Major changes will take 7 years to implement!
The UK’s new Agriculture Bill has been called “one of the most significant pieces of legislation for farmers in England for over 70 years,” says Judith Tsouvalis* and Ruth Little* on The Conversation website. They continue ‘It could directly affect the livelihoods of 460,000 people and determine the future of the 70% of UK land area (17.4 million hectares) currently under agricultural management. The bill sets out the UK’s approach to farming as it prepares to leave the European Union, replacing the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) that the UK has been part of since 1973’.
Where are we now?
Whichever side you’re on, Brexit is now happening and that means the government has to put into UK legislation replacements for agricultural and environment policy which the UK signed up to over the years since the 1970s. Quite a task! The government introduced the legislation in 2018 but it was withdrawn because the Brexit Bill had not been passed. Now, the Bill has had its ‘first reading’ in the House of Commons (this was without debate and passed through on 16 January 2020). The next stage will be for the Bill to have its ‘second reading’ (no date yet agreed) and then proceed to the House of Lords and eventually to receive the Royal assent and pass into law.
What are the changes?
The Bill will replace the way the government manage and fund agriculture and the associated environment. In the EU this is via the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP).
In the future, landowners will in future be paid to produce “public goods”. These are things that can benefit everyone but bring no financial reward to those who produce them. Examples are as better air and water quality, higher animal welfare standards, improved access to the countryside or measures to reduce flooding. In doing so the aim is to move the UK one step closer towards ‘a future where farmers are properly supported to farm more innovatively and protect the environment’.
Over the next seven years, farmers will move from the CAP regulations to a new system of Environmental Land Management (ELM). This will detail the terms and conditions under which farmers and land managers will receive funding.
In a notable change from the Bill published in 2018, the government will now provide support for farmers to improve the management of their soil, as recommended in CPRE’s report, ‘Back to the land’. A major step forward! The government will reward farmers who protect and improve soil quality with measures like crop rotation, and give ministers new powers to regulate fertiliser use and organic farming. As Judith Tsouvalis and Ruth Little say, “Landscape-scale solutions to decarbonising agriculture and averting the climate crisis will require huge changes. They won’t be possible without popular support”.
What is not covered in the Bill?
With the EU legislation farmers in this country could rely upon protection against substandard and cheap produce from outside the EU. This Bill provides no cover for such issues.
In the EU programmes of expenditure are agreed on a long-term basis, – usually a five-year programme. In other words the finances are fixed for a set period. Rarely have the UK government used long term financial planning principles. On the other hand the EU does have stable plans in all major policy areas. Such mid and long term planning is based on the Precautionary Principle. It will be interesting to find out how the UK government proposes to replace the CAP subsidies for farming which amount to £3bn a year. This figure includes direct and indirect subsidies as reported by the FT.
* Judith Tsouvalis is a member of the joint DEFRA-Natural England Expert Panel on Social Science Evidence for Improving Environmental Land Management Outcomes. Ruth Little is a qualitative social scientist specialising in agricultural and food-related research. She is a lecturer in Geography at the University of Sheffield and works at the Department for Environment, Food, and Rural Affairs.