The Agriculture Bill has potential to deliver for the environment, but the Government’s insistence on penny pinching during the transition period is likely to drive the farmers needed to implement the policy out of business, says Tim Farron MP, Lib Dem farming spokesman.
Britain cannot do without farmers!
Rural communities are held together by farming families, most of the food we eat is produced by British farmers and the environmental and landscape benefits society takes for granted are provided by farmers acting as the stewards of our countryside.
The Conservative Agriculture Bill is a radical shift in the way our farming system will work, the first major shift in generations.
The approach is the right one.
Rewarding our farmers for public goods, such as promoting biodiversity, flood prevention and promoting access to the countryside is something Liberal Democrats have supported for a long time.
But the detail of the Bill risks letting farmers down.
The news last week that Government officials believe farmers don’t contribute to our economy explained rather a lot about the Government’s recent actions.
The Tories are happy to ignore the crucial role farmers play in producing high-quality food, as well as the vital job they do in delivering the very public goods the Government is calling for – particularly in the face of the climate emergency and the nature crisis.
Farmers are our land managers, and if the Government allows a whole cohort of them to go out of business, they will be unable to deliver all the vital and varied public goods this Agriculture Bill identifies.
This Agriculture Bill lets farmers down, thanks, partly, to the dreaded B-word.
The Tories talk of the opportunities of new trade deals – particularly with the United States.
We have had reassurances that our high environmental, animal welfare and labour standards will not be watered down – but there are simply no guarantees in place in the Bill.
If we allow cheap food produced to poor standards to flood our UK market – chlorinated chicken and hormone-treated beef are only two examples – our farmers will be undercut, potentially driving many of them out of business.
This will be made even worse if trade with Europe ceases to be frictionless as the Tories have indicated.
At the start of this year, a Bill was rushed through parliament to extend the Common Agriculture Policy until the end of the year.
In Parliament, the Secretary of State said, ‘this is a Government which is backing Britain’s farmers.’
But the fact that compliance with Britain’s high farming standards is unlikely to be the minimum requirement for the signing of trade deals is proof the opposite is the case.
Farmers must plan – yet they have had no certainty in where their funding will come from after the next ten months are up.
This Agriculture Bill must provide that certainty.
The Government must guarantee funding for farmers until at least the end of this parliament – and preferably the end of the next too.
The phase out of direct payments begins in January, yet their replacement, the Environmental Land Management (ELM) scheme, is barely even in the pilot stages.
For the Government to reduce farm incomes by phasing out one scheme when the other is not even nearly ready has all the hallmarks of the Universal Credit debacle.
Before vital support is cut off from farmers, ELMs must be ready to go.
The Agriculture Bill is a huge opportunity for our country – it could provide support for our farmers to continue producing high-quality, sustainable food while delivering environmental goods which will be of benefit for generations.
But the Tories seem happy to miss that opportunity, and instead push our farmers to the brink by penny pinching in the transition period.
They must remember that without farmers, nothing in the Agriculture Bill will ever be delivered.
Tim can be found tweeting at @timfarron