Organic farmers and landowners are being paid millions of pounds to adopt environmental measures many already have in place, spending watchdogs have warned.
By Louise Gray, Environment CorrespondentPublished: 7:00AM BST 31 Mar 2010
The EU and UK Government is handing out £200 million over seven years to farmers willing to convert to organic methods and further help the environment by maintaining land for wildlife.
However the National Audit Office found that more than half of the farmers claiming money for environmentally-friendly options are being paid for measures they would have carried out anyway, such as maintaining hedgerows or historic buildings.
At the same time few farmers claimed money for more challenging measures such as attracting birds and insects by planting wild flowers or creating waterways.
Edward Leigh, Chairman of the Committee of Public Accounts, said farmers should do more to gain taxpayers' money.
"The scheme allows farmers to opt to be paid for activities they were carrying out anyway," he said. "I would say that this is money for old rope – being paid for letting your hedges grow."
The NAO report found the scheme, that began in 2007 and runs to 2014, benefited larger businesses rather than small family farms and take up was lower than expected.
Half the money for the Organic Entry Level Stewardship Scheme comes from Europe and the rest is from the Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), but the NAO warned that up to £10 million from the EU could be withheld unless enough farmers sign up.
Mr Leigh said the environmental benefits of the scheme are unclear.
"There is a consensus that organic farming is good for the environment," he said. "The problem here is that the department is not in the position to measure what environmental benefits have accrued from the money spent. This is simply spending in the pious hope that something good must somehow come out of it."
Peter Melchett, policy director of the Soil Association, insisted there are environmental benefits purely from going organic.
However he agreed the scheme could be improved by asking farmers to do more for wildlife in order to gain subsidies.
A Defra spokeswoman said the report did find there were environmental benefits and insisted the scheme was value for money.
:: Environment subsidies also provide additional income, employment and other social benefits for their local communities, a report commissioned by the Government has shown
The report on the ‘Incidental socio-economic benefits of Environmental Stewardship’ found the funding can lead to increases in local income and employment, as well as the development of farmers’ social networks and farm business skills.