New Agriculture Act is a ‘landmark moment’ for post-Brexit farming

The government's Agriculture Act has become law, marking a 'landmark moment' for farming says the Na

The government's Agriculture Act has become law, marking a 'landmark moment' for farming says the National Farmers' Union (NFU). Picture: Getty Images/iStockphoto - Credit: Getty Images/iStockphoto

Farming leaders have hailed the introduction of the new Agriculture Act as a “landmark moment” for post-Brexit farming, as the legislation passed into law after more than 100 hours of parliamentary debate.

NFU East Anglia regional director Gary Ford. Picture: Pagepix

NFU East Anglia regional director Gary Ford. Picture: Pagepix - Credit: Pagepix

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

Central to the new act is the replacement of EU subsidies, largely based on the total amount of land farmed, with a new system paying farmers and land managers “public money for public goods” – such as better air and water quality, thriving wildlife, soil health, or measures to reduce flooding and tackle the effects of climate change.

The existing direct payment subsidies will be phased out during a seven-year transition period starting in 2021 and, following urgent calls for more clarity on the replacement Environmental Land Management Scheme (ELMS), Defra says more details will be announced in late November.

In recent months, parliamentary debates on the bill have also become a battleground for food standards campaigns, with East Anglian farmers among those demanding extra safeguards to be included to ensure any foods imported under new trade deals are required to meet the same high food quality, environmental and animal welfare standards required in this country.

While a majority of MPs voted against those amendments, the final legislation does include a requirement for a report to be presented to parliament focusing on the impacts that future trade deals could have on the food and farming sector. Further amendments to the separate Trade Bill are expected to assign this responsibility to the newly-formed Trade and Agriculture Commission, which has also now been set on a full statutory footing.

READ MORE: How can farms ride out the ‘perfect storm’ of Brexit, climate change and coronavirus?Gary Ford, East Anglia regional director for the National Farmers’ Union (NFU), said: “This is a landmark moment for our food and farming industry – the first domestic legislation covering agriculture in more than 70 years.

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“It sets the framework for domestic agricultural policy for years to come, which is why it was so important to get that framework right.

“The NFU has worked hard, with huge public support and engagement with MPs, to ensure the act recognises the role of farmers as food producers and includes measures to ensure our industry is not undercut in future trade deals by food imports that would be illegal to produce here.

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“However, this isn’t the end of the story. There is still a lot of work ahead to shape that domestic agricultural policy - to make sure it delivers for farmers, the public and our countryside.

“It is therefore crucial that the government continues to work with us as it starts to use the powers granted to it by the Agriculture Act.”

READ MORE: MP vows to continue food standards battle after rebelling in Commons votesDefra said the annual budget for farming support payments will be maintained for every year of the current parliament, to “allow farmers and land managers the time they need to adapt to the new approach and consider which component of the new Environmental Land Management Scheme will work best for their farm”.

At the same time, the act includes measures to help farmers boost their productivity, and “ultimately maximise the potential of our land to produce high quality food in a more sustainable way”.

Environment Secretary George Eustice said: “Our landmark Agriculture Act will transform the way we support farmers.

“The funds released as a result of the phasing out of the legacy Basic Payment Scheme (BPS) will be re-invested into a roll out of our future farming policy, which will be centred around support aimed at incentivising sustainable farming practices, creating habitats for nature recovery and supporting the establishment of new woodland and other ecosystem services to help tackle challenges like climate change.

“We will support farmers in reducing their costs and improving their profitability, to help those who want to retire or leave the industry to do so with dignity, and to create new opportunities and support for new entrants coming in to the industry.”

Despite the Agriculture Bill gaining Royal Assent, there are still “substantial unknowns” on how the new act will enable farms to meet their “net zero” emission requirements, said rural agents.

Emily Norton, a former Norfolk dairy farmer who is now head of Savills Rural Research, said: “We’re all waiting for the budget announcements and incentives that come with the new Environmental Land Management Scheme (ELMS), but it’s the regulatory regime around land use standards – what used to be known as cross compliance – that might well turn the dial on environmental protection in England.”

Tom Parish, from the rural team at Savills Norwich, added that the Agriculture Act is only one part of the policy puzzle facing UK farmers. The Environment Bill is back in the House of Commons, Part Two of Henry Dimbleby’s Food Strategy is due in early 2021, and there is ongoing debate over how the competitiveness of UK farmers will be protected in future trade policy.

“The Agriculture Act’s Royal Assent holds monolithic significance in setting the agenda for the rural sector’s future,” he said. “However we know this is just the beginning – there is much of immense significance that will be determined in secondary and other legislation.”

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