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Towards a new common treasury

Maggie Jones on amending the Agriculture Bill to deliver food and farming policy fit for the next generation

It is not often that we get a chance to reform our farming legislation. The last truly radical change was the Agriculture Act of 1947, followed by a few miscellaneous Acts in the 1960’s, 70’s and 80’s. No surprise, therefore, that the Second Reading of the Agriculture Bill in the Lords this week has attracted a great deal of interest. After leaving the EU and the Common Agricultural Policy, we now have the first real chance to reshape our food and farming policies for a generation.

Of course, no-one could have foreseen the context for this debate – with the Covid-19 pandemic exposing the fragility of food supply and food sustainability policies. Life for the farming community is tough right now. Farmers are subject to price volatility and supply chain disruption that puts their livelihoods at risk; and face the added uncertainty of Brexit trade talks that could cut their market access. As a country, meanwhile, we have an unhealthy reliance on imported food – with UK grown food and drink declining to only 53% of the total consumed.

So, this new Bill, which seeks to introduce a new funding regime for farmers, has some pretty big challenges to address.

The government is rightly seeking to modernise the funding system based on ‘public money for public goods’, which would incentivise food production in ways that restore and improve our natural environment. But it is important that these changes don’t undermine the stability of our food supply and the financial security which farmers need to keep production going.

Crucially, the Bill fails to address the threat of future trade deals allowing sub-standard food imports to undercut our high animal welfare and environmental standards, leaving UK farmers unable to compete on price. Labour will continue to push for a guarantee that such imports will be outlawed. And we will also want assurances that the transition from direct payments to funding based on Environmental Land Management Schemes will happen in parallel so that farm income is not unnecessarily disrupted.

We will also pursue amendments that give farmers greater fairness in the supply chain, so that their income is not squeezed by the big food companies and supermarkets. Such fairness should also apply to the 474,000 people who work in agriculture on a permanent or casual basis. They need stronger measures to address rising poverty and inequalities in rural communities.

During the earlier passage of the Bill in the Commons, the government added in a Clause to enable a 5-yearly report on UK food security. But we believe it needs to be much more explicit about driving up food quality, building up local and regional food strategies, and addressing poor nutrition. We will, therefore, call for a national food plan to be enshrined in the legislation.

Finally, we remain concerned that the Bill does not address the number one challenge of climate change and the need to cut the 10% of UK greenhouse gases produced by agriculture. So, we will propose changes to deliver a plan of action and target to make sure the farming community plays its full part in achieving net zero emissions.

The main principles underpinning this Bill are welcome, but it represents a huge challenge and a golden opportunity to get things right not just for farmers but also the environment. That will only be achieved when we get these two key objectives in balance. That is the way to deliver food and farming policy fit for the next generation, and I hope the government will work with us and peers from across the Lords to make this happen.

Baroness Maggie Jones of Whitchurch is a Shadow Defra Minister. She tweets @WhitchurchGirl

Published 8th June 2020

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