The Agriculture Bill is back and with it we are a step closer to “a future where farmers are properly supported to farm more innovatively and protect the environment”, according to Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Secretary of State, Theresa Villiers.
At nearly 100 pages, the Agriculture Bill is not only a “landmark” piece of legislation but a pretty hefty one, and as ever the devil will be in the detail. But on an initial read, here are the key points you need to be aware of:
1. Public money for public goods is staying
Under the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP), which will fall away post Brexit, several different payment bases have been used. The most recent being an area basis, providing Direct Payments under the Basic Payment Scheme (BPS). This is difficult to justify from a public spending point of view and was seen by many as a top priority for change.
Going forwards, Clause 12 allows payments to be delinked from land. Paying instead for the benefits under clause 1, some of which will help tackle the climate and nature emergency, will ensure that public money is funding public benefit and contributions to our environment rather than those who own it.
2. Soil has made it into the list of public goods under clause 1
Back in 2019 we published a PPS on protecting and enhancing soils and stated that it was time this fundamental resource gained equal recognition to others such as water and air.
We recognise that there is still work to be done on understanding how to measure soil health and its public value. Defra recognise this too and see the inclusion of soil in the Bill as a way of allowing them to “provide assistance for soil monitoring programmes and soil health research to support farmers with their decision-making and soil management”.
3. Sustainability gets a mention
In the design of any financial assistance scheme, such as the anticipated Environmental Land Management scheme (ELMs), the Bill states that “the Secretary of State must have regard to the need to encourage the production of food […] in an environmentally sustainable way”. The Bill goes on to specifically reference organic farming and agroecology. Whilst we wait to see what support is included in ELMs, recognition of regenerative farming approaches is an important step.
4. Food security has been introduced…
The Bill now includes a requirement for the Government to regularly report on food security to Parliament under clause 17. Here food security isn’t to be confused with self-sufficiency, the reports will look at a range of factors which may include “global food availability” and “household expenditure on food”. Notably the list given in 17(2) doesn’t include the impacts of climate change, extreme weather and biodiversity decline, which is a glaring omission given the current crisis. There’s also no mention of how the food security reports are to be considered or acted on, which could see them neatly arranged on a shelf to gather dust.
5. …Trade conditions have not.
Whilst the Bill looks to champion British food through improving supply chain transparency and fairness, it doesn’t remove the option for trade deals to allow imports of low standard food. As such farmers could still be vulnerable to being undercut by the import of poorly produced, cheap food. In importing such food we would effectively be offshoring the external impacts of that food, such as environmental damage. However, the climate and nature emergency is global and no matter where the damage originates the impacts will be felt far more widely.
The Bill will now make its way through the scrutiny process, hopefully with more success than last time. Given the sizable majority the Government now has, opportunity for amendments to the Bill may be limited.
But in shaping the future of farming, the Bill is far from the only important announcement.
At the Oxford Farming Conference, Theresa Villiers stated that the reforms set out in the Bill would be supported by the Conservative’s manifesto commitment to maintain overall annual funding for farm support over the duration of the Parliament. The Bill supplements this by requiring “multi-annual financial assistance plans” to give more clarity on the Government’s strategic priorities for financial assistance in plan periods. The first plan period covers the seven year transition from CAP to ELMs, starting 2021.
Putting the Bill’s principles into practice will depend on funding priorities as set out in multi-annual financial assistance plans, the contents of the awaited Policy Statement to support the Bill, the approach of the new ELM scheme, how the transition from BPS to ELMs is managed, and of course the impact of any trade deals negotiated. Despite its bulk, the Bill provides only the framework for designing support post 2020. There are many other factors at play and much about future support is still unknown.
As we explained in our latest report, 25 Year Environment Plan: ambition to realisation, farming activity as guided by the new ELM scheme will pay a vital part in the management of large areas of land. To be successful in tackling the climate and nature emergency, and meet 25 YEP ambitions, getting the new ELM scheme right is imperative. The new Agriculture Bill is an important step in enabling that.
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