Landmark Agriculture Bill that will transform policy landscape becomes law

The Government’s ‘transformational’ Agriculture Bill has passed into law, after more than 100 hours of parliamentary scrutiny, with the seven-year transition period to commence in 2021.

The Agriculture Act will set the framework for a fundamental shift in agricultural policy and funding that will see the ‘public money for public goods’ approach gradually replace the current swathe of CAP schemes.

The Basic Payment Scheme will be phased out over the seven-year transition period with money gradually transferred to fund the new Environmental Land Management (ELM) scheme, which will aim to deliver ‘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.

There will also be funding for initiatives to boost farm productivity and for animal health and welfare improvements through new ‘Pathways’ for the various livestock sectors.

In contrast to the ‘poorly targeted’ BPS subsidy system, which largely pays farmers for the total amount of land farmed and has skewed payments towards the largest landowners, the new regime reward farmers for any specific public benefits, Defra Secretary George Eustice said.

“Our landmark Agriculture Act will transform the way we support farmers,” he said.

“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.”

The provisions of the new legislation mean the Government will now be able to further champion food production by improving the transparency and fairness in the supply chain from farm to fork, as well as keeping our world-famous food producers competitive and innovative by investing in the latest technology and research, Mr Eustice added.

The Government will also report on UK food security to Parliament every three years. The first report will be published at the end of next year, and will include analysis of the impacts on food supply of the coronavirus pandemic, as well as a wide range of themes including global availability of food, food safety and consumer confidence.

The Agriculture Bill was introduced to Parliament in January this year, was granted Royal Assent on Wednesday after both Houses agreed the text on Monday. The final hurdle saw the Lords voted on Monday not to reinstate an amendment specifying that imports match UK standards, after MPs agreed to allow greater parliamentary scrutiny and beef up the powers of Trade and Agriculture Commission, bringing compromise to the most heated element of the debate over the Bill’s contents.

Further details on the Government’s plans to support farmers and land managers over the agricultural transition period are due to be published later this month.

Defra has set out some its aspirations for how the Bill will transform farming and summarised its key details:

What will the Agriculture Bill change for farmers?

  • We want to reform agriculture policy so the interests of farmers and land managers, the environment and taxpayers are at the core of all decisions.
  • The Agriculture Bill will enable us to leave the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) and implement a new system that rewards environmental enhancement, improvements to animal welfare and the production of high quality food in a more sustainable way.

How does the Agriculture Bill affect farmers?

  • We plan to phase out Direct Payments in England from 2021 to 2027. We’ll reduce the payments fairly – in the first year, the biggest reductions will be applied to the higher payment bands\
  • No earlier than 2022, we plan to ‘delink’ Direct Payments from the requirement to farm the land. This will further simplify the payments as we phase them out.
  • Farmers and land managers will still be able to enter into new Countryside Stewardship agreements in the first few years of the transition period. We encourage CS agreements as a viable, long-term source of income for delivering environmental benefits and a great preparation for the upcoming Environmental Land Management scheme.
  • From late 2024, there will be the opportunity to participate in the new Environmental Land Management scheme to enhance the environment and deliver public goods, such as clean air and thriving plants and wildlife. We are working closely with stakeholders including farmers and land managers to design the scheme, including through our current programme of tests and trials, and from late 2021 through a National Pilot. We’ll make sure there is a smooth transition from CS to the new Environmental Land Management scheme agreements.
  • Food producers will have better access to data to help them make more informed, market-driven decisions, levelling the playing field between food producers and the supply chain to protect both producers and consumers.

What is new in this Bill compared to when the first Bill was introduced in 2018?

  • The updated Bill maintains our flagship policy to pay those who look after our land and animals for the provision of public goods, but now it also includes more focus on food production. Environmentally-friendly farming and food production can and should go hand in hand.
  • Food security – we’re placing a duty in law for Government to report regularly to Parliament on food security. This will include the crucial role of our domestic production alongside supply from a diverse range of sources.
  • Soil quality – we know that soil is an essential asset for farmers, and also delivers a whole host of public goods. We’ve made sure soil is included in the Bill and farmers can receive financial assistance for protecting and improving its quality.
  • Financial assistance monitoring – the Secretary of State will monitor, evaluate and regularly report on our financial assistance schemes. This means Parliament and our stakeholders will be able to scrutinise how well the schemes work.
  • An animal traceability service – the powers to enable a new service provider, who will better collect and manage information relating to the identification, movement and health of animals.
    Fertiliser regulation – the power to effectively regulate this industry as we leave the EU.
  • Organics regulation – powers to tailor organics regulation so that it works for UK producers, and so we can continue to trade organic produce across the world.

When will the changes come into effect?

  • The changes won’t be immediate. The seven year transition period will start in 2021 and continue through to the end of 2027.
  • The national pilot for the new Environmental Land Management scheme is expected to be open for participants by the end of 2021 with the scheme fully operational in 2024.

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About The Author

Editor of LBM titles Pig World and Farm Business and group editor of Agronomist and Arable Farmer. National Pig Association's webmaster. Previously political editor at Farmers Guardian for many years and also worked Farmers Weekly. Occasional farming media pundit. Brought up on a Leicestershire farm, now work from a shed in the garden in Oxfordshire. Big fan of Leicester City and Leicester Tigers. Occasional cricketer.