Thursday, January 08, 2009

Defra wants set aside back

The UK rural affairs ministry, Defra, is to press for the reintroduction of compulsory set aside, most likely at a range of 2 to 4 per cent. The motivation is that the department failed to reach all its biodiversity targets in 2008 and Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) figures showed that farmland bird numbers were in decline.

A link could be made between set-aside and the Entry Level Stewardship Scheme (ELS). One proposal under consideration is to allow farmers to include set aside in the ELS area of a farm. Farmers who are in the scheme would then effectively receive payments for their set aside.

The NFU has argued for set aside to remain at zero per cent, predictably citing food security grounds. A more subtle argument is that it is a very blunt policy instrument, not just for restraining production, but also for achieving biodiversity targets.

The key point here is the reliance on farmland bird populations as a measure of environmental stress. That certainly reflects the agenda setting power of the RSPB, but it is not necessarily the best measure. Moreover, even if one targets farmland bird population, set aside is a crude way of maintaining their numbers.

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