A good payment scheme will be vital to secure farmers’ post-Brexit future, but other pieces of work on the supply chain, trade and Food Strategy will also be key, says Vicki Hird, farm campaign co-ordinator at Sustain.
This week we have heard the news that the Agriculture Bill will be brought back to Parliament on May 13.
I am thrilled.
We need the Bill and the following secondary legislation and roll out of policies which it enables.
Farmers need the stability of knowing what they are going to be asked to deliver, the environment needs improving and society needs a food system which delivers healthy food for all.
The need for a ‘green recovery’ post-Covid-19 to tackle the climate and nature emergencies while getting everyone back on track absolutely must include the food system.
It is a big job we’re aiming for here, and there is no doubt the Agriculture Bill should be one of the main tools to deliver it, but it is certainly not the only one.
As the recent report by the City University Centre for Food Policy Unit showed, there are 16 departments responsible for some part of the food system in England alone, with roles and responsibilities across the food system, along with scores of agencies, public bodies and advisory groups.
The cross-departmental National Food Strategy will be key – but only if its recommendations get a chance of being taken up and resourced.
And there is also the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy work on ensuring fair supply chains, skills and research.
The market matters as much, if not more, to most farmers than the support regime, especially looking ahead to a ‘global Britain’.
Then there is planning policy, the Department of Health work on diets, procurement of food, rural investment and infrastructure, seasonal workers’ policy from the Home Office, and so on.
Critical though, will be whether Agriculture Bill is amended.
There are several amendments tabled by parliamentarians and we would very much hope a better reference to support for agroecology and health is put in the Bill itself.
All farmers and growers could benefit from having a whole farm approach, using all the tools to build natural fertility, disease and pest control and so on.
Many farmers are already getting to grips with this in all the farmer-led innovative labs and demonstration farms.
But trade deals are looming and they risk pitting good farm standards against the worst in the world if safeguards are not put in this bill or elsewhere.
Neil Parish MP and the Efra committee have tabled a trade amendment which is likely to get support and there are moves to develop a Trade Standards Commission amendment.
Will the Government concede a point on trade? Maybe.
This is not about fortress Britain or being anti-trade. It’s about safeguarding our health, animal health and welfare and the health of the land we are responsible for protecting.
There may be demands to revisit the public money for public goods approach for financial support at the heart of the Bill.
It is understandable.
We really do not have the data or information required to know this radical approach will ensure a good business case for farmers to transition to new farming.
There are concerns many farmers will go all out for intensification instead, so the environment will suffer.
Or if farmers go out of business, we may lose productive capacity – threatening food security which Covid-19 has so clearly highlighted is vital.
Yet food security needs to be based on sustainable farming systems: protecting soil, water and nature.
We know we can’t continue as before.
So we do need support designed to help farmers achieve that for the whole farm, not just round the edges, and we need the industry beyond the farm gate playing fair.
It is unlikely the Bill will be changed drastically. Ministers seem set on this new course and many Defra staff have been moved to work on Covid-19.
What we need to demand now is assurance that the money and wider resources will be there.
And that all the schemes which flow from the Bill – there are many in England such as ELMs, productivity and ancillary schemes and animal welfare – will be designed well enough to protect the environment, health and nature, provide access, and ensure farmers can continue to produce diverse food while also delivering public goods.
We may also need some transition scheme to help farmers move from the old to the new.
Crucially though, other pieces of work such as the National Food Strategy, supply chain regulation, trade and all those other departmental policies must also do their job exceptionally well.
Payment schemes alone are far from enough.
Coordination between those 16 departments is poor, so we need to see that improved, and a major shift in policy recognition of the importance of securing sustainable food systems and farmers.
Vicki can be found tweeting at @vickihird