Rome, Italy
Thomson Reuters Foundation

In the biggest shakeup of British farming for 70 years, the government on Thursday proposed rewarding farmers who protect the environment, rather than just paying them to own land.

The bill would "transform British farming, enabling a balance between food production and the environment," Theresa Villiers, Britain's farm minister, said in a statement.

Midlands farmland

Fields in the Midlands, England. PICTURE: Magda V/Unsplash

Farmers hailed the bill as "hugely positive" and "bold" but said the timing was tight and much more must be done.

Minette Batters, president of the National Farmers' Union, called it "one of the most significant pieces of legislation for farmers in England for over 70 years".

The Soil Association, Britain's leading organic charity and certification body, praised the new green focus.

"But without legislative support for whole-farm falls short," said Gareth Morgan, the association's head of farming & land use policy.

"All of these ambitions remain dependent on good trade deals and good political choices to fund practices that truly protect climate and nature, so there is still a long way to go," he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation by email.

If the bill becomes law, it would revolutionise farm policy in Britain, which subsidises farmers for the amount of land they own, rather than how they actually use it.

Under the plan, farmers in England will reap rewards by better tending their soil, livestock and water, as well as by conserving native plants and animals.

Soil experts have long advocated taking better care of soils, which are degrading at an alarming rate, saying healthy soils would boost crop productivity and water availability and decrease greenhouse gas emissions.

"Of course, it is to be welcomed that the government is taking bold steps to improve soil," said John Crawford, a professor at the University of Glasgow.

However, the time lines are tight and some of the gains would require investment for 20 years, he said.

"But we must rise to the challenge...of significantly mitigating the climate and environment crisis," he added.

The bill, which outlines agricultural policy after Britain leaves the European Union on 31st January, sets out a seven-year transition period, starting in 2021.

Farmers worry that Britain's exit from the EU - source of 28% pct of British food and £3 billion a year in support - might flood the market with cheap products made to lower hygiene, labour and environmental standards.

The government, however, has said Brexit provides an opportunity to farm more innovatively, increase productivity and build "a better future for agriculture in this country".

"The landmark legislation introduced today will provide a boost to the industry after years of inefficient and overly bureaucratic policy dictated to farmers by the EU," the government said in a statement.

Globally, agriculture, forestry and other land uses together account for nearly a quarter of the greenhouse gas emissions heating up the planet, according to the United Nations.