Yesterday (16 January), the UK introduced the Agriculture Bill. Key areas addressed include food security, food safety, and the government’s 2050 net-zero emissions target.
Public money for ‘public goods’
According to the new policy, the current subsidy system of Direct Payments will be discontinued. This system pays farmers for the total amount of land farmed, which can mean that the largest landowners receive the largest payments.
While the Direct Payments scheme will continue in 2020, as of 2021 the government will bring in a new policy designed to favour farmers ‘delivering specific public benefits’.
Farmers and land managers in England that provide ‘public goods’ such as better air and water quality, improved access to the countryside, measures to reduce flooding, and ensure higher animal welfare standards, will be rewarded with public money.
According to the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), this policy will contribute to the government’s commitment to reaching net-zero emissions by 2050, while helping to boost farmers’ productivity.
“This is one of the most important environmental reforms for many years, rewarding farmers for the work they do to safeguard our environment and helping us meet crucial goals on climate change and protecting nature and biodiversity,” said Environmental Secretary Theresa Villiers.
“We will move away from the EU’s bureaucratic Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) and towards a fairer system which rewards our hard-working farmers for delivering public goods, celebrating their world-leading environmental work and innovative, modern approach to food production.”
The National Farmers’ Union (FNU) has welcomed the government’s plan to reward farmers for their environmental efforts.
“Farmers are rightly proud of their environmental efforts and it is crucial this new policy recognises and rewards the environmental benefits they delivery, both now and in the future,” - NFU President Minette Batters.
The decision to reward farmers for public benefits, rather than support based on the amount of land they own, was similarly well received by UK food and farming charity Sustain.
“Sustain also welcomes the inclusion of financial rewards for soil protection in the Bill and the need to raise awareness of agroecology,” said sustainable farming campaign coordinator Vicki Hird.
However, Hird stressed that the finer details have yet to be published. “Defra is still working on what exactly they will subsidise farmers to do. So we want to see tangible measures to help all farmers and growers adopt agro-ecological practices to tackle the climate and nature emergency whilst producing the healthy food that everyone needs.”
Addressing food security
Investing in these ‘foundations’ of food production is intended to safeguard the nation’s food supply. According to the Bill, any UK government is legally required to report regularly on food security to Parliament.
UK trade group the Food and Drink Federation (FDF) has applauded the government’s committed to keeping food security under review, with CEO Ian Wright adding: “It must assess both domestic production as well as vital ingredients and goods from overseas.”
For NFU’s Batters, the commitment to regular reporting is ‘reassuring’. However, she stressed this must be more than simply a ‘box-ticking’ exercise. “It is vital that British farming continues to contribute a significant proportion of our nation’s food needs and that we set the ambition of growing more, selling more and exporting more British food.
“We look forward to more detail about how exactly the food security provisions will operate and how they account for the strategic importance of a robust and resilient domestic farming sector.”
Sustain similarly welcome the implementation of regular food security reviews, highlighting the link between food production and climate variances.
The reviews “will need to encompass the impacts of climate change such as flooding, drought, changing seasons and extreme weather events, as well as biodiversity loss, such as declines in beneficial insects and pollinators on the resilience and diversity of our food supply”, said Hird.
The Bill sets out to improve transparency and fairness in the supply chain, through investments in new technology and research.
“By collecting data from across the supply chain, the government will also help food producers strengthen their negotiating position at the farm gate and seek a fairer return,” noted Defra.
A key component to a ‘thriving farm business’ is a transparent and fair supply chain, agreed NFU’s Batters, complimenting the government’s pledge to address these aspects.
“Across many sectors we have seen inexplicable downward price pressure, including most recently in the beef sector. Stamping out unfair trading practices and improving the bargaining position of farmers in the supply chain are vital steps we must take across all of the farming sector.”
Similarly for Sustain, producing healthy food, restoring nature, and tackling climate change, is reliant on decent livelihoods for the farming sector. “Sustain is therefore very pleased to see the government maintain the commitments on regulating the supply chain (the Fair Dealing clause 27) in order to drive out unfair practices – which harm farmers here and overseas, limit their options for investing in sustainable practices and lead to shocking amounts of food going to waste,” noted campaign coordinator Hird.
Post-Brexit trade deals
The ‘elephant in the room’ remains, as Sustain’s Hird put it, the implications of post-Brexit trade deals.
Industry is concerned that the government will accept the import of food made to lower standards than currently allowed in the EU. “We need to see a legal framework to ensure this cannot happen,” noted Hird.
Speaking on behalf of UK farmers, NFU’s Batters said the sector still wants to see “legislation underpinning the government’s assurances that they will not allow the imports of food produced to standards that would be illegal here through future trade deals.
“We will continue to press the government to introduce a standards commission as a matter of priority to oversee and advise on future food trade policy and negotiations.”
Just last week, Defra’s Villiers suggested that the protection of the UK’s food standards would be an important part of the UK’s strategy when negotiating with the EU and other countries.
“Backing better standards is a core part of the Government’s approach to Brexit… We can maintain and indeed enhance UK standards as we negotiate new trading relationships with friends and neighbours in the EU and leading global economics.”