THE LONG-AWAITED Agriculture Bill has been heralded as ‘a landmark Bill to deliver a green Brexit’ by the government in what it believes will bring about ‘a cleaner and healthier environment for future generations, taking back control, investing in the environment… after nearly half a century under EU legislation’, writes Kim Stoddart.
Feted as the biggest reform to the subsidy system for a generation, it has elicited a mixed response from landowners and industry bodies.
Direct payments currently favour larger landowners and are not linked to any specific public benefits. While the top 10% of recipients receive almost 50% of payments, the bottom 20% receive 2%. Instead, with the new public goods system, landowners will be paid for what they contribute in terms of better air and water quality, improved soil health, higher animal welfare, public access to the countryside and measures to reduce flooding.
But while many of the Bill’s proposals, including the seven-year transition period for implementation (from 2021 until 2027), have been warmly received, there is discord over the perceived lack of detail and lingering concerns post Brexit.
The Landworkers’ Alliance (LWA), a grassroots union of farmers, growers and land-based workers, endorsed the first reading of the Bill in general, with Jyoti Fernandes, LWA director of policy, commenting: “As a union representing many innovative agroecological smallholders, we are pleased to see healthy soils, animal welfare, biodiversity and climate change at the front line in an Agriculture Bill. We are also delighted that Defra is becoming increasingly supportive of genuine small-scale farmers more than ever before.
“However, it is essential that the environmental land management system is tied to ecological food production with clear targets for increasing local production, increasing access to food and reducing the UK’s reliance on imports while delivering environmental public goods.”
Roger Kerr, CEO of Organic Farmers and Growers, commented: “As improving air and water quality, providing habitats for wildlife, reducing flood risks and improving animal welfare are already key criteria for organic producers, this puts them in good stead moving forward.”
While the RSPCA has noted that the Bill recognises animal welfare as a public good and “financial support for higher animal welfare standards are in there”, Dr Molly Scott Cato, Green MEP for the South West praised the move towards a new system of ‘public money for public goods’, but added: “This has to mean moving farming away from the intensive, chemical-dependent methods that have decimated our wildlife over the past 70 years.”
Graeme Willis, the senior rural policy campaigner at the Campaign to Protect Rural England (CPRE), expressed reservations about the Bill’s impacts on smaller landowners. “Without detail on the amount of future investment in sustainable farming, it remains to be seen whether there will be sufficient money to support a diverse farming sector and fund the restoration of a healthy countryside and landscapes. Commitments to support new entrants are welcome, but there must also be measures to reverse the decline in smaller farms,” he said.
So what does this mean for direct payments? For 2019, they will be made on the same basis as now, subject to simplifications where possible. It appears that the same is true for 2020. Then, from 2021, there will be an agricultural transition period, until 2027 as payments are gradually phased out in line with the new system.