After the bill, it’s time to act: what next for agriculture and trade?

This post is by David Walsh, public affairs adviser for WWF UK and a contributor to Greener UK’s work on the Agriculture Bill. 

The Agriculture Bill has finally completed its long, and at times tortuous, passage through parliament. For the past year, we’ve seen the debate focus on the effect of trade on agriculture, with millions of people signing petitions, tweeting and writing to their MPs. But, amongst this noise, it is important not to forget the fundamental principle of the bill: that public money should pay farmers to deliver public goods, which has remained at the heart of our future agriculture policy.  

This is a remarkable shift in how farmers are supported, and one welcomed with cross party support in parliament, with almost unanimous support from farming unions to environmental charities. That heart of the bill has remained intact over the past 30 months, and makes for a potentially transformative piece of legislation, replacing decades of, at times, counterproductive policy and incentive schemes. This was by no means guaranteed, there are plenty of vested interests who do well out of the current system, and keeping the core of this act is testament to the work of Greener UK and Wildlife and Countryside Link’s members, making the positive case for change in parliament. 

Action must now reflect this world leading policy
Make no mistake, the notion that land managers should be paid primarily to steward the land and deliver public goods is a world leading policy, of which the government should be proud. However, the proof of any pudding is in the eating. It will be for Environmental Land Management (ELM) schemes to turn ambition of the Agriculture Act and 25 year environment plan, and targets from the Environment Bill, into action on the ground. ELM should offer value for money investment in measures to rebuild essential nature capital assets such as pollinators, to mitigate or adapt to climate change, to restore soil, increase access to the countryside, or conserve our natural and cultural heritage. There’s a lot riding on getting this right. 

However, early signs are that some of the ambitions for ELMs are at risk of being watered down, creating only a slightly greener and moderately fairer version of the status quo. We know that nature and farming can and must go hand in hand to meet the so called triple challenge of tackling climate change and restoring nature, while feeding a growing population. Legislation in all four nations of the UK can help us be a world leader in addressing the triple challenge, but we must remember that it is the hard work of action on the ground that will get us there. Anything less than this ambitious, practical reform would be a lost chance at a time when the window for taking effective action is growing smaller.  

Alongside payments to restore the natural world, there must also be guarantees of no backsliding by enforcing our current high standards and doing more to ensure all farmers meet a baseline of minimum standards on issues such as water and air pollution or depletion of soils. That also means the proper resourcing of enforcement agencies. During the passage of the bill, ministers promised a consultation on future farm regulation in the near future. This is a welcome step that should lead to future legislation that is fairer to farmers and drives better compliance with regulations that protect our environment and nature.  

Future trade brings risks but also opportunities
Setting the standard at home, should also lead us to demand more of the goods we import. A remarkable coalition, from farmers and environmentalists to celebrity chefs, meant trade rightly came to dominate the later stages of the Agriculture Bill debate. Government amendments have gone some way to providing independent scrutiny of trade agreements. However, these didn’t solve all of the problems. Parliament still needs a guaranteed role in every stage of negotiations, the Trade and Agriculture Commission must have a more representative and expert membership, and details of their revised remit are yet to be seen. And farmers should not be undercut on price by imported goods produced to lower standards. At the centre of it all, the government must guarantee that the food we produce and import isn’t destroying the planet – our life support system – raising the risk of future pandemics.  

It’s not all bad news, trade also comes with opportunities, and the UK’s expertise in sustainable, low carbon farming could be a valuable export. With a new administration in Washington, reform at the World Trade Organization could be on the cards to ensure the 70+ year-old rules of the global trade system take proper account of 21st century challenges. A greener global Britain is possible, but it’s a vision that can only happen if it becomes central to all government decisions.  

As the Agriculture Act receives Royal Assent, there is hope that we’re moving in the right direction to reform farming at home and abroad. But, if we know anything, it’s that, while battles in parliament might draw the public’s attention, the real work of reform starts now. With the support of everybody for this important purpose, WWF and our partners at Greener UK and Wildlife and Countryside Link, will be there to hold the government to account, and make sure that, as Barry Lopez put it, we make it possible “to live wisely on the land, and to live well”. 

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