Following December’s election result, the Government has an unmistakable mandate to press on with its policy programme. This will bring the power to make progress where the last Parliament was mired in disagreement, but it also brings added responsibility: to tackle the climate crisis and reverse declines in wildlife, whilst simultaneously setting our farming sector on a path to prosperity.
This week, while MPs settle in to a new and much more blue Parliament, farmers are flocking from all corners of the country for the Oxford Farming and Real Farming Conferences. As well as hosting our own events on net zero farming and future farming policy, we’ll be watching the Government’s first moves closely – particularly the Defra Secretary of State’s speech on 8 January.
Theresa Villiers should use this moment to prove the Government’s mettle on key issues early in its tenure. Specifically, she should commit to:
1. Bring back the Agriculture Bill, fast
The Agriculture Bill must be brought back to Parliament without delay, retaining its central focus on ‘public money for public goods’ and a start date for the transition to this new system of 2021. Any delay on this key piece of legislation risks keeping us in the rigid, unsustainable Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) unnecessarily, and not capitalising on the opportunity we now have to design a more environmentally, economically and socially just system.
The Agriculture Bill’s flagship policy, Environmental Land Management (ELM), will be perhaps the most important vehicle for achieving the targets and goals set out in the Environment Bill and 25 year environment plan – the roadmap to nature’s recovery. ELM must transform farming and land management in England to secure public goods, and in doing so, underpin more sustainable food production. Alongside ELM, we need assurance that farmers will have access to progressive new schemes that enhance farm animal welfare.
2. A transparent, 7-year transition
Research we published last year showed that farmers are already suffering from a lack of certainty over future funding, making it difficult for them to plan ahead and invest. To give farmers the information they need for a smooth and successful transition to the new system, Government should announce the value of payments it will make under the CAP from now until the end of the transition (2028), when the new system will be fully operational. Alongside this, there should be a specific ‘transition fund’, training and advice aimed at helping farmers to adapt.
3. Trade deals we can trust
The commitment in the Queen’s Speech that the UK Government will “never compromise on our high environmental protection” in trade negotiations was welcome. But guaranteeing that domestic standards will be maintained is one thing; guaranteeing that imports must meet those same standards is another. It is not yet clear that both domestic standards and import standards will be upheld. The Secretary of State must now make the unequivocal commitment that UK environment and animal welfare standards will be applied to imports of agri-food products through any future free trade agreements, giving confidence to the farming community that they will not be undercut.
Such a commitment will give credence to the Government’s claims of global leadership on climate change, biodiversity conservation and animal welfare. It is also essential to ensure that we take account of our entire global environmental footprint, and do not offshore our impact through trade deals that damage farming and nature elsewhere.
Farmers and land managers, who look after more than 70% of our land, are in a position to make a huge contribution to the fight against climate change and biodiversity loss, alongside production of sustainable food and goods and provision of recreational opportunities and high standards of animal welfare. But to rise to the challenge, they need these three fast and firm commitments from Government.
With these clear signals, the Oxford conferences this week can be breeding grounds for innovation and enthusiasm in the farming community. Without, the Government risks frustration and inertia amongst farmers, further environmental decline and climate breakdown.