Olivia Oldham and Tiger Lily Raphael from the Farms To Feed Us team explains what the Agricultural Bill is and why it matters – originally published as a series on Instagram.
What is the Agricultural Bill?
Since the UK joined the European Union, its Common Agricultural Policy has been responsible for our agricultural support system. Now that we’re leaving, something else needs to replace it, and that will be shaped by the Agricultural (Ag) Bill – our first homegrown agricultural legislation in over 50 years. In this article, we’re sharing some of the important changes that the regenerative food movement is pushing for.
The Ag Bill is a set of laws currently making its way through Parliament, setting ‘out how farmers and land managers in England will be rewarded with public money for “public goods” – such as better air and water quality, higher animal welfare standards, improved access to the countryside or measures to reduce flooding. This will contribute to the government’s commitment to reaching net zero emissions by 2050, while at the same time, helping to boost farmers’ productivity.‘ (gov.uk)
It has now passed through the House of Commons, where it was brought by Defra (the Department for Food, Environment and Rural Affairs) on January 16th, and is now with the House of Lords, which is the next stage towards it becoming law, on-track to be implemented next year.
What does it mean for small-scale, sustainable farms and growers?
The Ag Bill presents a huge opportunity for the UK government to throw its weight behind regenerative, small scale agriculture, and to support a food system which operates in harmony with the environment and a diverse society.
The Bill goes some way towards doing this by replacing the CAP subsidy system – based on how much land is farmed, with the Environmental Land Management Scheme (ELMS), which gives the government the power to use ‘public money for public goods‘, including soil health, water quality and climate change mitigation (something that many organisations, such as The Sustainable Food Trust have been advocating for years).⠀
However, the Bill merely gives the government the option to do this, rather than the obligation, and fails to explicitly support agroecological farming systems. Yet, in order to move from industrial agricultural into regenerative methods that support ecological and social ecosystems, financial support for those making the transition is crucial.
On trade, the Bill has fallen short of protecting the UK’s standards of food production, such as animal and environmental welfare, by allowing for lower quality, cheap imports which are likely to come with post-Brexit trade-deals. The Bill was presented in Parliament for the 3rd time in May with an amendment seeking to prevent low-standard imports to the UK; it was defeated by 51 votes, having failed to receive the government’s support, despite promises to safeguard farmers from competing with imported goods that are produced in ways that are illegal here (Farmers Weekly).
In July, the government announced ‘a Trade and Agriculture Commission’ to consider the ‘agricultural industry and commitments to maintain the UK’s high environmental protection, animal welfare and food safety standards‘ within trade policy. However, Sustain, an advocate for regenerative farming that has been lobbying throughout the Ag Bill Parliamentary process, remains ‘very concerned at the lack of legal tools to stop the threat of new trade deals undermining our standards and ability to enhance farming and food standards‘ (A Team Foundation).
Two amendments to the Bill relating to GMOs have also been proposed since it reached the House of Lords, which would allow the Secretary of State to alter the definition of a GMO without Parliamentary approval, reducing democratic control and regulation of gene-editing techniques, and potentially resulting in the risky release of GM crops without sufficient controls.
What changes do we need to see?
Farms To Feed Us, together with a broad coalition of farmers, environmentalists, and organisations such as Sustain, Landworkers Alliance, The Soil Association and the Nature Friendly Farming Network, think the Bill doesn’t go nearly far enough. We know we can grow a better food future, especially if the Bill legally requires the government to make it possible, rather than giving whichever minister in charge only the option to do so.
There’s no point in having high standards of labour, environmental impact and animal welfare in the UK, if we allow food imports produced to lower standards, and therefore at a much lower cost. The Ag Bill must hold the government accountable for upholding UK production standards within trade deals. And yet, this Monday (July 20th), the House of Commons voted down an amendment that was intended to do just this.
Fred Price, of Gothelney Farm, is worried that debate over the Ag Bill has been framed as a binary choice between productivity, environment, or food sovereignty; “Why deny ourselves the opportunity to feed ourselves in ways that simultaneously regenerate community, economy, and public health in nature’s image? It is precisely within these ‘grey areas’ that we should aim to operate.“⠀
Farming can feed us in so many ways, and provide a solution to the multiple crises we face. But, when done destructively, is a huge part of the problem. Industrial food production causes 10% of all UK Greenhouse Gas emissions, whilst simultaneously presenting many of the possibilities for absorbing the carbon we so crucially need removing from our atmosphere, through tree-planting and other means of carbon sequestration.
‘Public money for public goods’ is intended as an incentive for nature conservation within agriculture – one of fundamental principles of agroecology. But to ensure this happens, the Bill must include mandatory targets for reducing carbon emissions and pesticide use – which have to be at least halved in order to reverse the critical loss of insect populations, according to a recent report from The Wildlife Trust.
The Ag Bill should support high standards of food production whilst also taking urgent action on climate change and biodiversity loss. Many of the environmental consequences of industrial farming are harmful for the natural world and those growing and eating from it; not just through nutritional quality of food, but also antibiotic overuse, agri-chemical exposure, soil contamination, and the indirect impact of carbon emissions, to name a few.
Health impacts aren’t felt equally by everyone: malnutrition affects those who can’t access or afford healthy, sustainably-produced food; agri-chemical exposure mostly affects farm labourers, many of whom are seasonal workers; and air quality is often worse in more deprived areas of the country. These aren’t only individual health issues, they’re social justice issues. Investment and subsidies for the food industry should consider it’s wider return on the health of people and the planet, rather than purely profit.
The Bill also needs to support new entrants to farming. Farmers in the UK are an average age of 60, and disproportionately white. Cultural, historical and economic barriers to land and fair pay prevent the growth of a diverse, new generation of farmers, including (but not limited to) BIPOC, disabled, disenfranchised young people and women. Yet it is these farmers, many of whom are listed on our database: Aweside Farm, Plaw Hatch Farm, Soul Farm and Mora Farm, doing some of the most exciting work.
In the pursuit of cheap food, we’ve forgotten its value. Cheap food doesn’t serve the majority of people, it serves large corporations lining their pockets as they exploit workers, consumers and the environment across the globe. Food is cheaper than ever in the UK, yet the use of food banks has increased by 73% in the last 5 years (Trussell Trust), whilst 9.5 million tonnes – equating to £19 billion and 25 million tonnes of greenhouse gases, was thrown away in 2018 (Wrap).
Meanwhile, the number of farmers living below the poverty line continues to grow around the world and at home, as agri-business goes on making billions. The key word in the term ‘food poverty’ isn’t ‘food’ – it’s ‘poverty’, and the solution isn’t more poor quality, cheap food; it’s a system that recognises, values and rewards the true cost of real food, grown in ways that nourish and care for people, animals and the planet, that is traded fairly and accessible to all.
How can we get the changes we want?
There are lots of ways to support the movement, such as writing to your local press, MP, or a peer in the House of Lords.
Follow the organisations lobbying Parliament and advocating for regenerative farming, many of which are linked to from this article, sign up to their newsletters, show your support on social media, make a donation if you can, and get involved with their local and national campaigns, through their existing community networks, or by creating one if there isn’t one near you.
Whenever possible, you can always support regenerative farmers directly by ordering their fresh, seasonal produce, using the Farms to Feed Us database!