An Agricultural Bill that helps nature to recover

Guy Tucker field margin ©Matthew Roberts

In the Spring of 2019 we expect the third reading of the Government's Agriculture Bill to take place in Parliament, as the Bill becomes closer to becoming law. It will set the direction of future farming policy, and, with it, the future for our wildlife. Here we outline what we see as the priority areas:

Nature and wildlife are valuable in their own right and are vital for both our long-term economic prosperity and our individual wellbeing. They sustain us with fertile soil and provide water and pollinators for our crops. But the natural world is in serious long-term decline. Urgent action is required and, as 70% of the UK’s land area is farmed, agricultural policy is vital for working to reverse that decline.

The Wildlife Trusts welcome the direction of travel set out in the Agriculture Bill with powers to fund the delivery of public goods. To ensure it truly supports the recovery of nature we, alongside Greener UK (a coalition of environmental NGOs), are calling for the Bill to:

  1. Ensure guaranteed long-term funding at the scale required to meet current and future environmental commitments and wider Government ambition.
  2. Include duties, rather than simply powers, for Ministers to further the maintenance, recovery and restoration of the natural environment.
  3. Establish specific, measurable objectives and ambitious targets to drive the recovery of nature.
  4. Ensure that payments for improving productivity are dependent on safeguarding environmental outcomes.
  5. Maintain high standards in trade.
  6. Establish strong regulation to protect the health of animals, the environment and access to the countryside.

It is important for our economy to improve and maintain our country’s natural infrastructure – our rivers, woodlands, peat bogs, meadows - our natural capital. This cannot be done through the open market so there is a strong case for government intervention. Farmers, though, can sell the food they grow through the market and they should not be subsidised for this.

Previous efforts to subsidise the growing of food were environmentally damaging. Instead there should be substantial and guaranteed funding in ecological recovery which gives confidence to farmers to invest in modern sustainable production for which they are then fairly rewarded for by the market.

The Agriculture Bill should work with the Environment Bill to lay the foundations for a new approach to land management which would support the recovery of nature. This should include the creation of Nature Recovery Networks.

Our key amendments for the Agricultural Bill, explained

1. Long-term and substantial funding

Crucial to the success of the Government’s proposed new Environmental Land Management system will be guaranteed long-term funding that will be able to deliver the Government’s ambition to leave the environment in a better state for the next generation. Farmers need to be paid adequately for managing their land to deliver these public goods.

A report by The Wildlife Trusts, National Trust and RSPB found that at least £2.3 billion a year is required to ensure the UK meets it current environmental land management commitments. Long term, sufficient budgets need to be set well in advance - at a level which will ensure nature's recovery on the ground.

2. Duty to act

The Agriculture Bill has few requirements put on Government. To provide greater certainty to farmers and land managers, the Bill should contain more requirements on the Government to translate its own vision into policy – including a requirement to further the maintenance, recovery and restoration of the natural environment through an Environmental Land Management Scheme.

3. New ambitious targets for nature’s recovery

Fundamental to reversing the fortunes of our wildlife, as well as ensuring the delivery of the Government’s 25 Year Environment Plan in England, will be the introduction of new ambitious legally-binding targets covering clean air and water, healthy soils, public access to high-quality natural green spaces, connected and quality habitats and abundant wildlife including pollinators.

The Agriculture Bill should require the Government to develop and set specific, measurable and timebound environmental land management targets to deliver this ambition.

4. Sustainable productivity improvement payments

The Bill enables financial assistance to start or improve the productivity of agriculture, horticulture or forestry activities, for example for machinery for applying fertiliser. Support for improving productivity should only be made for activities which deliver equivalent or better environmental outcomes, i.e. for sustainable production. Otherwise payments might result in activities which damage the environment, such as mass planting of Sitka spruce which may improve financial productivity in the short term but is damaging for the environment and does not benefit wildlife in the long term.

5. Trade

It is key that any future trade deals do not allow products produced to lower environmental and animal welfare standards to be imported into the UK. This could undermine our own protections.

6. Regulatory baseline and compliance

The Agriculture Bill says little about regulation beyond the ability to establish enforcement and inspections of new financial assistance payments. It should be clear that the receipt of public payments is dependent on following regulatory standards.

Find out more

Read our recommendations for a future agriculture policy after the UK leaves the EU. Published in January 2018

Read our report