The Agriculture Bill will receive its second reading on Wednesday and in response, the Sustainable Food Trust (SFT) published a policy briefing paper to outline its position on the Bill. While the briefing paper welcomes many aspects of the Bill, it calls for a reconsideration of the proposal to phase out area-based payments entirely.
Area-based payments, which make up Pillar I funding under the EU’s Common Agriculture Policy (CAP), have come in for widespread criticism in recent years. Most of the money has gone to large landowners, and the payments have been available to all farms regardless of their production methods. While the SFT accepts that the mechanism of area-based payments under CAP is flawed, the new briefing paper makes clear that there is value in maintaining a system of area-based payments, since a sustainable food system would be most effectively delivered through a support package based on land area; whether that is field-by-field, hectare-by-hectare or whole farm scale.
The SFT feels it is essential to bring about a systemic shift towards more environmentally-sustainable farming methods, rather than piecemeal adoption to environmental stewardship. This shift could best be delivered by including area-based payments within the proposed Environmental Land Management Scheme. The briefing paper warns that failure to do so could result in isolated areas of good practice within deserts of intensive agriculture, which would bring no net benefit in terms of public good.
Patrick Holden, chief executive of the Sustainable Food Trust, said, “One of our core concerns is that by phasing out Pillar I payments, the ‘baby’ of area-based payments will be thrown out with the ‘bath water’ of the social security element that exists within the current CAP scheme. Instead, we’re calling for a whole-farm support package, much of which should be based on land area. This is the best, and perhaps only way, to make food production genuinely sustainable and start repairing the damage that has been done in recent decades by separating nature from food production”.
The SFT’s briefing paper also highlights crucial aspects that need deeper consideration and recommends that the Government introduce a suite of sustainable farming policies that could transform UK food and farming, acting as a beacon for others to follow.
To enable the widespread shift towards a food production system that is truly integrated and functions in harmony with nature, the Sustainable Food Trust recommends that the Government introduce sustainable farming policies such as the ‘polluter pays principle’, higher animal welfare standards and soil carbon stewardship programmes.
To monitor the impact of these schemes, Defra could consider introducing an annual sustainability assessment using a harmonised framework of metrics that all farmers would be required to submit. The data derived from such an assessment could serve multiple functions: for government and government agencies to monitor eligibility and the impact of public purse support, for certification schemes to collect data they require, for consumers by providing more information about their food, and most importantly, for producers as a farm management tool.
The SFT’s policy briefing: The UK Agriculture Bill is available on the SFT website here.