Agriculture Bill

Written evidence submitted by the Game & Wildlife Conservation Trust [1] (AB41)

Public Bill Committee

Agriculture Bill

The Game & Wildlife Conservation Trust ("GWCT") welcomes the Agriculture Bill and in particular the explicit referral to food security, soils, agro-ecological approaches, environmentally sustainable production and multi-annual budgets introduced since its 2018 incarnation. However we think it is important to acknowledge that this Bill is only one part of a jigsaw of legislation and supporting policy statements that inter-connect, with future trade arrangements being particularly pertinent. How the Agriculture Bill, Environment Bill and Food Strategy work together will be important in ensuring that there are no unintended consequences or voids; there is an argument for each to cross-reference the other. The accompanying policy statement is also vital to understanding what the proposed legal framework means for farmers and land managers over the next 7-10 years.

Whilst we recognise that the Bill forms the legal framework for future policy to "flesh out", we wish to make the following points in order to encourage the future proofing of such an important guiding piece of legislation:

1. Trade standards

This point was extensively made during the second reading of the Bill. We are concerned that whilst this Government’s ambition may be to protect British standards in trade arrangements, there is no legal protection afford by this Bill to ensure that future trade deals do not undermine our domestic industry and global environmental obligations by ‘exporting’ emissions or environmental damage.

2. Food security

Food security has attracted much debate as to whether it could be termed a public good. Population growth in the UK and the plateauing of crop yields means our self-sufficiency in indigenous foods has dropped from around 86% in the mid 1980’s to c61% now and still falling. Government is being way too complacent about the implications of this trend. We are therefore pleased that the Agriculture Bill makes it a duty for Government to report to Parliament on this. However food security must surely be at the heart of any Agriculture Bill, yet the approach in this one is at best weak.

The GWCT believes that:

· quinquennial reports are totally inadequate and that annual reporting and the need for concluding actions and the monitoring of their delivery are essential. Domestic food production is facing significant challenges in the next few years – climate change, political turmoil surrounding new trading arrangements and the co-delivery of food and public goods - and so a more constant monitoring of the industry’s ability to deliver will be required. The significant rise in cereal prices in 2007 following domestic production problems exacerbated by production problems in several major exporting countries coupled with low global stocks could well be repeated this year with cereal acreage significantly down following the wet autumn and winter putting usual cropping patterns into turmoil. If reports only covered 5 year periods such challenges would not be addressed.

· a base level of productive capacity needs to be defined and maintained. This should be an essential strategic objective in the National Interest and in the face of climate change, population growth and global food supply uncertainty. We believe this is as important a matter now as it last was at the end of WW2, the time of the last domestic Agriculture Bill.

· Net Zero considerations should be a factor in Food Security assessments and should be specified in the data analysed in clause 17(2). Plans for land-based CDR are going to require land use changes with implications for food production.

· there needs to be a landscape scale assessment of productivity alongside other ecosystem service delivery. Food security assessments need to go beyond volume to reflect the sustainability of production in environmental and climate terms.

3. Implications of removal of direct payments

The Bill enables the removal of direct payments over the course of the transition period.

3.1. Disconnect between ELM introduction and end of transition

We are concerned that any delay to the introduction of ELM could result in a period where farmers are neither supported by the phased out Basic Farm Payment ("BFP") or the new ELM scheme. This could be disastrous for the industry with farmers going out of business and environmental/conservation gains made lost.

3.2. No flexibility in ELM introduction

The current timetable provides no flexibility in the scheduling of the ELM introduction. Whilst the new scheme is undergoing a trials and test period and a trial rollout is scheduled for 2024, experience from the introduction of new schemes in the past has shown that flexibility is an important factor in allowing the new scheme to become fit for purpose. This not only applies to scheme design, content and payment rates but also administration – the introduction of the Basic Farm Payment and its administration by the RPA is a case in point.

3.3. Transition period and environmental ambitions

We feel there is a significant danger that the environmental benefits associated with the BFP will be lost, particularly if the new ELM scheme is not fully up and running at the end of the transition period. As a consequence we are concerned as to how Government will ensure that statutory environmental legislation and best practice will be effectively enforced across the industry – not just those that sign up to the new ELM (although we envisage that ELM will be open to all, there is expected to be a percentage of farmers who do not wish to join the scheme). There is the real possibility that without maintaining the regulatory baseline delivered by cross compliance, Government (and the public) would be funding ELM delivery without any assurance that statutory and other basic environmental, animal welfare and animal health standards are being met. In our view it is very important that farmers are not seen to be accessing environmental payments when their observance of basic compliance may be inadequate. Such situations give rise to deep concern over the distribution of public money.

3.4. Farm profitability and costs of compliance with legal duties

We would like to re-iterate a point made in previous debates about the Bill in 2018. There is a very real prospect that the removal of direct payments will in particular undermine the viability of some small to medium sized farms. The proposed approach to future ELM is likely to provide an alternative means of support in less favoured areas (remote farming) due to the focus of public good provision in these areas. However, there is what we have termed the "missed middle", those farms which will struggle to fill the income gap left by the removal of direct payments through productivity gains due to limitations such as land quality, gradient, farm size etc. and which are not in targeted areas for public good provision such as the Uplands or designated landscapes. We support the calls for the retention of some form of payment for compliance with basic environmental standards and statutory requirements as a means of providing such farms with a basic level of farm support.

4. Soil quality

We question the legal resilience of the term "soil quality". Quality tends to imply a comparative assessment not a definitive condition. We prefer the term "soil health" which was used in the 25YEP.

We are pleased that the Government has recognised that soil quality underpins all of our agricultural production and plan to start to monitor this in the future. However, we are greatly disappointed that the Bill includes no measures to facilitate the preservation or recovery in soil quality. Soil scientists are clear that measures need to be taken if soils quality is to be improved. Without positive measures there is a danger we’ll simply follow the precedent set by 60 years of farmland bird data collection and preside over a measured decline in soil quality, recording it but not fixing it.

5. Uplands

We welcome the specific reference to the Uplands in the Bill but given the widely varying descriptions that could be used for such land eg LFA, marginal areas, moorland, hill fringe etc we feel that a definition of what is meant by Uplands is required, particularly given the context of natural/cultural heritage. We suggest the definition used in Defra’s Uplands Policy Review document of the English Uplands [2] .

6. Pesticides

The Bill contains no references to future approvals of pesticide active ingredients, an essential component of secure food production. The EU Hazard based risk assessment process is deeply flawed and has led to unnecessary restrictions in the use of pesticides for no environmental advantage. Many non-EU countries operate a risk based approach which looks at the likelihood of harm being caused rather the inherent hazardous nature of the product. If the Government is to be true to its objectives of being informed by science, then such an approach should be introduced to the UK approvals process.

February 2020


[1] We are a leading UK charity conducting conservation science to enhance the British countryside for public benefit. We use our research to provide training and advice on how best to improve the biodiversity of the countryside. www.gwct.org.uk

[1]

[2] This includes Northumberland and North Pennines; Lake District; Yorkshire Dales and Bowland; North York Moors; South Pennines; Peak District; Welsh Borders; Exmoor, Dartmoor and Bodmin Moor; South West Disadvantaged LFA Area.

 

Prepared 25th February 2020