The Agriculture Bill – a real incentive for sustainability at risk from international trade implications

This week has seen the UK Agriculture Bill pass its second reading in the House of Commons, before going forward to the Committee Stage on Tuesday next week.

Described by the NFU as “one of the most significant pieces of legislation for farmers in England for more than 70 years” the Bill outlines the UK Government’s agricultural spending proposals following departure from the European Union, as well as plans to transform British farming.

Introduced for its first reading on January 16th this year, the Bill will replace the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy (CAP), with a system which Environment Secretary Theresa Villiers says will see farmers rewarded with public money for public goods, such as cleaner air and water or improved animal welfare standards. At the same time, according to the new Defra boss Ms Villiers, it will help to boost productivity and maximise the potential of land for sustainable food production.

The Bill was scrutinised in its draft from by N8 AgriFood’s Chair at the University of York Professor Bob Doherty, who was invited to sit on an advisory round table last year, and also sat in on its first reading in Parliament last month. As well as covering agricultural payments is lays out provision about reports on food security, as well as covering issues including marketing standards, food supply chain information, fertilisers, animal identification and traceability, agricultural tenancies, and compliance with the WTO Agreement on Agriculture.

N8 AgriFood has welcomed one of the most important features of the Bill; the promise to shift from the CAP system of direct payments based on the amount of land farmers manage, towards directing subsidies for “public goods” as set out in the Government’s 25 Year Environement Plan and Clean Growth Strategy.

Professor Mark Reed, N8 AgriFood’s Chair at Newcastle University, pictured left, said: “The new Agriculture Bill has the potential to transform the sustainability of farming and the natural environment in England.

“Its proposal to link payments to the provision of public goods, rather than landownership, creates a real incentive to invest in sustainable soil management and wildlife friendly farming practices.

“Evidence from trials by Natural England and interviews from Newcastle’s EU funded research suggest farmers are broadly welcoming the change as an opportunity to innovate and take ownership of how they deliver outcomes that are valued by the public.

“The slow phasing in of measures in the Bill means that there is time to experiment and learn, and N8 researchers are working with a range of “test and trial” projects that are coming up with new ideas for the design of the Environmental Land Management Scheme that will replace the current EU scheme.”

Also keen to see more details of the Environmental Land Management (ELM) Scheme is N8 AgriFood’s Academic Lead at Lancaster University and soil scientist Professor John Quinton. He said: “From my perspective great to see soils getting some prominence in the bill, For too long we have largely ignore the fact that they underpin the food system. We now need to see the detail of what will be proposed in terms of the ELM scheme.

However, despite the scope and ambition of the proposed reforms, one crucial area where the bill is almost totally silent is that of international trade. Professor Tony Heron, N8 AgriFood’s Academic Lead at the University of York, pictured right, believes ambitions for agriculture are at risk of being “bargained away” as part of international trade deals.

He said: “Despite its many unintended consequences, a major reason why the CAP was able to function was because it was flanked by a series of EU trade policies, including tariffs, quotas and subsidies.

“These policies ensured that the CAP payment systems were not undermined by cheap imports. In contrast, the UK has so far been reluctant to set out explicitly how its trade strategy will serve its policy objectives for farming and agriculture. So far, it has given out very mixed messages on whether agriculture will or will not be included in future free trade deals.

“The government thus needs to set out much more clearly and explicitly its trade negotiating objectives and how these will support its efforts to transform British agriculture outside of the EU. Otherwise, the risk is that its ambitions for agriculture might be ‘bargained away’ in the context of negotiations with a larger, more powerful trade partner like the United States.

“Cheaper imported food could offer a boon to lower-income families but is entirely at odds with the aims and objectives set out in the Agricultural Bill to transform English farming towards sustainable land management, rural livelihoods, animal welfare and environmental stewardship.”

As it enters the Committee Stage the Bill will be considered by a Public Bill Committee, which will scrutinise the Bill line by line, and is expected to report back to the House by Tuesday 10 March 2020.