The Agriculture Bill, described by the NFU as the “biggest reform and transformation of British agriculture since 1945”, sets out the UK’s farming policy as we leave the EU and the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP).
This landmark legislation debated today, aims to “boost productivity and reward environmental improvements in the farming sector”, and upon its release to Parliament in January, was initially well received by animal health and welfare groups and the wider farming and environmental community.
Under the new system, the Government promises that farmers will be rewarded for the important role they play in mitigating the negative effects of the climate crises. At the heart of the Bill, is a shift from direct payments to farmers based upon the amount of agricultural land they manage. This was a feature of CAP that pushed up land prices, created a barrier for young farmers and benefited large landowners disproportionately. Instead, landowners will be paid to produce “public goods”, such as clean, plentiful water, better air, and higher animal welfare standards. Over the next seven years, farmers will move from CAP regulations to a new system of Environmental Land Management (ELM).
Despite an initial warm reception, there are now concerns that UK standards are at risk. Many would like to see stronger protections for UK standards in trade deals to prevent farmers being undercut by cheaper imports.
In the remaining stages of the Bill MPs voted against an amendment, put forward by the Chair of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee, Conservative MP Neil Parish. The amendment required new international treaties on the import of agricultural and food products to comply with World Trade Organisation safety rules and the UK’s own high standards. It was defeated by 328 votes to 277 receiving the support of just 22 other Conservative MPs. (Although the Chancellor, Rishi Sunak and his PPS, Claire Coutinho’s ‘accidentally’ voted for the amendment claiming issues with the new electronic voting system).
Despite concerns from both sides of the bench, Victoria Prentis, the Farming Minister, reassured MPs that despite the amendment being voted down, this does not mean the end for the UK’s world leading standards. “I’d like to reassure colleagues that all food coming into this country will be required to meet existing import requirements”.
What does it mean for the sector?
The Bill has addressed an array of concerns from the farming community, providing legal framework to assess food security, establishing multi-annual financial programmes to maintain farm support budgets, encouraging food production and “public money for public goods” under ELM, and provisions to support productivity amongst many others.
Yet concerns persist over standards, there is a real risk that the UK could trade away an entire sector, jeopardizing the future of British farming, if standards are relaxed to prioritise economic gain. It is imperative that trade deals do as Trade Secretary Liz Truss said recently, “benefit UK farmers”.
An area of the farming industry the Bill offers great opportunity, is innovation in the Agri-Tech industry, as the ELM scheme is intended to reward investment in technology and other measures that will improve productivity and reduce environmental impacts. The core focus on the environment has been welcomed, however mitigating these impacts will be a challenge, and technology, like a lot of sectors, provides innovative ways to increase efficiency and productivity whilst enabling the sector to survive and remain profitable. The Bill is a catalyst for intense reform in this sector and Agri-Tech has an opportunity to innovate their way through the new era of British farming.
Now the Bill passed the third reading in the Commons and its first reading in the House of Lords, it now faces its second reading by peers. This presents the first opportunity for members of the Lords to debate the key principles and main purpose of the Bill and raise any concerns or specific areas where they think amendments are needed. There is an opportunity for organisations to engage once again to push forward their agenda, reiterating their messaging and influence the debate.
The Agriculture Bill will revolutionise every part of the farming industry, providing a fresh era to prosper now we have left the EU. Despite fears that the Bill does not include trading standards, it does not necessarily mean the battle is over. With the Bill in the Lords, many expect new amendments to be put forward by peers which will be debated and voted on again in the Commons. It also is not the only Bill that could protect standards. The Trade Bill is also an opportunity to engage around farming and animal health and welfare standards as it sets out the provisions for implementations in trade agreements. The Bill provides a solid structure for the future of UK farmers, but they still face uncertainty and the threat of being forgotten as trade deals are struck. The government will have to work collaboratively to ensure trade and agricultural policy deliver on the Conservative manifesto without undermining an entire sector and way of life in the UK.