The new Agriculture Act could change everything

The first domestic farm policy in a generation contains some important new measures, but it doesn’t add up to a full vision for a sustainable food system, says Sustain’s Vicki Hird.

When the Agriculture Bill gained royal assent last month it signalled a major shift in farm policy and support – paying farmers for the public goods or benefits they provide. Will that affect how and what is grown and sold? I hope so.

Sustain had a long wish-list for what this brand new legislation would achieve. Key objectives were to boost agro-ecology based, whole system farming like organic, diversified to deliver much needed environmental, social and animal welfare benefits alongside good food.

We wanted public health objectives like lowering antibiotic and pesticide use, and support for the production and consumption of more healthy fruit and vegetables.

We knew new rules on fair dealing were needed throughout the food supply chain to protect decent livelihoods along with measures to ensure food imports must meet the same high standards expected of British farmers.

We also wanted to see better protection for workers, multi-annual budgets, and a regulatory baseline.

Big demands, only some of which have been met.

The Agriculture Act lays out how farming will be supported and markets managed. There are many laudable aims – from financial support for soil health and climate mitigation to nature protection and public access to the countryside. New support for infrastructure for local and regional food systems – like abattoirs and milling capacity – would also be a huge help if they are realised.

New farm schemes are being developed now – a tortuous process and we don’t know yet how much farmers will get for doing what. The detail is not public and a big concern is the budget. Recent announcements on the Agriculture Transition Plan give some clarity but we risk losing many farms in the interim as their basic payments are reduced – disastrous for vital farm diversity and possibly what crops and foods are produced.

After considerable lobbying the Act includes measures for a fairer and more transparent supply chain. This is critical. Farmers get so little of the monetary value of food (average of 9% of UK food spend) compared with manufacturers, retailers and foodservice operators, yet they take many of the risks and frequently get abused by those beyond the farm gate. We need the proposed statutory codes of practice for each sector produced and enforced as soon as possible.

There are major gaps. The Act does not protect our higher standards, such as on animal welfare and environment, from damage by new trade deals and lower standard imports. Concerns are many but include the types and quantities of pesticides and antibiotics used and lower animal welfare rules. We pushed successfully for a more detailed scrutiny process but MPs won’t be able to block deals.

Many of the good measures in the Act are sadly powers, not duties so ministers don’t actually have to do any of it, and it says nothing of the advice needed to reverse years of bad practice and policy. There is no regulatory baseline so how do we know where legal compliance stops and public goods start? 

Overall, we still lack of a true vision for a ‘fit for purpose’ food and farming system and for wider land use. The new National Food Strategy may provide one but will government adopt their ideas?

So we have a brand new law and new schemes but it does not yet add up to a major shift in the food we produce and how we produce it. The Sustain alliance will continue to campaign for a full vision for a fairer, healthier, sustainable food system to tackle the many challenges ahead.

Vicki Hird is head of farming at Sustain

Follow Vicki on Twitter @vickihird

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