New agriculture bill fails to tackle public health issue

The government’s long-awaited Agriculture Bill promises to “deliver a cleaner and healthier environment for future generations”, but campaigners and farmers aren’t convinced.

The Agriculture Bill, introduced into Parliament on Wednesday (September 12th) sets out how farmers and land managers will in future be paid for “public goods”, such as better air and water quality, improved soil health, higher animal welfare standards, public access to the countryside and measures to reduce flooding.

This will replace the current subsidy system of direct payments under the EU’s much-maligned Common Agricultural Policy, which the government said is “ineffective and pays farmers based on the total amount of land farmed”.

A briefing on the DEFRA website reads: “A new Environmental Land Management system will start from next year. The government will work together with farmers to design, develop and trial the new approach. Under the new system, farmers and land managers who provide the greatest environmental benefits will secure the largest rewards, laying the foundations for a Green Brexit.”

Though campaigners welcomed the move to pay farmers for public goods, some said the government had missed a huge opportunity to link agricultural policy with public health.

“It is disappointing that human health is not included in the list of goods that should be supported by the taxpayer,” said Tom MacMillan, director of innovations at the Soil Association. “From what we’ve seen so far, it’s not the radical rethink of food production that is desperately needed if the government is serious about saving nature, restoring soil health and tackling climate change.”

Vicki Hird, farm campaign coordinator at Sustain, also said she had hoped for “a much more explicit link to tackling public health challenges and creating a fit for purpose food system”. She also said Michael Gove, the environment secretary, has missed the chance to create new powers to tackle unfair supply chains, bad trade policies or ensure workers are protected.

The government said it would be collecting data from across the supply chain and using it to “help food producers strengthen their negotiating position at the farm gate”.

The NFU said the Bill “falls short” in a number of ways, including “comprehensive measures to improve the environment and productivity and tackle volatility alongside free and frictionless trade and access to a competent and reliable workforce”. Farmers were also concerned that there was only a short-term commitment to improve their competitiveness”.

The Wildlife Trusts said the Bill “needs to be bolder”, whilst WWF said that, if properly implemented, it is a “once in a lifetime opportunity to make sure we have a farming policy that restores rather than destroys our natural land”.

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