Villiers: Agriculture Bill will entail ‘radical’ shake-up of environmental standards

Pictured (L-R):  Journalist Charlotte Smith

Speaking during a keynote session at the Oxford Farming Conference today (8 January), Villiers said that agriculture is the “last chapter” to close on post-Brexit trade deals, ahead of the UK’s updated EU exit date of January 31st.

Addressing concerns around the fact that the majority of the UK’s environmental legislation – covering the agriculture sector and beyond – currently comes from the EU and that Brexit could allow the nation to adopt weaker standards, Villiers said: “Backing better standards is core to this government.

“We will not dilute our high standards of quality and high animal welfare. We will not dilute our high environmental standards.

“Our strong British brand is built on high standards. The high standards are the backbone of our manufacturing sector and export.”

Villiers did not provide an exact date for when the Agriculture Bill will be re-introduced to Parliament for the first time since December’s general election.

However, she confirmed that the updated Bill will reward farmers and land managers with ‘public money for public goods’ – which will include animal welfare standards, emission reductions, carbon sequestration and biodiversity improvements. Payments under this incentive scheme will be rolled out over a seven-year period, replacing some of the existing Common Agricultural Policy’s incentive schemes.

The updated Bill will also include new measures to improve environmental data and boost transparency across the sector, Villiers confirmed.

“We have the potential to create a virtuous circle between agriculture, tackling climate change, protecting biodiversity, and securing investment in our rural economy,” she said.

“The process we are about to embark on will, I hope, provide an example to others around the world of what can be achieved if we rethink how we manage the land and produce our food.”

A long time coming

The Agriculture Bill was first introduced to Parliament in September 2018, with stalled progress on its introduction being widely attributed to tensions over Brexit.

During her session today, Villiers assured listeners that the “fundamental” measures included in the Bill will remain unchanged in the updated version.

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 Oxford Farming Conference revealed that attendees still have concerns around the Government’s ability to maintain food standards after Brexit.

The National Farmers Union (NFU) has said the new Bill must do more to ensure food that would be illegal to produce in the UK cannot be imported, so that the national sector can thrive and maintain competitiveness.

The body is also keen to see more policy mechanisms designed to help farmers mitigate, adapt to, and recover after, flooding. Widespread flooding in November 2019 affected large swathes of farmland used for crops such as potatoes and grains. The Government recently opened a £2m pot designed to support affected farmers.

“The first domestic agricultural policy in over 70 years must address how we manage water in this country,” NFU president Minette Batters said.

“We are currently wasting one of our most precious natural resources and we need a revolutionary approach to how we plan, protect and pay our farmers to store water.”

The NFU is notably aiming for the UK’s agriculture sector to achieve net-zero by 2040 – a decade ahead of the UK’s national target- while the Environment Agency, which plays a core role in national flood management, has set a 2030 deadline

The Soil Association, which represents organic farmers, was also quick to react to Villiers’ news.

“The commitment to ‘sustainable productivity’ is promising, though urgent clarification is needed on what this means,” the body’s head of food and health policy Rob Percival said.

“If ‘productivity’ is poorly defined, it could damage the natural environment and undermine efforts to tackle climate change. The Agriculture Bill must ensure that the climate and nature are fully incorporated into productivity payments. This should incentivise agroecological and nature-friendly farming.”

Villiers’ speech comes in the same week that WWF Scotland published a roadmap detailing how the country’s agriculture sector can reduce emissions by more than one-third by 2045.

Sarah George

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