EU wildlife grants will be used to grow crops
Grants designed to protect the countryside have been controversially switched to pay England's farmers to grow beans and peas.
The EU's new rules on subsidies oblige farmers to ensure that some of their land supports wild plants and animals.
But during negotiations, farmers in Europe watered down the policy so planting crops that improve soil may be counted as helping wildlife.
Wildlife campaigners have expressed outrage at the move.
Member states can tighten the EU rule if they want to, but England's farmers persuaded the government this would make them uncompetitive.
The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) announced that planting peas and beans in so-called Ecological Focus Areas (EFAs) will qualify for full grants.
A spokesman said: "We have included Nitrogen Fixing Crops as an EFA because we want farmers to have as much flexibility as possible so they can focus on growing British food. We are supporting the environment through investing over £3bn in agri-environment schemes over the next CAP, which is more than ever before."
Today's announcement focuses on the "greening" element of the CAP, which will tie 30% of a farmer's subsidy payments to new environmental requirements.
End Quote Andrew Clark National Farmers Union
We think including this measure is very positive for the environment”
The RSPB's Martin Harper said: "The government has squandered this opportunity and is handing out £11bn to the farming industry in England and expecting very, very little in return."
Stephen Trotter, of The Wildlife Trusts, condemned the decision to allow grants to peas and beans: "Nitrogen-fixing crops improve the soil but don't help wildlife at all," he said. "This is bizarre. It gets more outrageous every minute I think about it. It seems that farmers just want public funds with no strings attached."
Andrew Clark of the National Farmers Union (NFU) told BBC News it was vital for the government to apply wildlife protection rules at the same levels as continental neighbours.
"Comparing nitrogen-fixing crops with permanent pasture, obviously the pasture will have greater biodiversity," he said. "But we believe a range of options should be available to farmers. Anyone with broad beans in their garden will see they are full of pollinators at the moment.
"Wildflower meadows tend to have quite a limited flowering season but some legumes are flowering from April to June, and others much later in summer. We think including this measure is very positive for the environment."
The row follows a report last week in which a group of experts warned that the Commission had failed in its attempt to "green" the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) to give value to taxpayers and safeguard the countryside. The report said only strong discretionary policies by member states could protect wildlife.
Mr Trotter said: "I understand the government is not in an easy position - ministers don't want England's farmers to lose out if Europe's farmers are facing watered down rules. But we can't keep going on like this throwing public money in the knowledge that it'll all be reduced to the lowest common denominator."
Households pay roughly £400 a year towards the subsidies.
A Commission source said that encouraging farmers to grow beans would help Europe's food security by increasing the amount of protein, which in turn would help to reduce imports of soya.
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