What does the new Agriculture Bill mean for the environment?

Tractor ploughing the field in autumnThis post is by Tom Lancaster, head of land, seas and climate at the RSPB. A version of this post has also been published on Wildlife and Countryside Link’s blog.

For the organisations involved in Greener UK and Wildlife and Countryside Link, the new Agriculture Bill, announced this week, is one of the most important pieces of legislation for years.

Agriculture is unique as both a driver of environmental degradation, and the primary solution to these very same problems. With 70 per cent of the land in England farmed, only farmers and land managers can lead the charge to net zero greenhouse gas emissions and drive forward the recovery of nature across our countryside.

When you add natural flood risk management, steps to improve water quality, provide public access and restore our soils, it becomes apparent that the policies that will flow from this bill are going to be vital to meet our climate change commitments and the targets to be set by the upcoming Environment Bill.

Support for ‘public goods’ is essential
In an era when the news about the environment seems relentlessly grim, it is heartening then that this bill is in good shape. We are pleased that the core principle of ‘public money for public goods’ which was proposed in the early version of the bill, has been retained: this is the idea that payments to farmers should move away from the area of land they own or rent, and toward the environmental and cultural benefits that the land can provide and society needs. Also intact is the 2021 start date for the seven year ‘agricultural transition’ toward this new system. Bringing in new policies as soon as possible will be vital given the urgent nature of the climate and environment emergencies we face.

In terms of what public goods the bill will seek to reward, the list remains largely the same, with the introduction of support for native breeds of livestock, the conservation of agricultural crops and their wild relatives and, most eye catchingly, steps to protect and improve the quality of soil. Leading much of the press coverage, the inclusion of soil quality was a political signal that soil – at the heart of the interaction between the environment and food production – is a priority for this government, and future policy. From stopping carbon emissions from Fenland peat soils, to building soil carbon and soil organic matter, there is much to do. Defra will have to be careful though to ensure that payments reward good practice, as opposed to simply paying the less responsible farmers out there not to pollute.

Future food production depends on environmental recovery
The government has also responded to concerns from farming organisations that the bill didn’t say enough about food. We never agreed with this line. The bill was already about food since future food production depends upon better soil health, resilience to climate change and preventing the loss of beneficial insects.

However, Defra clearly felt the need to address these concerns, and it has introduced a duty to assess UK food security every five years, and a duty to “…have regard to the need to encourage the production of food by producers in England and its production by them in an environmentally sustainable way”. As pragmatists, our initial feeling is that this strikes just about the right balance. But any further moves in this direction will risk the core premise of this reform; that it is about moving away from the Common Agricultural Policy, and toward a more sustainable system of farming and land management.

Two other changes are positive
These two broad areas – the new ‘public goods’ purposes, especially soils, and food production – are the big, headline grabbing changes to the bill. But other substantive changes and new additions also deserve some attention, many of which are positive. I will focus on two of them here.

First, Defra has introduced three new clauses relating to reporting on financial assistance. This may sound dull, but it is potentially important. With earlier iterations of the bill, there were few hooks to hold ministers to account for how money was spent, and how much money was available to any future schemes.

In combination with binding targets in the forthcoming Environment Bill, and a stronger commitment to retain funding at current levels until 2024 (around £3 billion a year across the UK), these new clauses could be important in providing MPs, civil society and farming organisations with the information they need to ensure funding for future schemes is sufficient and effective.

As the bill goes through parliament, we will seek to strengthen these provisions further, to ensure more binding commitments to meet demonstrable environmental needs with the necessary funds.

Second, the fair dealing clauses in the bill have been strengthened. Although not a traditional stomping ground for environmental organisations, we have always recognised that, with a reform of farm payments toward inherently ‘non-marketable’ public goods, farmers should be able to derive a better market return for the food they produce. With such asymmetry in the supply chain between tens of thousands of small farmers and a few big retailers and food processors, better regulation of this relationship is clearly justified.

The new bill expands the powers to better regulate this relationship to all businesses which purchase farm produce. This means that more of the supply chain will potentially be covered by statutory codes of conduct and the associated regulator.

Again, there is much work to do to make sure these powers are translated into robust policies, but the changes in the bill make this effort more likely to succeed, and have a positive impact on farmers’ bottom line.

Gaps on trade and import standards are worrying
There are obviously gaps, and we will be working to fill them as the bill makes its way through parliament. The most concerning is a lack of assurance around trade policies and import standards. Farming and environment organisations speak with one voice when we say that it is crucial that imports of food under future trade policies are held to UK standards.

Another big gap is the lack of any powers to introduce and enforce a new regulatory framework for farming and land management practices, this will be crucial if high standards are to be built upon and properly enforced in future.

We will be pushing on these areas and urging the government to go further in its ambitions. With policy statements expected from Defra in the coming weeks, it is likely that things will start to move much faster than we’ve been accustomed to of late. So watch this space.

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