‘The Agriculture Bill and the need for higher standards’

Parliament’s adaptation to the exceptional circumstances in which we now all exist has been somewhat surprising. The procedure committee, of which I am a member, has successfully managed to work through the past eight weeks and introduce innovative techniques and technologies that have assisted parliament’s function.

Today the third reading of the Agriculture Bill is brought before the House, a landmark piece of legislation and arguably the most important in this area for seventy years. Its focus offers our agricultural sectors an opportunity to thrive on ‘public money for public good’, to review our food security and to open transparency around food production and supply chains. What is more it offers us the chance to invest in research and development in agroecology, expand upon our fledgling regenerative agricultural schemes, work towards improving our soil fertility and drive up carbon sequestration as we look to meet our environmental targets in 2050.

I had hoped that today’s debate might offer me the opportunity to expand on the above benefits and to be able represent the farmers within my constituency of Totnes. Sadly, our temporarily hybrid parliamentary system restricts the number of MPs able to take part in debates and I have not made the cut. So instead I am using this article to articulate my support for this agricultural bill and to highlight the importance I believe it can have in balancing productivity with environmental conservation and benefit.

Not since the Second World War has there been such an important agricultural bill. This is no exaggeration. This bill will change the way in which our agricultural sector functions and how we interact with our environment and produce our food. Its focus is balanced between productivity, environmentalism and transparency and there is much to be applauded.

For instance, no longer will farmers be paid subsidies based on the size of their landholdings. Instead, this scheme will be replaced with the Environmental Land Management scheme (ELMs) ensuring that public money (subsidies) is for public benefit. This means that farmers will be incentivised to be more environmentally conscious and to adapt the techniques they use to benefit their own produce and the communities in which they live. 

Every five years the Environment Secretary will be required by this bill to report on our food security levels. We are all too familiar with the recent scenes of overcrowded supermarkets, empty shelves and panic buying that greeted the start of this Covid-19 crisis. This bill will ensure the government is regularly taking a stock check of our own ability to produce and provide food for our own population. This is a welcome step and one that I believe will ensure that we will be able to drive up support for local supply chains, promote the ‘Buy British’ campaign and address any future challenges.

Environmentalism and food security are essential tenants of our new agricultural bill. Their inclusion means that many of our farmers will have to adapt their methods and look at new innovations and techniques in agroecology and regenerative agriculture. To help achieve this we need greater R&D investment which is why I welcome that, to be technical, Clause 16 offers the Secretary of State the ability to invest further into techniques that will bring this sector into the 21st Century. So many of our European neighbours have spent decades investing in and cultivating their agricultural sectors. They outperform us in productivity and their agricultural techniques often appear far in advance of our own. That can change with this bill and we can use this opportunity to explore and develop regenerative agricultural schemes such as no-till farming, cover crop usage and livestock integration.

These are all welcome parts of the bill and it should be remembered that framework bills can be added to in great detail. What does and doesn’t work can be added in months and years to come.

My own reservations around this bill have sat firmly with the potential that future trade deals might lead to the import of agricultural produce that falls far below our own environmental and animal welfare standards. At a time when a global pandemic rages,  where its likely cause is from substandard animal welfare treatment in Chinese’ wet markets, I believe we have to be more conscious and alive to the provenance of our food, however, I also recognise the significant impracticalities of tying our hands behind our back on future trade deals. My ask of Government, specifically DEFRA and the Department of Trade, is for detailed labelling that documents the products’ provenance, environmental standards, air miles and levels of chemical usage. A comparison could easily be the universal standardisation of information placed on cigarette packets. 

Greater information will dictate how we, as consumers, purchase our food and in doing so we do not risk closing off already profitable markets to our beef and lamb farmers or deny the opportunity for markets to be opened.

Unfortunately, I won’t be making any of these points in the chamber of the House of Commons today. Instead I am making them here to you. This bill begins a new era for our farmers and rural communities and how we interact with our environment. I am a student of history and I have often felt that Disraeli’s view that the “right of property is also a duty” has stood the test of time. Those who hold it are also accountable to those whom it might otherwise burden… and towards the inheritance in which we all have a stake.