The long awaited agriculture bill has had a pretty resounding thumbs up from environmentalists. Greener UK described it as “a huge step in the right direction”. Wildlife and Countryside Link called it “an important step forward for farming and wildlife”. WWF’s Tony Juniper tweeted: “For all of the 35 years I’ve been in conservation, the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) has been one of the biggest threats to our wildlife & environment. Today I hope that the tanker begins to turn.” Others heralded “a landmark day” or said that Michael Gove had “fired the starting pistol for change”, or viewed it as “a welcome statement of intent about this Government’s future policy ambitions”.
Concerns around the bill
Of course, there are concerns. This is a farming bill, framed almost as if we did not have a food system that encourages poor diet (with massive costs to the NHS) and pays farmers too little for the food they produce. The immediate need is to replace the CAP, but I hope that, once the Brexit trauma passes (in whatever way it passes) the government will set out a progressive food policy that complements the environmental aims of this bill (see Tim Lang’s blog tomorrow on Inside Track).
Clause 2 of the bill enables the secretary of state to give financial support for improving “productivity”. This is sensible, as long as productivity is not seen merely as increasing yield. Farming is about to undergo a huge upheaval with the end of basic payments and (in the worst case) the loss of free and frictionless trade with the EU. We should help farmers to cope with this disruption, including by supporting co-operation, marketing and technological improvement. Profitable and productive farming should go hand-in-hand with good environmental outcomes, as explained in a recent Green Alliance report. Support should focus on food production that delivers better environmental outcomes at the same time as greater productivity.
It would be good if ministers confirmed that this is how they understand productivity. They should also be clearer about the split in funding between temporary measures to help farmers thrive without basic payments, and investment to arrest and reverse the decline of nature. There are also concerns about how much money will be available long term.
‘Bargain basement’ Brexit would harm British farmers
Animal welfare is described as a public good, but why not take this opportunity to state clearly that the government will end the prophylactic use of antibiotics in farming? The EU looks set to do so and, if we really want to take a lead on animal welfare (and public health), we should not be left behind. There is a welcome proposal to help older farmers who want to retire to do so, but what guarantees are there that this will help new entrants, rather than lead to more mega-farms? And, while Defra and the prime minister talk up a green Brexit, the Department for Trade, backed by the European Research Group and some dodgy think tanks, are planning a bargain basement Brexit that will (they say) give consumers cheaper food (aka lower quality, imported food). British farmers would be among the casualties of such policies.
I could go on. The bill is not perfect and there are wider questions about government policy. But basing our farm support policy on the principle of ‘public money for public goods’, something for which green campaigners have been calling for years, really is something to celebrate and defend. We should say this loud and clear. Indeed, it was in doubt just a couple of weeks ago, when 55 organisations wrote to the prime minister to express their concern that the proposals in the Health and harmony white paper looked set to be watered down.
The bill isn’t a defeat for farmers
This is a big win for environmentalists, but I do not believe it is a defeat for farmers. Rather, the reverse. The NFU’s initial reaction to the bill was highly critical, but I hope farmers and environmentalists will be able to work together for a farming system that delivers quality food alongside clear benefits for nature. It is hard to see future governments providing support on the current scale (just over £3 billion a year) unless there are clear public benefits. Environmentalists should support farmers on trade deals that do not undermine standards, and on getting a fair price from their produce. But farmers and their representative bodies should be careful not to suggest that there is a conflict between a thriving environment and profitable food production.
I hope, too, that the Labour Party will support the bill’s underlying principle of public money for public goods. Of course, oppositions oppose, and there are many ways in which the bill could be improved. But Labour’s initial reaction was worrying. Food security? We need food resilience, but let’s not revert to the sort of ‘productivist’ farming regime that caused such damage in the past.
The bill’s second reading is scheduled for 10 October. I look forward to a vigorous parliamentary campaign, and to getting answers to some of these questions. But I also look forward to an agriculture act that will help farmers to reverse the decline in nature that we have seen in Britain, and across Europe, for many decades. It is probably fair to say that Brexit is not going quite to plan, but this farming bill is one aspect of Brexit that it is possible to welcome.