The First New Agriculture Act in 70 years creates an opportunity for farming, food and nature

The UK is to have its first new major Agriculture Act since 1947. There have been minor Agriculture Acts which made amendments to the 47 Act (eg in 1970) and in 1986, but by then agriculture was governed by rules laid down by the European Union (or EC and EEC as it was before it became the EU.)

The Queen’s Speech earlier today announced that the proposed Long Parliament (which will stretch to nearly two years instead of the usual one year) will include Government proposals for a new Agriculture Act.

There is fairly scant detail on how the Government intends to change agriculture after we leave the Common Agricultural Policy in 2019. Although May’s Manifesto mostly lies in tatters, there are some familiar lines in the wording that the Government has released:

In line with the manifesto, the Bill will ensure that after we leave the EU we have an effective system in place to support UK farmers and protect our natural environment

The Bill will:

•provide stability to farmers as we leave the EU;

•protect our precious natural environment for future generations;

•deliver on the manifesto commitment to “provide stability for farmers as we exit the EU.

The background briefing goes on:

The purpose of the Bill is to:

•Provide stability to farmers as we leave the EU.

•Support our farmers to compete domestically and on the global market, allowing us to grow more, sell more and export more great British food.

The main benefits of the Bill would be:

•To support a thriving and self-reliant farming sector that is more competitive,

productive and profitable.

•To protect our precious natural environment for future generations.

•To deliver on the manifesto commitment to “provide stability for farmers as we exit the EU” (p. 25-26).

The main elements of the Bill are:

Measures to ensure that after we leave the EU, and therefore the Common Agricultural Policy, we have an effective system in place to support UK farmers and protect our natural environment.

There are a couple of things to note: while the Tory manifesto webpage may have been recently deleted, I still have a copy. As I described before, the manifesto went into a bit of detail about what a new agriculture policy might look like. This included “a new agri-environment scheme” but no commitment to direct subsidies.

Former senior Cameron aide and Cabinet Office big thinker Sir Oliver Letwin (my local MP) confirmed that this approach was being developed, in an interview with our local paper the Dorset Echo, during the election. Letwin said

“we must maintain cash payments to our farms, but in the form (post-Brexit) of new, home-grown countryside stewardship schemes to protect our landscape without the massive burden of bureaucracy imposed by the CAP.”

Earlier this year People Need Nature published “A Pebble in the Pond: opportunities for food, farming and nature after Brexit.”

I wrote this (and pulled together contributions from experts in their fields) in order to lay out a positive vision for agriculture in England, after the many frustrating years of watching the CAP reform at a pace a glacier would find dawdling.

I could not possibly have imagined that just 6 months later we would be in a position where a new Agriculture Bill is going to pass through a Hung Parliament. There will never be (in my lifetime) a better opportunity to create a new way of supporting farming that works with nature, that gets us away from this obsession with yield at any cost, that pushes the environmental and social costs of unsustainable food production onto the consumer, onto society and onto nature.

While so much about Brexit looks like it is going to be a disaster, this could provide one large silver lining.

 

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About Miles King

UK conservation professional, writing about nature, politics, life. All views are my own and I don't write on behalf of anybody else.
This entry was posted in agriculture, Brexit, Common Agricultural Policy, Oliver Letwin, People Need Nature, queens speech 2017 and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

13 Responses to The First New Agriculture Act in 70 years creates an opportunity for farming, food and nature

  1. David Dunlop says:

    One might hope for the same with the proposed Fisheries Act, the first since 1981.

  2. Lindsay says:

    What about animal welfare? Are we going to have a proper ban on battery cages, make free range mean just that. We need to tie in extensive livestock farming with care for the environment – carbon sequestration, soil enrichment, water management , biodiversity. Intensive is cruel, environmnentaly damaging and produces unhealthy food.

    • Miles King says:

      thanks Lindsay. It’s a good question. I think in the last 40 years the animal welfare charities have taken huge steps forward compared with nature charities influencing farming. So while I am sure animal welfare will continue to be part of the public debate around making farming more sustainable, there is much more work to be done for nature.

  3. Sue Redshaw says:

    How can we try to influence this process, Miles? I have an ineffective ‘Yes, Prime Minister’ MP, so fairly useless writing to her.

    • Miles King says:

      who is your MP Sue?

      • Sue Redshaw says:

        Nus Ghani, Conservative MP for Wealden, East Sussex

      • Miles King says:

        Thanks Sue,

        while I agree there is little to be gained from writing to her, as a constituent you have a right to have a face to face meeting with your MP. So I would suggest you arrange a meeting, then take along with you a copy of “A Pebble in the Pond” and go through it with her. Ask her what she thinks the new agriculture act should include and how farms should be supported in the future, and for what purpose.

        Let me know how you get on.

  4. Nimby says:

    Let’s hope that many environmentally minded grass roots constituents follow your lead and lobby for public benefit from public funds.

    Likewise we should approach Ministers (in the full knowledge that we’ll likely receive the usual placatory dribble which doesn’t answer the questions we raise).

    Social media too has a role to play, the more it is used constructively then the better chance it will have of being heard?

    The ‘state of democracy’ as well as the State of Nature is perilous and in my humble opinion needs review and reform on both counts?

  5. Vulgaris@67 says:

    If it had been a Labour Govt (which it still may be) I feel it could’ve been truly ambitious and visionary which is of course is what happened when the country was on its knees post WWII. This along with National Parks and Access to the Countryside Act 1949 which laid the foundations in many ways of formal and legal land and landscape protections.
    My concern now is this is being driven as much by the farming industry which of course was largely pro-leave as it is Govt (although baffled to understand why). With the power and vested interests of agro-chem industry, a desire by the alt right conservative hoodlums to de-regulate (neo-nics) and drive for production, along with powerful landowners who have influence with friends in high places the battle to secure a environmentally friendly Agricultural Act will be a huge challenge. The likes of Gove will want to leave a legacy and I feel he would consider environment regulations and legislation to protect land (SSSIs) as a burden and therefore if he sees the opportunity to rip up red tape he will try to.
    For the environment movement aka the Green Lobby or Blob, they’ll need to be battling very hard to ensure that doesn’t happen.

  6. Miles

    Many thanks for this.

    Any thoughts on whether the Agriculture Bill could also be a hook to argue that post-CAP agricultural subsidies should be used to promote increased public access to the countryside – as well as greater protection of it – in accordance with the “public goods for public subsidies” principle?

    This is something that groups like the Ramblers, Open Spaces Society and ourselves (Cycling UK) are very keen to push for. It would fit in well with the “Connecting people to nature” theme of DEFRA’s long-awaited 25-year environment strategy. And incidentally, there could be even greater opportunities in Wales – see https://www.cyclinguk.org/campaign/trails-wales.

    • Miles King says:

      thanks Roger.

      Yes I think there is a good chance that access to the countryside (above and beyond statutory rights which are not subject to negotiation – well hopefully anyway) will be regarded as a public good that should be paid for via a new farm support scheme. Permissive access rights on trails and across areas of land have been part of agri-environment schemes since day one – it would be very odd if they weren’t included in any new scheme. The shape of those permissive rights, how much they are worth to a landowner, and the priority they are given when allocating limited resources will be open to debate. It’s also not at all clear from discussions I have had, whether forestry land will be included in the new scheme or continue to be deal with separately. I suspect the latter.

  7. Pingback: Blogs - Mark AveryMark Avery

  8. Roderick Leslie says:

    What is actually needed is a landuse act, not an agriculture act. There are now two competing approaches to landuse: the widely accepted sectoral approach which David Milliband rightly described as a ‘zero sum game’ in 2007, and the outcome based approach championed by the Natural Capital Committee. NCC holds out the prospect of actually saving money by adapting landuse to what we need today, not the focus on food production alone which was understandable when the last major policy was made in 1947. It applies equally to nature conservation: Lawton was right about the need for scale, but wrong to project it as an isolated sectoral bid with a huge bill attached.

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