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The Agriculture Bill: What it means for UK farming

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On the 10th October 2018, in the House of Commons, the Agriculture Bill received a six hour debate for the Second Reading and now moves to the Committee Stage - providing the outline of a sectoral structure for agriculture for the coming years. This article outlines some of the key messages so far.

The Agriculture Bill: What it means for UK farming

Agriculture Policy Objectives

The Agriculture Bill (AB) is intended to be a framework based enabling legislation designed to provide the direction of travel for the critical UK agriculture sector in post-Brexit Britain. The purpose of the AB is to establish ways to replace the financial assistance provided by the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) with another means of supporting farming that is linked to sustainability objectives. The AB is the first time since the drafting of the Agriculture Act 1947 that Parliament has made such a contribution on agricultural support. The AB will have a profound impact on the future of UK food and farming.

Throughout the Second Reading debate, a range of views were presented by all parties which drew upon pre-Bill consultation and inputs. One input was from the consultation that was published ahead of the Agriculture Bill, “Health and Harmony: The Future of Good, Farming and the Environment in a Green Brexit”, which ran between February and May 2018 and received over 43,000 responses.

The AB aims to ensure the viability, resilience and success of the agriculture sector in the coming years - with a time horizon up to 2027; payments to farmers continuing until 2022 and a period thereafter increasingly focused on payments for public good i.e. public money for public goods.

The AB’s policy objectives were set out by the Secretary of State, Rt Hon Michael Gove MP, who stated the ambition that the UK will produce the best food in the World, to the highest standards, that enable long term resilience and help to meet wider environmental goals and targets, such as climate change or soil health challenges.

Public Money for Public Goods

A core element of the AB (Part I), is the plan to provide financial assistance to agriculture for seven public goods, which are described in the Bill as:

  1. Managing land or water in a way that protects or improves the environment
  2. Supporting public access to and enjoyment of the countryside, farmland, woodland and better understanding of the environment
  3. Managing land or water in a way that maintains, restores or enhances cultural heritage or natural heritage
  4. Mitigating or adapting to climate change
  5. Preventing, reducing or protecting from environmental hazards
  6. Protecting or improving the health or welfare of livestock
  7. Protecting or improving the health of plants

Concerns Raised During the Second Reading Debate

Whilst there was generally popular support for the principle of public money for public goods, there were challenges that the AB was light on detail (particularly in respect of structures and targets) and the duties of the government. MPs also expressed concerns about aspects of the AB and the market conditions that will prevail post-Brexit. These include:

  • Food production security – concerns that the UK may enter in to trade deals that would import food from lower standard jurisdictions whilst making UK food more expensive and less competitive in the UK and overseas and could lead to UK farmers going out of business and producing less food  
  • Food production standards – concerns that imported food from countries with lower food standards could over time lead to the lowering of standards and what the UK will accept
  • Food production as a public good – MPs warned that whilst it was welcome to see such a high level of focus on sustainability there were no references made to food production as a public good. MPs commented that the UK is experiencing simultaneously high levels of food poverty and obesity and they asked for more detail about the role of healthy food in a healthy society
  • Sustainability targets – MPs were also concerned that there were no sustainability targets and that farming still needed support on achieving sustainability goals whilst producing food and that the UK landscape should not be turned in to a landscape museum.

Sustainability Targets Unknown

Some MPs commented that sustainability targets should be codified in the AB. No sustainability targets are expressed in the AB, and they are not currently published. Targets for agriculture will be established in the forthcoming Environmental Principles and Governance Bill (also known as the “Environment Bill”), which should be published by December 26th 2018 following the consultation that closed on 2nd August 2018. The EB will, in due course, establish a body to hold government to account for environmental outcomes and supports the 25 Year Environmental Plan.

Future Models for Financial Assistance

Over the coming decade, the food and farming sector faces a challenge to understand what needs to be done in order to ensure business continuity within the new legislative frameworks.

Responding to comments that the AB had omitted the production of food as a social good, George Eustice MP, Minister of State at DEFRA, at the debate’s closing remarks commented that the AB “does not envisage a long-term place for old style subsidies”.

Once certainty on the frameworks is established; the key challenge for food and farming will be to ensure that it can make progress on the key issues. For this, clarity on the baseline position will be needed and tools will be required to help manage the transition and to demonstrate activity and improvements. Each different farming contexts will unique challenges and will need to adapt to the final Agriculture Act in different ways depending on their specific set of material circumstances - some farming sectors are known to need greater support than others with the withdrawal of CAP.

ADAS recommend that food and farming businesses commence planning for the AB at the earliest opportunity to ensure that they become more resilient and sustainable over the long term and to ensure they can withstand the future withdrawal of financial assistance.

For the food and farming sector there are three critical planning stages over the coming years (see model below) with Brexit being only the first one. The sector should focus on a longer term future where food profitability and productivity works seamlessly with the sustainability objectives of the AB to ensure that agriculture is resilient for the future.

Conclusion

There is an even greater opportunity for the UK to market itself as the best food producer and exporter in the World based on high production values and sustainability, but success will depend on the implementation of the AB by building on recent export success.  Food and farming can be at the forefront of the drive towards creating a more sustainable future for the UK, and can be World renowned for methods and practices that lead to sustainable and profitable food production.

ADAS Support

ADAS will continue to monitor the progress of the regulatory environment so that we can support the industry as it makes the transition through Brexit - and beyond - to ensure a sustainable future for food and farming. If you have questions or would like to discuss how we can support you please contact colin.morgan@adas.co.uk or jackie.evans@adas.co.uk

ADAS provides insight and solutions to businesses within the food and beverage industry. We support our clients to develop and implement sustainable sourcing, risk management and resource efficiency strategies, generating cost savings and building business resilience. Our long history of engaging with the agri-food industry ensures we understand the different commercial drivers across the food chain, from farm to consumer.

 


About the Author

Colin Morgan is the Business Development Director for the ADAS Sustainable Food & Farming business. Colin understands the fundamental changes that will be upon us once the Agriculture Bill is fully implemented over the coming decade. He knows that food and farming have a critical role to play in the future of the UK’s sustainability plans and looks forward to working with the food and farming sector on the Agriculture Bill.

 

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