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Agriculture Bill: the new law of the land

Will the new bill really make things fairer for UK farmers?

Last updated: 01 Dec 2020 6 min read

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The Agriculture Bill currently ploughing its way through the House of Lords will shape the nature of UK farming when we finally leave the EU. From 1 January 2021, farmers will no longer be bound by – or receive any subsidies from – its Common Agricultural Policy (CAP). So what will the replacement legislation look like – and what does it mean for farmers and the consumers they feed?

The bill has already made history – lockdown made it the first ever virtual vote to be taken in the House of Commons – but it’s the landmark content that will define British agriculture over the next few years and beyond.

“Put simply, this legislation recognises the importance of food,” says National Farmers’ Union vice president Stuart Roberts. “The government’s recent announcement of a Trade and Agriculture Commission is designed to ensure the UK’s trade policy fully considers our agriculture industry, but [international trade secretary] Liz Truss has said its recommendations should be ‘advisory only’. This bill has the potential to underline guarantees in law.”

The bill will define the new, EU-independent law on a wide range of issues, and at its heart is the replacement of the much-maligned CAP, which has supported or stymied British farmers, depending on your viewpoint, since 1973. The legislation’s core principle will replace the CAP’s unbalanced system of paying subsidies to farmers in direct proportion to the amount of land they manage – which, critics claimed, rewarded wealthy landowners, pushed up land prices, effectively blocked younger farmers entering the profession and encouraged the farming of unproductive land that could otherwise have boosted ecosystems as wildlife habitats.

“Put simply, this legislation recognises the importance of food. The government’s recent announcement of a Trade and Agriculture Commission is designed to ensure the UK’s trade policy fully considers our agriculture industry” Stuart Roberts, vice president, NFU

In the CAP’s place will be financial support for producing so-called “public goods” – environmental benefits for the advantage of all, but which bring no direct monetary reward, such as clean air, clean water, thriving wildlife, raising animal welfare standards, enhanced beauty and “opportunities to engage with the natural environment”. The £3bn funding available roughly matches the total subsidy UK farmers currently receive from the EU and will be determined through farmers entering environmental land management contracts, as part of the government’s 25-Year Environment Plan and the Clean Growth Strategy.

Farmers and environmental groups have welcomed the principle of the bill to benefit the “public good”. Campaign group Rewilding Britain called it “one of the most important environmental reforms for many years”, while the Sustainable Food Trust welcomed “the adoption of a whole-farm approach to farm policy integrating efficient and sustainable food production with practices that maintain and enhance natural and human capital”.

But not everyone’s a fan – Stephen Khan, executive editor of academic research journal The Conversation, warned there is a danger that “relatively less profitable farms would opt for rewilding, while the [resulting] shortfall in food production would be picked up by profitable but less ecologically sensitive farms,” which are less reliant on the subsidy.

The bill’s broader remit will cover all legislative aspects around agriculture, from fertilisers to tenancies, red meat levies to traceability of animals, and the provision and maintenance of fairer food supply chains. It also obliges the environment secretary to present a food security report to MPs at least once every parliament.

Concerns about animal welfare

While farmers broadly back the legislation, it also controversially stops short of various measures that guarantee certain welfare standards – which has enraged many farmers who fear they will be undercut by lower-quality foreign meat imports.

Most notably, on its third reading in the Commons, MPs were asked to vote on an amendment that would prevent the import of agricultural and food products that “do not comply with World Trade Organization safety rules and the UK’s own standards”. The amendment, tabled by Conservative MP and chair of the environment, food and rural affairs committee, Neil Parish, and backed by a raft of organisations including the NFU, the Farmers’ Union of Wales, NFU Scotland, Friends of the Earth, the CLA, the National Trust, the Soil Association, the Sustainable Food Trust, the Wildlife Trusts, the Woodland Trust, the RSPB and the RSPCA, was thrown out by 51 votes.

Many MPs fear upholding such standards could scupper the potential for post-Brexit trade agreements with nations outside the EU – which they consider a particularly dangerous move while the UK still has no deal. “Take it from me,” said former international trade secretary Liam Fox, “the US would walk away from talks if we tried to make the adoption of UK rules a pre-condition of any FTA [free trade agreement].”

But Parish said: “We [the Conservative manifesto] promised not to reduce our high domestic standards, so we should not undermine them through trade deals. Allowing preferential access to food imports produced to lower standards will put many of our farmers at a competitive disadvantage and out of business. Not only will this export jobs, it will export the impact, turning a blind eye to poor animal welfare standards abroad and encouraging environmental degradation there. We’ll be exporting control, not taking it back.”

Cautious optimism

Phil Stocker, CEO of the National Sheep Association (NSA), was equally disappointed but hopeful that the bill’s current scrutiny in the House of Lords would reassess the decision. “Having made a manifesto commitment to protect and not compromise on our environmental and animal welfare standard in trade deals, it is highly concerning that the government will not cement this in legislation,” he said. “But this amendment is at the top of the list that the NSA, and no doubt a good number of peers, will be keen to examine in more detail.”

Other farmers, too, have made their feelings known – most strikingly with a rally procession of tractors through Westminster in July, organised by campaign group Save British Farming, which got backing from at least one member of the House of Lords. “As a Green Party peer,” said Baroness Jones of Moulsecoomb, “I find myself in an unlikely alliance of farmers, ethical consumers, animal welfare advocates and bird watchers who all have a big stake in the outcome of the Agriculture Bill.”

If and when the bill completes its journey through the second chamber – in whatever form – it is expected to become law in spring 2021. There will then follow a seven-year transition period for farmers to adjust to the new payment system.

Until then, the agri community seems hopeful – but cautious, too.

“Am I optimistic about the Bill?” says Roberts. “We needed an alternative to the CAP, which simply didn’t work and will soon be obsolete anyway. I welcome the principle of the changes it brings. But it remains to be seen how it will bed in and, particularly on the subject of standards, how well it will really serve the sector.”

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