Agriculture Bill introduced, outlining sweeping post-Brexit environmental measures

The Department for Food, the Environment and Rural Affairs' (Defra) Agriculture Bill has been introduced today (16 January), confirming the Government's plans for rewarding farmers that make environmental improvements and safeguarding green standards post-Brexit.

Agriculture Bill introduced, outlining sweeping post-Brexit environmental measures

The Bill was initiailly introduced in October 2018

As expected, the Bill includes measures that will see farmers and land managers rewarded financially for work to improve air and water quality; boost soil health; implement flood mitigation and adaptation measures; improve access to the countryside or bolster animal welfare. Payments under this incentive scheme will be rolled out over a seven-year period starting in 2021, replacing some of the existing Common Agricultural Policy’s incentive schemes. The Bill includes a promise for the pot of funding allocated for this purpose not to dip below current levels.

The Government claims that the new financial incentives form an extension of its past work to reward farmers and land managers with “public money for public goods”, with natural resources now falling under this remit due to progress in linking natural resources to social and economic value. The Government is notably conducting a landmark review into the economic benefits of environmental conservation and restoration, and the economic risks of environmental degradation.

Looking past 2028, the Bill includes plans to delink direct payments for farmers from a requirement to farm the land, as introduced by the EU.

Defra claims this will give farmers “greater flexibility” to plan for their future in light of climate impacts and other megatrends, or to diversify their activities, perhaps investing in lower-carbon crops or regenerative methods.

Elsewhere, the Bill introduces a new requirement for the UK Government to regularly report on food security to Parliament. Given that around half of the food consumed annually in the UK is imported, Brexit has repeatedly been flagged as a potential threat to food security, alongside environmental issues. The first report to Parliament is expected to be produced this year and to cover issues such as supply chain resilience and global food availability.

Also detailed are new powers to improve animal traceability using data and digital technologies; new powers to tailor regulation on organic produce in a producer-led manner, and measures to regulate fertilizer use as the UK leaves the EU’s requirements in this space.

Environment Secretary Theresa Villiers said the Bill’s measures in their entirety will “enable a balance between food production and the environment which will safeguard our countryside and farming communities for the future”.

“This is one of the most important environmental reforms for many years, rewarding farmers for the work they do to safeguard our environment and helping us meet crucial goals on climate change and protecting nature and biodiversity.”

Green economy reaction

At a global level, agriculture is known to be both one of biggest contributors to global GHG emissions (generating 11% of humanity’s output annually) and one of the sectors most exposed to environmental and climate risk.

According to the IPCC, humanity is currently using 72% of the planet’s ice-free land surface, with farming accounting for the majority of this land. The body’s land use research concluded that 75% of all man-made deforestation to date has been due to agri-food production, and that around one-fifth of the GHG emissions generated in human history can be attributed to this sector.

It is unsurprising, then, that key members of the UK’s green economy have been quick to weigh in on the updated Agriculture Bill. As expected, there has been broad support for the Bill’s main measures but calls for further detail and action in specific areas.

“It is excellent to see the return of the Agriculture Bill, with payments for environment, public access and animal welfare at its core,” Wildlife and Countryside Link’s chief executive Richard Benwell said.

“With the UK one of the most nature depleted countries in the world, it is welcome news that one of the Government’s first pieces of legislation has a strong focus on nature recovery. This Bill has the potential to put farming and nature on a path to survive and thrive together. But to succeed, the law must be accompanied by firm funding plans beyond this Parliament, regulation to ensure that imports meet high environmental and welfare standards, and simple but strong enforcement requirements for farming rules.”

While the Government has badged the Bill as “world-leading”, “landmark” and “one of the most important environmental reforms for 40 years”, a show of hands at the recent Oxford Farming Conference revealed that attendees still have concerns around the Government’s ability to maintain food standards after Brexit. Friends of the Earth (FotE) has been vocal in repeatedly raising this concern.

“As well as being key for food productivity, environmentally friendly farming is a crucial part of fixing the climate and nature crisis,” FotE campaigner Kierra Box said. “But as we begin to trade independently, UK efforts could be undermined by imports from countries that have lower environmental, food, and animal welfare standards. The government must add a legal commitment to prevent trade deals from forcing lower standards on the UK.”

Sarah George

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