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As Agriculture Bill aims to balance food production and environment, Agri-TechE calls for bold thinking

The “ambitious vision” of the government’s new Agriculture Bill has been welcomed by Agri-TechE.

The comments from the organisation, formerly called Agri-Tech East, came as the Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) announced what it described as “landmark legislation” to “provide a boost to the industry after years of inefficient and overly bureaucratic policy dictated to farmers by the EU”.

Belinda Clarke, director of Agri-TechE
Belinda Clarke, director of Agri-TechE

The Bill, introduced to Parliament today (Thursday), is designed to handle the UK’s removal from the Common Agricultural Policy under Brexit.

Removing the system of direct payments which rewards farmers for the amount of land farmed, which the government says skewed payments towards large farms, the legislation will instead reward public money for “public goods”, which can encompass air and water quality, higher animal welfare standards, improved access to the countryside or measures to reduce flooding.

Environment secretary Theresa Villiers said: “Our landmark Agriculture Bill will transform British farming, enabling a balance between food production and the environment which will safeguard our countryside and farming communities for the future.

“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.

“We will move away from the EU’s bureaucratic Common Agricultural Policy and towards a fairer system which rewards our hard-working farmers for delivering public goods, celebrating their world-leading environmental work and innovative, modern approach to food production.

“We will continue to champion British produce and support farmers to adapt to our new pioneering approach to agriculture through a seven-year transition period in England, ensuring we unleash the potential of our farmers for the future.”

The government said the new Bill would provoke investment in new technology and research to help the country’s food producers remain competitive and innovative.

With data collected across the supply chain, Defra said it would help food producers strengthen their negotiating position at the farm gate and seek a fairer return.

The country currently produces more than half the food eaten here, with 28 per cent coming from the EU and 19 per cent from elsewhere.

Dr Belinda Clarke, director of Agri-TechE, welcomed the drive for innovation.

She said: “We know our members – across the entire value chain – will welcome renewed progress of the Agriculture Bill through Parliament.

“There is an opportunity for some bold thinking, supported by improved metrics, to help farmers improve their productivity and for ‘public goods’ be quantified and delivered in a meaningful way.

“A number of organisations within the Agri-TechE network are developing and implementing new innovations and practices that will offer the necessary visibility, efficiency and sustainability needed in the agri-food system.

“We are confident these will be a crucial element of delivering new ambitious vision described by the Agriculture Bill.”

Harvest time (26848577)
Harvest time (26848577)

A seven-year transition period from 2021 will be used to phase out direct payments. Late in the period, the plan is to delink direct payments from the requirement that lies in EU law to farm the land, helping farmers to invest in their business, diversify or help new people enter the sector.

Natural England - led by Cambridge’s Tony Juniper - will provide advice on the Countryside Stewardship application window opening this year and the future Environment Land Management (ELM) scheme.

Direct payments for 2020, meanwhile, are to be the same as for 2019.

The government said it was “committed to matching the current budget available to farmers in every year of this Parliament”.

New elements in the Bill include:

  • A new requirement for the UK government to regularly report on food security to Parliament;
  • Financial assistance monitoring, which the secretary of state will monitor, evaluate and regularly report on to help assessment of schemes; and
  • Soil quality focus – the importance of this national asset means it specifically named in the Bill, so financial assistance can be provided to farmers for protecting or improving its quality. Assistance with soil monitoring programmes and soil health research will be available
  • An animal traceability service – a service provider will improve the collection and management of information relating to the identification, movement and health of animals
  • Fertiliser regulation – the government will take back power to regulate the industry after Brexit, including updating the definition of a fertiliser to take account of the latest technological advances.
  • Organics regulation – Defra said it “will have powers to tailor organics regulation so that it works for UK producers”, which will enable them to continue to trade organic produce across the world.

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