The Agriculture Bill is coming back to Parliament, and that is good news for farmers and the environment, says Tom Lancaster, acting head of land, seas and climate policy at the RSPB.
This week, we heard the Agriculture Bill will finally make it to ‘report stage’ in the House of Commons.
In two iterations, and nearly two years after it was first tabled, the Bill has never made it this far on its Parliamentary journey.
And it returns to Parliament at a tumultuous time.
Covid-19 has had a shocking impact on our day-to-day lives, and brought a renewed focus on our essential needs.
With a brief period of empty shelves, it has prompted a debate about the resilience of our food system and supply chains.
And with many of us seeking solace in wildlife and the green spaces around us, it has also highlighted the importance of nature to our physical and mental health.
This has led to some arguing that the Bill should be put on hold. We don’t see the logic of this.
For food, farming and nature, Covid-19 foreshadows the impact the climate and environment emergency is likely to have if we do not act now.
We have already seen in the last few years the impact that droughts and floods have had on farming, and urgent steps are needed to build resilience in the face of future change.
Alongside the short-term interventions which are needed to support certain sectors, this crisis should accelerate action and debate on how to build a food and farming system that is resilient, healthy and regenerative, for people and nature.
And this can’t happen in earnest until the Agriculture Bill is passed.
Don’t get me wrong, there are aspects of the Bill which need improving.
We are working closely with many farming and environment organisations to secure safeguards on future trade deals, so UK farmers are not undercut by lower standard imports.
There is also a need for more clarity on long-term funding for the Bill, to ensure the ‘public money for public goods’ payment schemes such as the proposed Environmental Land Management (ELM) scheme are well funded, and have the confidence of farmers and land managers.
And we need more clarity from Government not just on payments, but on regulation too, and how we will secure vital protections that are likely to fall away as we leave the European Union (EU), such as for hedgerows and soils.
But these improvements can only be made by bringing the Bill back to Parliament for scrutiny and debate, and we therefore welcome its return.
This will provide a degree of certainty in uncertain times, and clarity on the future direction of policy, after nearly four years of debate following the referendum on EU membership.
We also believe the core of this Bill is right.
The idea that public money should be directed to public goods – wildlife, climate change mitigation, flood risk management and more – is essential if we are to tackle the climate and environment emergency we all face.
With around 70 per cent of England farmed, farmers will be at the vanguard of the effort to restore nature and get to net zero emissions by 2040.
And this isn’t something other than farming.
This is farming – growing pollen and nectar margins to grow populations of pollinators, cover crops to build soil organic matter and reduce run off and grazing high quality livestock across wildflower rich grasslands all deliver public goods as well as the sustainable food we need.
Just as exciting, though, are other provisions in the Bill which often go unnoticed.
For example, alongside these public goods purposes, when the Bill was re-tabled in January, Defra included a new ‘ancillary activities’ purpose.
These include ‘selling, marketing, preparing, packaging, processing or distributing’ agricultural products.
In light of the impact Covid-19 has had on supply chains, and the way in which short supply chains and direct retail has been able to adapt, support which enables more farmers to adapt in this way can only increase the resilience of farm businesses in the future.
And environmental credentials can often underpin the ‘food story’ of these short supply chains, as illustrated by the great Nature-Friendly Farming Network report published recently on how their members are responding to the crisis.
With provisions on fair dealing and better regulation of more complex supply chains, on data collection and on producer organisations, the Bill provides a framework for many of the policies we will need in the future.
But it is clear the Agriculture Bill must only be the starting point.
With food to the fore, it is now more important than ever that the National Food Strategy for England forms the basis of wider reforms to create a more just, healthy and sustainable food and farming system.
We also need much more clarity from Defra as to how the breadth of powers in the Agriculture Bill are to be used.
To date, Defra’s ‘policy offer’ has been too narrow and disjointed, with uneven progress across different areas.
While they have published some details of the ELM scheme, farmers cannot see that in the context of what Defra intend with regards to supply chain reforms, animal welfare schemes, future regulation, productivity, advice or a whole host of other policies that we know are being worked on, but are yet to see the light of day in a meaningful way.
It is a framework Bill, but if Defra are to fall back on that explanation when saying why certain details are not included in legislation, then the onus must be on them to more clearly set out the totality of their offer on food and farming policy.
The return of the Agriculture Bill is a welcome step, and the reforms it entails are crucial to supporting more resilient and nature-friendly farming.
Defra need to be more ambitious in these reforms though, and communicate their breadth much more clearly if they are to build and retain confidence over the months ahead.
Tom can be found tweeting at @tommlancaster