Natural England and the Rural Payments Agency using EU money and matched funding from UK taxpayers. Defra’s forecasts for expenditure of EU funds assumed a constant rate of take-up each year, which the NAO considers over-optimistic, and present a risk that EU funds will not all be utilised.
The scheme pays organic farmers for managing their land in ways that will protect or enhance the natural environment or historic landscape. The scheme is likely to have achieved environmental benefits by supporting organic farming, and the money paid to farmers for adopting environmental land management measures has had some impact, but this could be increased.
Farmers can choose which environmental measures to implement and, according to the NAO survey, 57 per cent chose some measures that involve managing features already in place on their farm. Many of the more challenging options are rarely implemented. Defra is now taking steps to improve the environmental impact of the scheme by promoting better targeted measures.
Take-up of the scheme broadly reflects take-up of organic farming methods in the farming industry as a whole. The scheme benefits larger farms, especially in the beef and dairy sectors, more than smaller farms.
Farmers are happy with the quality of service provided by Natural England in administering the scheme. It has considerably reduced the time it takes to process scheme applications and the time taken to process payments since the start of the scheme, but IT costs do still remain high.