The new Agriculture bill published this morning has met with a lukewarm response from industry leaders. The Bill which promises to take the industry into a post brexit economy promises to deliver a “green brexit” and unleash the industry from “50 years of being tied to burdensome and outdated EU rules.”
In her response this morning NFU President Minette Batters said: “The NFU alongside, the whole food supply chain, has been absolutely clear about the essential ingredients for a progressive, profitable, and sustainable food and farming sector post Brexit. These include comprehensive measures to improve the environment and productivity and tackle volatility alongside free and frictionless trade and access to a competent and reliable workforce. The Bill, as described in the announcement falls short of our aspirations in these regards.
“It is vital that in the future British farmers can continue to meet the food needs of a growing population. A future agricultural policy that ignores food production will be damaging for farmers and the public alike. The public demand and deserve safe, high-quality, traceable affordable food, whatever their income. And moreover they want British farms to supply that food.
“Farmers across the UK will be very concerned that the Bill provides only a short term commitment to improve their competitiveness; we cannot future-proof farming businesses based on the ‘time-limited’ initiatives outlined in this announcement.
“Along with other farmers I will also be looking to the Bill to set out means to address the clear market failure in food chain that means farmers are not rewarded fairly for the risk and investment they make . British farmers will need to compete with farmers all over the world, nearly all of whom are supported financially to produce food. If British farmers are to underpin the nation’s food security, then they will need the right financial and policy framework to do so in a competitive and volatile global marketplace.
“We will look closely at the Government’s proposals for a seven year transition period, during which direct payments will be phased-out, to ensure we’re satisfied that this will be sufficient. In particular, the Bill must provide Government with the powers to pause the process if it is proving unmanageable for farmers, and if our domestic food supply and food security are under threat.
“We are entering an historic period for farming with legislation setting the path for the next generation of farmers and the countryside. With critical decisions still to be taken in the months and years ahead it would be foolhardy for the Government to embark on such a path without knowing trading environment in which it will be set. A free and frictionless trade deal with our biggest trading partner, the EU, is absolutely critical to the farming industry.”
Lack of details on trade and failure to acknowledge food as a ‘public good’ within the Government’s early announcement of its Agriculture Bill are disappointing according to the Agricultural Industries Confederation (AIC).
However, the Confederation welcomes opportunities on research and development as well as the extended seven year transition period.
Responding to the pre-publication announcements, AIC chief executive Robert Sheasby expressed concern on the lack of detail on how trade will operate.
“Trade is vital. Whether it is importing farm inputs such as livestock feed and crop protection products, or exporting produce, trade is vital to the whole farm and food supply chains,” says Mr Sheasby. “Today’s news on the shortfall of vets to oversee exports in the event of a no-deal Brexit reflects the need for concern on the UK’s trading ability.”
There are welcome features. In particular, the much-needed commitment to innovation and R&D.
“The supply industry can play an essential part in both developing new techniques and delivering knowledge to farm through professionally-qualified advisers working in agronomy and livestock nutrition.
“Through the goods and services which it delivers, the agrisupply industry will have a vital part to play in the development and implementation of Environmental Land Management schemes. However, AIC believes structures will be needed that enable freedom and flexibility to deliver the outcomes to which government aspires.
“The farm supply industry is the foundation of the whole UK farming and food sector. The publication and implementation of this Bill presents a great opportunity for more integration across the supply chain which can deliver benefits for farming, the environment and the UK economy as a whole,” concludes Mr Sheasby.
Jeremy Moody, secretary and adviser to the CAAV said: “Farmers have been awaiting details on what post-Brexit policy and payments will look like – and now they know, they should act. We have been given a clear timeframe for the complete removal of BPS for English farmers. BPS is to be phased out from 2021 to 2027 and then it will be gone. That gives a time window in which farmers and their advisers should review their businesses, consider how best to handle the likely erosion of margins, and deliver the necessary changes.”
Some of the money removed from BPS will go towards grants to help farmers become more efficient and productive, but there will be a limited time window in which they can be claimed. Defra has also confirmed that payments will no longer be linked to active farming – enabling retirement and freeing up land for change.
“While we inevitably await much detail, the Government has now clearly stated the direction of travel and a timetable for the progressive loss of BPS,” says Mr Moody. “With that knowledge, farmers now need to drive change in their businesses, with the support of professional advisers over a sensible time frame. After a period of great uncertainty, they can now lay solid and effective foundations for the future profitability of farming and rural land use, replacing income support with improved commercial viability.”
Tom MacMillan, director of Innovations, Soil Association, said: “We welcome confirmation that public money will be aimed at providing public goods, and the focus on soils, water and air quality that this entails, but it is disappointing that human health is not included in the list of goods that should be supported by the taxpayer. From what we’ve seen so far, it’s not the radical rethink of food production that is desperately needed if the government is serious about saving nature, restoring soil health and tackling climate change.
“At this stage, it is hard to determine whether the Environmental Land Management schemes will ensure the comprehensive support farmers need to move from decades of overreliance on agro-chemicals and cheap fossil fuels to a more ecological approach across all our land. The headlines Government has trailed so far fail to mention climate-friendly farming systems such as organic and agroforestry, despite the wealth of scientific evidence showing that organic agriculture is good for wildlife, soil health, water quality, climate change and animal welfare. So far, we have no indication of the level of investment that will go to achieve Government’s aims, but it should be at least at the level farmers receive now – redirected to benefit the environment, nature, farm animals and human health, and secure the viability of farming businesses.
“It’s disappointing that there is no mention of the link between farming, food and public health, despite the call for this to be a top priority from a broad coalition of food, farming and public health experts and practitioners, and, indeed, ‘health and harmony’ being the title of the Government’s own consultation on the future of agriculture.
“Over-riding all of this, however, is the widespread consensus that a no-deal or hard Brexit would be catastrophic for food standards, farmers and the environment. Whether the UK stays in a customs union or similar will determine whether farmers have a viable economic future to produce public goods and farmers need a level of certainty the Government has so far failed to provide. There is no chance of today’s proposals delivering a Green Brexit unless politicians start listening to public concerns, farmers, food experts and environmentalists when it comes to the UK’s future relationship with the EU.”