Tag Archives: Agriculture Bill

The gap between promise and proof on standards is widening in the agriculture debate

intext-wheat-blogIn the House of Commons last Wednesday, Conservative MP Simon Hoare stood up and proudly described the Woodland Trust as a group of Leninists.

While such an ascription is unlikely to become the Trust’s Twitter bio, the Grantham-based organisation might nevertheless have been pleased to see what was in fact a fond (and genuinely funny) acknowledgement of collaboration. The Woodland Trust had joined MPs, farmers and other environmental groups behind a very reasonable aim: that future trade deals should not undercut high UK standards and imperil the livelihoods of farmers.

It should not necessarily come as a surprise that different sectors and MPs from across the House are united on issues related to food and farming. Since publishing its agricultural reforms, the government has seen a strong level of support for its objective to reward farmers for providing public goods, such as cleaner water and healthier habitats. Many recognise that the approach should enable farmers to restore nature and safeguard soils while producing the food we need.

The issue is trade
Agreement on much of the Agriculture Bill, however, doesn’t mean that the debate is entirely settled. At Commons report stage, some MPs flagged continuing discussions on how to require adequate product labelling. Many expressed concerns about the future level of support for farmers, who will only be able to provide food and support the government’s environmental aims with long term substantial funding. And, in what became the biggest point of contention, MPs from across the House stood up to discuss trade.

In advance of the debate, Greener UK coalition partners had endorsed an amendment from the Conservative MP Neil Parish, chair of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee, which would prevent the government from signing trade deals that would facilitate the import of lower standard products. Pushed to a vote, the amendment was defeated, but around 20 Conservatives voted with Mr Parish and against the government.

Among them was Theresa Villiers, Defra secretary as recently as February. Ms Villiers’ speech was excellent, traversing the rolling hills and ancient woodlands of England to conclude that the bill held the key to a greener future. Yet, she also warned that accepting lower quality products via trade deals would simply offshore carbon emissions and animal cruelty; the government must live up to its manifesto and provide legal commitments to high standards, she said.

Supporting the government, backbench Conservative Robbie Moore claimed that the prime minister had assured him that morning by phone that food and environmental standards would not be compromised. At the despatch box, Defra minister Victoria Prentis argued strenuously that the government remained committed to high standards (even if she could not suppress a slight smile as she read the words ‘chlorinated chicken’ from her notes). Ms Prentis repeated that it would take a vote in the House to overturn ‘existing’ regulations, shortly before departing to see the government’s significant majority do its thing.

Assurances on standards aren’t enough
It is, of course, welcome to receive verbal assurances on trade, and to hear ministers confirm their commitment to high standards. But senior figures in the government have been offering assurances on standards for a long time and, as time elapses, the gap between the promise and the proof feels ever wider.

In addition to ministers running out of legislative vehicles, the reasons for not putting such commitments into law feel increasingly inconsistent. The morning before the debate, a ‘minister’ had apparently told the BBC’s Roger Harrabin that the trade bill was a more appropriate vehicle for such legal commitments on trade and standards. This significant suggestion didn’t appear to find its way into Ms Prentis’ notes, and was given short shrift by Neil Parish, who accused the government of leading MPs “down the garden path”.

Ms Prentis instead suggested that there was now insufficient time to implement such protections before December, and that the amendments could provoke retaliations from trading partners in live trade discussions and endanger current food exports. These arguments are certainly new to me, if not Liam Fox.

There is pressure to lower tariffs on US agriculture products
Such uncertainty could perhaps be explained by continuing debates within government: the Financial Times reported on Thursday that ministers in the Department for International Trade are keen to press on with lowering tariffs for American agricultural products, but that senior ministers in Defra are vehemently opposed.

What we know for certain is that the words ‘chlorinated chicken’, and the issues encapsulated by this feathery metonym, are not going away. The trade bill resumes this week on Wednesday. We will be watching for what the government says on food and environmental standards.

While coronavirus rightly remains the immediate priority for politicians and the public, we need to make sure that a sustainable food and farming system, built from the foundation of our current high standards, is a core tenet of the society that emerges in recovery.

Alongside farmers, consumers and MPs, we environmentalists, ‘Leninists’ and all, must continue to campaign to maintain those high standards.

We must grow back greener after lockdown

Woodberry Wetland in LondonThis post is by Hilary McGrady, director-general of the National Trust. A longer version  was published by the Daily Telegraph.

Right now, the nation’s attention is rightly focused on dealing with the immediate and profound impact of Covid-19 on health, social fabric and livelihoods. But governments around the world are beginning to turn their thoughts to recovery. Read more

What does Covid-19 mean for food, farming and nature?

A small harvest mouse climbing up shoots of grass looking forwarThis post is by Tom Lancaster, head of land, seas and climate at the RSPB, and Ellie Brodie, head of land management at The Wildlife Trusts, on behalf of Greener UK and Wildlife and Countryside Link, in consultation with Sustain and the Soil Association. 

As we contemplate week six of lockdown, Covid-19 continues to shine an unforgiving light on the inequity of the global food system and its consequences for nature and people.

The shocking impact of this crisis has made us all think about the fragility of our daily existence. It has brought about a renewed focus on our essential needs and, in doing so, prompted debate about the interconnectedness and resilience of our food system and supply chains. Read more

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. Read more

Tax breaks risk undermining new farm support policy

This post is by Miles King of People Need Nature.

tractor small

The current tax system operates against the sort of public benefit that the new agricultural policy established by Michael Gove is seeking to create. English landowners receive £2.4 billion a year in tax breaks for which there is little or no benefit to society. This amount of money is almost exactly the same as landowners receive in farm subsidies and it exposes a contradiction: although the system of providing payments to farmers is being fundamentally reformed, the tax breaks received will be untouched. Read more

The new Agriculture Bill has no vision for food

This post is by Tim Lang, professor of food policy, Centre for Food Policy, City, University of London. It has also been published by the Food Research Collaboration.

Tomatoes production line bodyThe Agriculture Bill published last week was long awaited. It’s mostly about money: those £3.2bn Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) subsidies which will start evaporating in seven months.

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Why we should celebrate new farm support based on ‘public goods’

meadow-2503453_1920The 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”. Read more

A future for farming in National Parks


upland farming main.PNG

This article was originally published by the Campaigns for National Parks, and was written by David Corrie-Close, a Lake District farmer at the Horned Beef company.

When I was asked to blog about my farm in the Lake District National Park and how I balance the needs of the farm with the needs of the natural environment, I laughed. My reply, and the subject of this blog, is that the natural environment provides the opportunity for farming. We need to relearn the harmony in which the two chime together.

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