The House of Lords has an opportunity to ensure our production standards are protected in the Agriculture Bill, and it must, because we cannot afford to get this piece of legislation wrong, says Martin Lines, chairman of the Nature Friendly Farming Network.
The Covid-19 pandemic has highlighted the urgent need to transform the UK’s farming system and prioritise sustainable food production.
Over the last few months, farmers have been put under extreme pressure to feed the nation.
There are farmers with food to sell, but their supply chains have closed, resulting in huge amounts of food waste.
There are farmers with produce to harvest, but a lack of workers to make this happen.
The coronavirus pandemic has exposed the fragility of our food system.
Many farmers and producers across the UK, especially those with short supply chains, have been able to adapt extremely quickly to put food on tables, support their communities and keep their businesses alive.
Long before Covid-19, these farmers were also working to restore wildlife decline and tackle the climate emergency.
What is clear is that we need to see a more resilient food system where productivity and environmental goals go hand-in-hand.
Last month, the Agriculture Bill was debated in the House of Commons. It will be of the most significant pieces of legislation for farmers in over 70 years.
However, important amendments that would have ensured a level playing field for British farmers competing with cheap, low standard, imported food have been rejected.
This historic vote from MPs was a huge blow for farmers and for the environment.
Farmers now fear that future trade deals could undercut our efforts, pushing farming businesses, nature and climate goals over the brink.
While it was reassuring to hear so many MPs speak passionately about the need for standards in legislation, it is disappointing that they didn’t take this opportunity to act.
This Agriculture Bill and these MPs seem to be full of empty promises.
Considering the climate and biodiversity crises we are facing, as well as the recently exposed vulnerability of our supply chains, reform of the Agriculture Bill is desperately needed, and we cannot afford to wait another 70 years to get it right.
As farmers, we have seen first-hand the negative consequences of systems that work against nature.
Declining crop yields, reduced soil health, polluted water systems and dwindling numbers of pollinators all work against healthy, profitable farms.
The news agenda has been focused on the threat of imported chlorinated chicken from the US, but the issue is much larger than the final product.
What matters is how the chicken is produced, the animal welfare standards that have been put in place, and its environmental footprint.
By importing food that undercuts the UK’s world-leading food and farming standards, we are exporting our climate damage around the globe.
While it can be argued that there could be economic benefits to some farmers, through increased export market shares, we must take into account the broader impact – both on those farmers who cannot access these markets, and will be unable to compete domestically, and those who will have to watch, as all their positive environmental and animal welfare hard work is undermined.
If our Government understands the requirement to meet net zero targets and environmental standards, then we should apply this logic to our imports.
We cannot allow future food production to degrade our environment and nature in the UK or in any other country that we trade with.
High standards must be put into law to protect British farmers, global animal welfare and the environment.
As the Government enters post-Brexit trade negotiations with the EU and the rest of the world, now is the time to set up trade arrangements that will help us to deliver better and healthier food from a thriving and nature-friendly countryside.
It is a huge opportunity for the Government to build on its ambition of ‘Global Britain’.
The rapidly growing Nature Friendly Farming Network welcomes the Bill and we are supportive of public money for public goods as a framework.
Politicians have progressed towards a future of sustainable food production, but we are yet to see a fair deal that works for farmers, people and nature.
The decision is now with the House of Lords and the second reading is scheduled on 10 June.
Now is the time for the Lords to capitalise on this moment, to be ambitious and build on the current consensus for amendments that will provide a secure direction for the future of farming.
Will the UK turn a blind eye to the environmental, nature, animal welfare and climate damage of imported food, or will the UK become a global leader on nature and climate friendly farming?
The Lords have the chance to rectify the Agriculture Bill’s empty promises.
I’m urging them to accept these amendments and create more sustainable, reliable, nature friendly future.
Martin can be found tweeting at @LinesMartin