The Agriculture Bill: A Short Term Fix Or A Long-Term Ambition?



By Vicki Hird, Campaign Coordinator at Sustain, the Alliance for better food and farming.

Sustain welcomed the arrival of the new Agriculture Bill. It has been more than half a century since we had one and it contains valuable new approaches to integrating support for farmers with ‘public good’ outcomes. But it needs strengthening. In a  10 point article we explore how the Bill delivers or fails currently on areas such as protecting livelihoods, the environment, health and nature.  

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 needing to be about food security - a frequent comment. The vote was lost and so the Bill goes to committee stage.

It was encouraging to see the number of MP 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.

To have such a long debate focussed on the primary food production in this country was a pleasure. Also as someone who eats food I welcome that. It is all too rare.

What Sustain believes is that the role of future agriculture policy should be to 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. 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 future thinking purposes exists as ‘enabling powers’ rather than duties – at the whim of a Secretary of State and the Treasury. It has no targets and no long term budget.

We like much of the bill but think this is a missed opportunity to set out, in legislation, a new vision for farming policy in the UK alongside national strategies which can be understood in terms of real outcomes.  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 amendments will aim to cover additional critical issues including trade policy so our standards are not undermined; 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 vested interests in both Houses will not scupper the attempts by Michael Gove to distribute payments more efficiently and fairly and for public goods but will strengthen the Bill’s duties instead.

It’s one of the most important pieces of 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.

We should all be watching to make sure  these multiple roles are well managed and rewarded.

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