The Agriculture Bill: MPs debate a future farm policy


By Vicki Hird
15/10/2018

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Kerry MCCarthy MP spoke on the need for more support for organic farming, agroforestry, pasture-based livestock systems, integrated pest management and low-input mixed farming as well as a health focus
 

MPs were falling over themselves to show interest in farming during the six hour Second Reading of the Agriculture Bill on 10 October. The Debate ended with a vote on a Labour reasoned amendment on the Bill's lack fo reference to food security - a frequent comment throughout the debate. The vote was lost and so the Bill now goes to committee stage.

Sustain has welcomed the arrival of the new Agriculture Bill. With more than half a century since we had one it is an exciting opportunity to deliver a new approach -integrating support for farmers with ‘public good’ outcomes. But we are clear the draft Bill needs strengthening. In a 10 point article we explore where the Bill currently delivers or fails on areas such as protecting livelihoods, the environment, health and nature.  

Given how low a priority farming is usually given, it was encouraging to see the number of MP's at the debate. It was also great to hear interventions around the link between public health and agriculture. MPs including Kerry McCarthy MP and Helen Whately MP suggested that health should be a core purpose of the Bill (we agree) and proposed specific measures for instance to support fruit and vegetable availability and livestock systems which reduce antibiotic use (and banning imports of products where rules are weaker). Strong support on all  sides of the House was given for the new emphasis on protecting biodiversity and ecosystems like soil and water and to tackle climate change and enhance animal welfare.

As someone who eats food I welcome such a long debate focussed on primary food production in this country - its role and impact. It is all too rare.

What Sustain believes is that future agriculture policy should ensure a prosperous, resilient and sustainable farming system that provides healthy, safe food grown to high standards of animal welfare, environment and nature protection. Farming must also be able to provide the diverse foods we need, as well as good livelihoods and decent safe employment, supported by fair market prices and trading practices.

Achieving this vision requires legal duties to deliver, an integrated policy, a sufficient budget and a strong regulatory baseline, with incentives for farmers and land managers to make the transition to better practices where the market will not pay and new training, advice and research provision. These are currently lacking.

It also requires government to identify and support better food and farming as a priority and to redefine productivity to deliver on wider objectives. We have previously circulated our agreed and endorsed paper ‘Beyond 2020 New Farm Policy’. This outlined a new set of principles and a policy framework to deliver a new sustainable and viable future for UK farming.  

But what we have now – as pointed out in the debate - is a new Agriculture Bill that says much but in terms of definite action is all about transferring existing EU frameworks. Other, more ambitious purposes exists only as ‘enabling powers’ rather than duties – at the whim of a Secretary of State and the Treasury. It has no targets and no process to deliver long term budget. How far environment or farmers or animals will benefit is hard to say as Ben Lake MP said "these are questions of not only how the cake will be shared, but how big the cake will be in the first place." It could be a tiny cake.

The Farm Minister George Eustice presented some worrying uncertainty about the Fair Dealing section of the Bill (Clause 25 which we welcome) saying "If there is a lack of fairness and transparency in the supply chain, let us bring forward provisions to address that, so that farmers can get a fair share in the value chain." There is and he needs to!

We like a fair bit of the bill in terms of content - the ability to support environmentally benefitial farming -  but believe this is a missed opportunity to set out, in legislation, a new vision for farming policy across the UK, alongside national strategies. The purpose should be amended to include explicit reference to environment, animal welfare and public health goals and the main financial support needs to include public health and agroecology based outcomes. Regulation of the market – the fair dealing - needs to be a duty not a power and needs to take all sectors under the protection of new statutory codes.  

Sustain and our partners will propose amendments to cover additional critical issues including trade policy so our standards are not undermined by imports; new arrangements for workers to negotiate pay and conditions; land access for new entrants; better conditions for delinked payments; a specific aim to provide affordable and independent training and advice; and measurement of household food insecurity measurement..

The Agriculture Bill now goes to Committee stage and deep wrangling over amendments and clauses and wording. The devil will be in the detail. The EFRA Committee are also undertaking an Inquiry.

It is hoped the (in some cases vested) interests in both Houses will improve rather than hinder the attempts by Michael Gove to distribute payments more efficiently and fairly and for public goods and will strengthen the Bill’s duties.

It’s one of the most important pieces of Brexit legislation before the House and as such the public should be aware and involved via their representatives. Farming not only produces the bulk of our food and provides core material for one of our largest employers - the food industry – but it also manages 70 per cent of the land and cares for livestock and our crucial natural systems such as water, soil, wildlife and landscapes.

The government are asking for your views - so do have your say - and we should all be watching to make sure  these multiple roles are well managed and rewarded.

 


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Sustain advocates food and agriculture policies and practices that enhance the health and welfare of people and animals, improve the working and living environment, promote equity and enrich society and culture.