Farming opinion: Farming at a crossroads as government publishes new Agriculture Bill

Planting winter wheat this autumn at Brian Barker's farm, near Stowmarket Picture: BRIAN BARKER

Planting winter wheat this autumn at Brian Barker's farm, near Stowmarket Picture: BRIAN BARKER - Credit: Archant

On November 1, 2017, Brian Barker’s farm at Westhorpe, near Stowmarket, became the Agricultural Horticultural Development Board’s (AHDB) first Strategic Farm for Cereals and Oilseeds in the UK. This month he looks at the impacts of the new Agriculture Bill and our withdrawal from the EU Common Agricultural Policy

Higher Tier habitat management this autumn through capital works at Westhorpe Picture: BRIAN BARKER

Higher Tier habitat management this autumn through capital works at Westhorpe Picture: BRIAN BARKER - Credit: Archant

Last month the Government published the New Agricultural Bill, a document that spells out the start of reforming our industry post Brexit. Currently our guidance is from the EU Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) of which we have been a part since 1962. This is the rule book that all farmers across the EU have to farm by, depending upon the interpretation of their own Government.

This crossroads is a huge moment for our industry. Before the CAP, farmers have always been governed by the demands of government ministers. Following the Second World War the country was broke and rationing of food was in place. We needed to produce more and the Government granted farmers money to improve production; drainage grants, hedgerow removal and mechanisation were all introduced by the Government to protect our food security. The arrival of the CAP then began to subsidise food production; supporting farmers financially to keep food production up. Then, in the late 70s and 80s, we produced grain mountains and milk lakes, so the CAP ‘set-aside’ land and detached monetary subsidies away from the amount of food produced. So oversupply was not continued but instead linked subsidies to the area farmed, which is where we are today: land owners receiving a set amount of subsidies per hectare under a strict set of rules that the amount of food is not essential.

Through this period, massive technological advances have been made in our industry but it has had a knock-on effect on the farmed landscape. Every week a story pops up in the professional media, and now a growing number of very evangelical social media bloggers, pointing fingers at farmers suggesting we are the root of all evil in the landscape. Yes, our industry has changed and this knock-on effect could be partly to blame for biodiversity loss, but on the flip side this has been driven by the policies over-written by Government and the EU.

The new bill reads as if the pendulum is to swing the other way, where UK farmers will be rewarded to work with nature to try and reverse biodiversity decline, the Government wants UK farmers to aim for the highest animal welfare in the world to create a ‘Green Brexit Brand of Farming’ that puts us at the pinnacle of modern agriculture worldwide. A spirited call to arms, but this may then have other knock-on effects that could swing our moral conscience. It could open our country’s borders for trade deals; food is easy and attractive in a trade deal, as it is instant. This could allow imports from agricultural systems abroad that are permitted to treat animals with substances that UK farmers are not allowed to use, such as hormone treated beef, GM soya fed animals, crops treated with pesticides banned within the EU and UK. Not a very level playing field, and will the general public want to pay for the ‘British Premium’ brand, or is our society so driven by low food cost that it will allow these imports to arrive with no care for their local environments? Are we just moving the environmental damage off our own shore to impact even further afield? Out of sight, out of mind!

A crop of winter barley emerging now in his fields will be Brian Barker's first crop harvested and

A crop of winter barley emerging now in his fields will be Brian Barker's first crop harvested and sold following Brexit Picture: BRIAN BARKER - Credit: Archant


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Food security needs to be higher on our government’s agenda and we all need to think about where our food comes from, what impact it has had on the environment and what has gone into producing it. This is not just a crossroads for our industry but also a crossroads for everyone else to ask yourselves: do you care what goes into your food and what price are you willing to pay for the food we eat and, so often sadly, throw away?

Farmer Brian Barker at Westhorpe Picture: ELEANOR PERKINS

Farmer Brian Barker at Westhorpe Picture: ELEANOR PERKINS - Credit: Archant

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