Agriculture Bill

Written evidence submitted by Robert Evans, Visiting Fellow, Global Sustainability Institute, Anglia Ruskin University (AB68)

Comments on the Agriculture Bill 2020

I read the Bill to find out how Environmental Land Management Schemes are likely to operate. I am no wiser. These payments will replace eventually the EU’s Basic Payment Scheme and those direct EU payments for example to encourage environmentally friendly and sustainable farming. These payments will be needed not only ensure food production in a more sustainable way but importantly also to maintain the economic viability of many farms in England.

I am particularly interested in the payments for environmental services, especially those related to alleviating soil erosion and runoff and how those management practices will be funded, carried out and monitored.

First a bit of history. By the 1960s the results of the 1947 Agriculture Act were becoming apparent – too many sheep in the Peak District creating and expanding patches of bare soil; in the lowlands the movement on to soils less suited to intensive agriculture, to larger machines to work, fertilise and spray the land with pesticides all to increase cereal production. These actions lead to the removal of field boundaries to accommodate this larger machinery, leading to soil erosion and runoff, especially down tractor wheelings and in valley floors.

The reasons for the 1947 Agriculture Act following the Second World War were understandable, to lessen the threat of food shortages. The subsidies accompanying the Act to encourage farmers to produce more were successful, but as noted came with costs to the environment. The environmental impacts and costs I am particularly interested in – soil erosion and runoff and their impacts both on- and off-farm were apparent by the late 1960s.

Entering the Common Market in 1973 allowed subsidies to be paid more easily and also lead to more intensive farming – even more sheep on the hills (paid per head) and winter wheat production, wheat replacing barley as farmers were paid by the tonne produced, winter wheat out-yielding barley. More fertilisers and pesticides were used, these leading to pollution of water courses and the surrounding seas. Muddy floods became more frequent and costly, and water companies began the costly process of removing pesticides from drinking water. By the mid- and late 1980s many of these off-farm impacts were being recognised and by the mid-1990s were being costed. Questions were asked in Parliament about soil erosion and its impacts.

The Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food funded much of this research, especially via the Agricultural Development and Advisory Service and the Soil Survey of England Wales. Much of that important work ended in the late 1980s. Knowledge was forgotten and lost unless you knew where to look. And presently not many people know where to look, so soils, for example, are still abused and compacted by machines and animals. Farming is not an easy business and timing of going on the land is critical. In poet John Clare’s time, in the early 1800s, farmers couldn’t work the land if it was wet. Now, large machines can, if farmers wish. Resulting this year, for example, in a sugar beet harvester and tractor being towed twice out of a field near Cambridge, a clayey field which should never have been drilled to sugar beet, as the ground was very likely to be too wet at harvest time.

It will be very difficult to reduce flow off the land in a wet autumn and winter such as this one, where sheet flow over the surface carrying sediment and other pollutants is happening almost everywhere but with little evidence of rills cut into the soil. Low rates of erosion are having large off-farm impacts. Runoff generated from hard road surfaces and farm tracks carrying soil particles eroded from damaged roadside verges to flood minor roads and transport particles to streams and rivers is also widespread this year, as I have seen very recently in Somerset and Devon. Alleviating and mitigating such impacts is very difficult and needs environmental land management schemes across the whole landscape, involving not only those who manage the land but also, for example, highway authorities.

This intensification of agriculture came about for good reasons. But it was encouraged and paid for by Governments. If we wish farmers to farm more sustainably and in an environmentally friendly way and to maintain their livelihoods, it is likely we will have to pay them to do that. How will we do that? I was hoping the Bill would indicate how. How will Environmental Land Management Schemes be carried out, funded and monitored?

March 2020


Prepared 6th March 2020