Opinion: Ag Bill lacks teeth to help farmers make change

March 9, 2020

Our food and farming system is at a crossroads. The current model too often favours consolidation at the expense of ecology and farmers’ livelihoods. 

We need a sustainable, resilient food system that works with nature, not against it; restores rather than undermines biodiversity; and makes a full and fair contribution to our climate goals.

 

The Agriculture Bill is an opportunity to start this transition. But without major improvement, it’ll flunk it.

 

Yes, there is a welcome mention of soil protection, which was inexplicably absent from the previous version.

 

Soil degradation

 

It’s estimated that nearly half of European soils are degraded and have low levels of organic matter, with intensive agriculture being a key factor.

 

We need the new farm payment system to prioritise soil health, but we need to recognise the role of well-designed regulation too.

 

On that, the Bill is worryingly silent, with the government still not banning practices that do unforgivable harm – such as burning of blanket bogs or the use of peat in compost.

 

Organic farming

 

With organic farming supporting healthy soils – with an on average 44% higher capacity to store long-term soil carbon – this Bill should also do more for soil by supporting an expansion of organic farming.

 

Farmers are being let down with this Bill. We ask our farmers to meet strict standards on animal welfare, environmental protection and public health. There should be a watertight requirement that all food imported to the UK is produced to at least equivalent standards.

 

Less than 3% of UK land is organic. Surely we can do better than that?

 

And if the objective is to have healthy, living soils – for fertility, biodiversity and carbon storage – then where are the policies to minimise the harmful inputs that cause the damage?

 

As a minimum, the Bill should set national targets to cut pesticide use.

 

Climate change

 

To meet the climate challenge, the Bill also needs a link to carbon budgets and sense of urgency to match the science.

As the Committee on Climate Change said in its report on land use in January: “Continued delay is not an option … it is critical that change starts immediately”.

 

Over recent years, an incredibly strong case has been building for a 10-year transition to agroecology.

 

That’s the sort of bold vision the Bill needs to rise to the climate emergency, whose effects many farmers are already experiencing.

 

One proponent of a transition to agroecology is the RSA Food, Farming and Countryside Commission, which had extensive input from farmers and growers.

 

Food import standards

 

Crucially, the commission found that farmers agreed they could make big changes to the way they farm in five to 10 years – “with the right backing”. 

 

The Agriculture Bill should have put that backing on the table. It hasn’t.

 

There is another way that farmers are being let down with this Bill. We ask our farmers to meet strict standards on animal welfare, environmental protection and public health.

 

There should be a watertight requirement that all food imported to the UK is produced to at least equivalent standards.

This was the hottest of all topics in the debate during the second reading of the Bill, but no such guarantees were offered.

 

There are distinctly mixed signals coming from the government. One week, the prime minister dismisses concerns about equivalence as “hysteria”.

 

The next, the government states: “All products sold in the UK are required to meet our regulatory requirements, and this will continue to be the case.”

 

If ministers mean it, they need to put it into law – especially when the mood music is that our food and farming standards may be cast aside in pursuit of a trade deal with the US.

 

The opportunity is there for us to design a new farm policy that rises to the challenge of the climate and biodiversity crises, while simultaneously securing sustainable rural livelihoods for the long term.

 

Caroline Lucas, Green Party MP for Brighton Pavilion, sets out her vision for a sustainable farming future and an Agriculture Bill that is fit for this purpose.

 

First published in Farmers Weekly

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