Rural and veterinary bodies give their take on the new Agriculture Bill

The long-awaited Bill, which will now start to progress through Parliament, sets out a blueprint for the future of farming in England after the UK leaves the EU, but how have the UK’s rural bodies responded?

The new, revised Bill pledges to reward farmers and land managers with public money for public goods, including higher animal welfare standards, measures to protect wildlife and biodiversity, and actions to adapt to and mitigate climate change.

Another major change is that officials will need to report regularly to Parliament on the UK’s food security.

NFU: Progress, but still protection from imports is still missing

National Farmers’ Union (NFU) president Minette Batters said the Government had “clearly listened” to many of the union’s concerns raised in the last version of the Bill.

“However, farmers across the country will still want to see legislation underpinning the Government’s assurances that they will not allow the imports of food produced to standards that would be illegal here through future trade deals,” she said.

We will continue to press the Government to introduce a standards commission as a matter of priority to oversee and advise on future food trade policy and negotiations.

“It is encouraging to see that the Agriculture Bill now recognises that food production and caring for the environment go hand-in-hand. Farmers are rightly proud of their environmental efforts and it is crucial this new policy recognises and rewards the environmental benefits they deliver, both now and in the future.

“Alongside this, the Government’s commitment to invest in supporting farmers to improve productivity will be critical, given the delivery of sustainable and climate-friendly food systems cannot be achieved in the absence of viable and profitable farm businesses.

A commitment to regularly report on food security to Parliament is reassuring but this must be more than simply a box-ticking exercise.

“It is vital that British farming continues to contribute a significant proportion of our nation’s food needs and that we set the ambition of growing more, selling more and exporting more British food.

“We recognise that the way farmers are supported will change and the announcement to regularly report, evaluate and monitor how the schemes will operate will go some way to ensuring that any money taken from farmers as part of the phase-out of the Direct Payments (BPS) will stay within farming.

“With our future relationship with the EU, our largest export market for agri-food products, still unclear, the Government must ensure farmers remain sufficiently supported to weather any economic storms ahead.

Ultimately, farmers do not want to be ever reliant on Government support payments to realise a fair level of income. One of the keys to a thriving farm business is a transparent and fair supply chain, so the pledge in this Bill to improve both of those aspects is really important.

“Across many sectors, we have seen inexplicable downward price pressure, including most recently in the beef sector. Stamping out unfair trading practices and improving the bargaining position of farmers in the supply chain are vital steps we must take across all of the farming sectors.”

CLA: ‘We need more clarity on the transition’

The transition period is set to begin from 2021, but the delay in the Bill and the lack of clarity of how direct payments will be removed during the transition period means there is still much uncertainty among farmers and land managers.

The seven-year transition period will see the removal of direct payments, which have been the mainstay of support for many years, and a move to the new Environmental Land Management Scheme (ELMS) that will only be fully available from late 2024 under current plans.

CLA President Mark Bridgeman said: “This is welcome news after a year of political stalemate.

However, the Government should allow proper time for rural businesses to adjust and adapt, ideally by delaying the start of the transition by 12 months.

“This would allow farmers to make long term plans, once the details become clearer of both the crucial trade deal and future schemes.

“We warmly welcome guarantees of funding for the lifetime of this Parliament, but farmers need to know how it affects them personally.

“The Government should set out the profile of the transition and how ELMS will work in detail as a matter of urgency and guarantee that there will be no delays in its implementation.”

BVA: ‘There must be no mixed messages on animal welfare’

The British Veterinary Association (BVA) president Daniella Dos Santos said she was “pleased” to see animal health and welfare given prominence in the Bill.

“We are rightly recognised as a world leader for our animal welfare standards, so measures that incentivise industry to both maintain and enhance those standards are very positive and put the country on a firm footing as we build future trade links,” she said.

It will be really important for strong commitments to animal health and welfare to be replicated in the devolved administrations as legislation is developed across the UK and to coordinate throughout the UK food chain.

“The BVA stands with the wider farming industry in pushing for assurances that imports produced to lower animal health and welfare standards will not be accepted as part of future trade deals. There must be no mixed messages.

“The UK cannot commit to raising the bar domestically while allowing in goods that don’t meet the high standards that British consumers rightly want and expect.

“Vets play a crucial role in monitoring and enhancing animal health and welfare and food safety in UK agriculture, from the farm-gate through to trade certification and border checks.

“It’s vital that the Government uses the veterinary profession’s expertise as the Bill is shaped and delivered. BVA will continue to make sure that vets have a strong voice as this landmark legislation passes through Parliament.”