The biggest shake-up to farming subsidies for 40 years is on the horizon as a long-awaited Agriculture Bill is brought before parliament.
Farmers will now be paid subsidies based on their care of the environment, rather than the amount of land they own, a move announced previously as the UK leaves the EU and its agricultural policy, known as CAP.
The new funding structure, dubbed payment for ‘public goods’ is described as “one of the most important environmental reforms for many years” by environment minister, Theresa Villiers.
Soil health and agroecology are two measures determined to be a ‘public good’, welcomed by many as bringing the environment to the heart of agricultural policy.
Stronger rules to protect producers and allow them to negotiate fairer returns are also mentioned in the bill under a new ‘Fair Dealing’ clause.
“The spirit (public money for public good) is right and I am prepared to believe that there is a will to turn it into practice,” said founder of organic veg box company, Guy Singh-Watson. “I am particularly pleased to see inclusion of emphasis on regulation and fairness in supply chains.
“There are two huge question around delivery. Will the will hold firm in the face of tough trade deals when other countries demand access to our markets for food produced to lower standards in return for our access to their markets for financial services etc? And how will public goods be measured, quantified and balanced against each other and against demands for cheap food?”
He also noted the huge variation in soils, farm practices and ecology across the country, and hence the need for locally specific practices.
“To be able to play their part in producing healthy food, restoring nature and tackling climate change, farming must have more certainty and decent livelihoods,” said Vicki Hird, sustainable farming coordinator for campaign group, Sustain.
“Sustain is therefore very pleased to see the government maintain the commitments on regulating the supply chain in order to drive out unfair practices – which harm farmers here and overseas, limit their options for investing in sustainable practices and lead to shocking amounts of good food going to waste.
“We welcome the return of the Agriculture Bill and are glad that the Government remains committed to rewarding farmers for public benefits rather than support based on the amount of land they own.”
Gareth Morgan, head of farming and land use policy at the Soil Association, said: “We are pleased to see the continued commitment to public money for public goods in the Agriculture Bill – rewarding farmers who store carbon and protect water and wildlife. It’s great the government has listened and soil is now referenced within the bill and that payments will be available to farmers for protecting or improving soil quality.
“But much more is necessary to bring the radical change our farming sector needs to solve the climate, nature and diet crises. It is disappointing the bill still does not commit to support for farmers to adopt nature-friendly agroecological farming, like organic, or environmental action across the whole farm, rather than in small areas. Nor does it signal support to enable the radical shift away from artificial fertiliser and pesticides needed to restore nature and soils capable of storing carbon.”
Notably absent was a commitment to avoid lowering the standards of food imports under any future trade deals, such as with the US. It comes as Defra minister Villiers stated that the government will not dilute environmental, food safety or animal welfare standards at the recent Oxford Farming Conference, but this was not repeated in the Agriculture Bill.
“It is vital we have proper parliamentary scrutiny of trade deals and it is worrying that the government is resisting legislating on this,” added Morgan.
Hot on its heels, the Environment Bill, is expected to follow in due course, with a focus on biodiversity, protecting nature, and air pollution among its top priorities.