‘Devil in the detail’ as government launches Agriculture Bill balancing food production and environment
- Credit: Andrew Mutimer
The launch of a long-awaited new version of the Agriculture Bill overturning the current farm subsidy system in favour of a radical new ‘public money for public goods’ approach has been broadly welcomed by Suffolk farmers’ leaders.
But the devil will be in the detail, farmers warned, as the government launches its landmark post-Brexit legislation, which it claims will unleash the potential of the farming sector for decades to come.
MORE - Farmers remain to be convinced as government pledges to hold line on standardsEnvironment Secretary Theresa Villiers described it as providing a balance between food production and the environment, with a fairer system than the European Union's Common Agricultural Policy (CAP).
"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," she said.
National Farmers' Union (NFU) regional director for East Anglia Rachel Carrington said the bill would shape the future of farming for many years to come - so it was crucial it meets the needs and ambitions of the industry.
It was "good to see" that many of the concerns the NFU had raised when the last incarnation of the bill came before the previous parliament, she added.
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Glenn Buckingham, who farms near Debenham and is branch chairman of Suffolk NFU, said the bill provided the changes required to meet the demands of society over the future of food supply and landscape management.
"Many EU policies we have adopted have become outdated. They have served their purpose and pointed us in roughly the right direction," he said.
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"Agriculture always responds to its customers. It's fair to say the links are not obvious, but for the services the industry supplies our increasingly aware customer, the new bill is very important. We don't know the detail - as an industry we sit waiting to digest and act on its requirements."
The NFU's own ambition to achieve net zero carbon emissions by 2040, improvements in natural capital and increased food security all sit within the bill. "The industry will embrace it - some will say we have no choice," he said.
But new trade deals and imports standards remained an issue which would affect the industry, he said.
Andrew Blenkiron, estate director for the Euston Estate on the Suffolk-Norfolk border and deputy chair of the Suffolk branch of the NFU, said a "real positive" was a commitment that the current farming budget continuing to be available to farmers for every year of this parliament.
"I welcome the new elements of the bill, especially the inclusion of a focus on food production/productive farmers, including mention of food security," he said.
While everyone wanted more sustainable farmers who protected soils and the environment, farmers needed to produce enough food for the population, he said.
"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."
But it was important the bill doesn't tip the balance the other way, making English farmland fallow and under-productive, he said, as he warned that there were a "lot of devils in the detail to be unleashed".
Ms Carrington said farmers would want to see a legal commitment to protect the UK's high food and welfare standards in future trade deals.
"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."
Farmers will have seven years to adjust to a new system which puts their interests and enhancing the environment at its core, the government said.