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Could new Agriculture Bill spark a new dawn for farming and the environment?

PUBLISHED: 00:01 16 January 2020 | UPDATED: 12:08 16 January 2020

Defra has introduced a new Agriculture Bill which it claims will transform British farming and the environment. Picture: Getty Images/iStockphoto

Defra has introduced a new Agriculture Bill which it claims will transform British farming and the environment. Picture: Getty Images/iStockphoto

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New safeguards for food security and soil health have been added to an updated Agriculture Bill which ministers claim will "transform" farming and the environment after Brexit.

NFU East Anglia regional director Rachel Carrington. Picture: Warren Page/PagepixNFU East Anglia regional director Rachel Carrington. Picture: Warren Page/Pagepix

The farming industry faces its biggest policy shake-up in a generation when Britain leaves the EU and its Common Agricultural Policy, which has regulated and funded the industry for more than 40 years.

Defra says the "landmark" post-Brexit legislation proposals introduced today have been improved after gathering industry feedback following the publication of the original Agriculture Bill in 2018.

They include a new requirement for the UK government to regularly report on food security to parliament - as 28pc of our food is imported from the EU and 19pc from other countries - and a recognition of the importance of soil quality, so financial assistance can be provided for monitoring programmes and soil health research.

But the updated bill's central pillar remains unchanged: replacing the EU's system of "direct payment" subsidies, based largely on the amount of land farmed, with a new system which will instead use public money to reward farmers for "public goods" such as environmental work or enhancing animal welfare.

Farming leaders in East Anglia welcomed the changes to the bill, but wanted to see more detail on how they would work in practice, as well as a legal commitment to protect British food standards in future trade deals.

Rachel Carrington, regional director for the National Farmers' Union (NFU), said: "The Agriculture Bill will shape the future of farming for many years to come and so it is crucial that it meets farming's needs and ambitions.

"We raised a number of concerns about the bill in the last parliament and it's good to see that many of these concerns have been addressed.

"NFU members in East Anglia will be pleased to see the bill values the vital role of farmers as food producers, recognising that food production and caring for the environment go hand-in-hand.

"The long-term commitment to future budgets will provide welcome clarity for farmers in East Anglia and the pledge to regularly report on food security to parliament is also welcome. However, we need to see more detail about how this will work in practice.

"And farmers will still want to see a legal commitment to protect our high food and welfare standards in future trade deals.

"We look forward to studying the bill when it's published, and working with MPs across the region to ensure it paves the way for agriculture to thrive as we leave the European Union."

The government has already announced that the amount of money available for direct farm payments in 2020 will remain the same as it was under the EU's Common Agricultural Policy in 2019, after the Direct Payments to Farmers (Legislative Continuity) Bill was introduced to parliament last week.

READ MORE: Farming leaders welcome £3bn pledge to maintain subsidy payments

For subsequent years, Defra has committed to matching the current budget available to farmers in every year of the current parliament, giving farmers time to adjust to the new Environmental Land Management Scheme (ELMS) as land-based subsidies are phased out over a seven-year transition period starting in 2021.

Later in the agricultural transition, the government also plans to "delink" direct payments from the EU's legal requirement to farm the land. Defra says this will give farmers greater flexibility to plan for their future as they will be able to use these payments to invest in improving the productivity of their farm, diversify their business, or retire from farming.

Andrew Blenkiron, estate director for the Euston Estate near Thetford and deputy chair of the Suffolk branch of the NFU, said the commitment to retain the current farming budget was a "real positive". But he warned that while everyone wanted more sustainable farmers who protect soils and the environment, farmers also needed to produce enough food for the population.

"Let's not forget how our political masters got it so wrong during the 1970s and 80s, over-production was encouraged and the resulting food mountains and lakes where the consequence," he said.

It is important the bill doesn't tip the balance the other way, making English farmland fallow and under-productive, he added, as he warned that there were a "lot of devils in the detail to be unleashed".

Other new provisions in the updated Agriculture Bill include:

- Financial assistance monitoring - the secretary of state will monitor, evaluate and report on financial assistance schemes.

- Animal traceability - a new service to improve the collection and management of information relating to the identification, movement and health of animals.

- Fertiliser regulation - powers to effectively regulate this industry after Brexit, including "updating the definition of a fertiliser to take account of the latest technological advances".

- Organics regulation - powers to tailor organics regulation so UK producers can continue to trade organic produce across the world.

Environment secretary Theresa Villiers said: "Our landmark Agriculture Bill will transform British farming, enabling a balance between food production and the environment which will safeguard our countryside and farming communities for the future.

"This is one of the most important environmental reforms for many years, rewarding farmers for the work they do to safeguard our environment and helping us meet crucial goals on climate change and protecting nature and biodiversity."

READ MORE: Minister seeks to reassure farmers over Brexit trade deals

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