The Agriculture Bill is rolling again and representatives of the farming industry have reacted reasonably positively to the bill as it went through second reading stage last week. It addresses the future of financial support for the industry on the transition away from the EU Common Agricultural Policy, protects high animal welfare standards and recognises farmers’ vital role as food producers. The backdrop to these aims is a new direction further encouraging farmer support for environmental sustainability, flood alleviation work, protection of soils and countryside management.
Infrastructure developers needing access to land should note that a big priority of the bill is soil. Whether through regulation or farmer resistance there is likely to be a need for far more discipline in cross country construction projects. The fall back of compensation for crop loss will quite possibly no longer be sufficient to meet the consequences of damage to soils.
Soil is covered in the Bill as “an essential national asset”. Erosion rates from ploughed fields are between ten and 100 times greater than rates of soil formation. The level of importance attached to this relates to predicted food security crisis within current lifetimes. The Government will reward farmers who protect and improve soil quality with measures like crop rotation and low tillage systems. New powers to regulate fertiliser use and organic farming can be expected.
Soil monitoring and research are likely products of the commitment. Whether soil protection for uses by third parties accessing farmland could be included as part of this element is possibly an area for infrastructure operators to pursue. There has been no coordinated examination into soil handling since the 1980’s when British Gas and others were undertaking large scale installations the length of the country.
This could be further reinforced because alongside the Agriculture Bill is the new Environment Bill, which will enshrine environmental principles in UK law. The UK will lose access to EU “watchdog” bodies that monitor and enforce environmental laws. The Bill will set out the structure to maintain standards and setting up a new independent Office for Environmental Protection has been proposed.
Farmers though will be equally concerned about the Trade Bill currently awaiting its second reading. There are no firm commitments to protect British farmers from cheap, low-standard foreign imports, which is particularly important as the government seeks to negotiate trade deals with countries whose standards are lower than the UK’s. Beyond the cheap low standard tag, farmers will be concerned about good quality imported foods that could swamp UK producers; in many countries extensively farmed crops can be produced more cheaply than in the UK and there is always the temptation for Government to keep food prices down by allowing such agricultural produce in.
To the relief of the farming industry the strategic importance of producing food is highlighted in the Bill; a strategy not publicly pursued since the post war era. The words, “give regard to the need to encourage the production of food by producers in England” encompass this principle in developing new schemes and as importantly the government will report to parliament on food security every five years so that policy changes can be implemented if necessary. Perhaps support for growers willing to experiment in bringing new food crops into viable use would be an idea to pursue.
Support for farming is to continue at the current rate for this Parliament. This will give farmers time to think about future changes. Values of the Basic Payment Entitlements will presumably take a boost from this commitment in the short term. The Basic Payment itself is set to be reduced to zero over the period to 2028. Going forward schemes of support will be set for a term of years to give certainty. In the new world farmers are set to be paid for producing “public goods” in a new Environmental Land Management System. Air, water, wildlife and environment are among the “public goods” referred to.
As an aside in a busy piece of legislation Agricultural Tenancies are to be reformed and modernized.