Agriculture Bill

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 3:22 pm on 10th October 2018.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Kerry McCarthy Kerry McCarthy Labour, Bristol East 3:22 pm, 10th October 2018

No matter what our views on Brexit are, there is near-universal consensus that the common agricultural policy is in dire need of reform. I want a farming system that is both economically viable and environmentally sustainable, with the highest possible animal welfare standards. I chair the all-party parliamentary group on agro-ecology for sustainable food and farming, and we have long called for more support for organic farming, agroforestry, pasture-based livestock systems, integrated pest management and low-input mixed farming—mixed farming is very important—as well as for a move away from unsustainable intensification and an over-reliance on agrochemicals and cheap fossil fuels.

We want to see whole-farm systems that support nature-friendly farming. I believe that the Bill, with its emphasis on public money for public goods, could provide an ideal opportunity to support that sort of farming, through rewarding farmers for what they do as custodians of the land for future generations, and not simply on the basis of how much land they own. Public money should be used not to subsidise market failure but to reward behaviour, which the market does not do. That means farming in a way that addresses the serious environmental challenges facing us, such as biodiversity loss, habitat destruction, disappearing pollinators, soil degradation, polluted rivers, water run-off and much more. It is vital that we get this right.

There are fundamental weaknesses in the Bill, however, including the uncertainty around funding beyond 2022, the emphasis on powers rather than duties, and the absence of any information on how the money will be split between productivity payments and environmental payments. The Bill needs to set a multiannual budgetary framework under clause 33 to provide more certainty for farmers. I would endorse Greener UK’s recommendation for a duty on Ministers to introduce an environmental land management scheme by a set date, and its call for targets and benchmarks for public goods. We also need clarity that the public goods listed in clause 1 are the priority for funding, and that any payments for productivity must contribute to their delivery.

I am concerned that there is no regulatory baseline in the Bill. The Minister will no doubt tell us that this will be determined by Dame Glenys Stacey’s review, which is due to report by the end of December, and that it might then be included in the environment Bill, but that would be the wrong place for it. Cross-compliance is a fundamental part of the common agricultural policy. It underpins taxpayer investment, and this Bill is setting out a replacement for the CAP. Can the Minister therefore assure us that the Government will introduce amendments to this legislation, most likely by the time it is in the other place, on the basis of Dame Glenys Stacey’s review?

It is also time that we looked far more seriously at reducing farming’s carbon footprint. This has already been mentioned, and all I will say at this point is that I would like to see a goal in the Bill for agricultural emissions to reach net zero by 2050, in line with the Paris agreement. That is absolutely necessary following Monday’s report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

The Bill is also missing an opportunity to link farm payments to public health goals. It is predicted that diet-related ill health will overtake smoking as the biggest cause of preventable death before too long. We spend more on the treatment of obesity and diabetes than we spend on the police, the fire service and the judicial system combined. I am quite excited by what I have heard so far about DEFRA’s future food strategy. It sounds promising, but we need to see measures in the Bill to increase the availability, affordability and accessibility of healthy food, including UK-grown fruit, vegetables and pulses. Also, as the Chair of the Health Committee said, we urgently need to act to address the public health crisis of growing antimicrobial resistance, and the associated rise in superbugs, by eliminating the overuse of antibiotics in farming and rewarding good animal husbandry. As I said to the Secretary of State earlier, I will be keen to hear where the bar for animal welfare will be set when it is defined in 2020. At the moment, we are too complacent about animal welfare standards in this country, and I would like to see far more ambitious targets and a more ambitious definition.

There have been calls to amend the Bill to include food production as a public good—this is basically about maintaining direct payments under another name—but we are talking about a limited pot of public money. Food production is ultimately rewarded by the market, or it certainly should be. We need to ensure that the market is fair and that farmers get what the president of the Country Land and Business Association, Tim Breitmeyer, describes as

“a fairer share of the food pound”,

along with the security that comes from a longer-term funding settlement.

The Government clearly accept, with the new fair dealing measures in the Bill, that they were wrong not to extend the remit of the Groceries Code Adjudicator to cover indirect suppliers, but they need to go further to ensure the fair treatment of all those who produce our food, along the whole supply chain. I have just been told that I have a Back-Bench business debate next Thursday on ending modern slavery, human rights abuses and the exploitation of workers in the supermarket food supply chain, and I urge as many Members as possible to come along to support it. Cheap food in our supermarkets often comes at the cost of worker exploitation. The fair dealing measures in clause 25 must apply to all sectors and to all stages of the supply chain. I gather that dairy will be the priority because the existing voluntary code of practice is not deemed to have worked well, but fruit and veg farmers need protection, too.

The Bill alone will not be enough to safeguard farming in this country. The real battle and the real danger come from the global Britain Brexiteers and their enthusiasm for cheap food imports and the scrapping of standards post-Brexit. The US Secretary of Commerce, Wilbur Ross, made it clear that any post-Brexit trade deal will hinge on the UK ditching its higher, EU-derived food safety laws, which currently prohibit chlorinated chicken, hormone-pumped beef, ractopamine growth promoters in pork and much more. The implications of that would be huge for UK food and farming. It would drive out higher-welfare and smaller-scale UK farmers, who would be unable to compete on price, and make it more difficult for us to export to the EU.

There are also food safety issues. One in seven people in the US contracts a food-borne illness every year, compared with just over one in 70 in the UK, which must have something to do with US food production system standards. The Secretary of State has repeatedly said he has no intention of reducing standards, and I think he is entirely sincere, but I am not convinced that all his colleagues agree. We often hear them say that there will be no drop in British standards, but that does not mean that goods produced to a lower standard in other countries will not make it into this country under a trade deal, and I want reassurance about that. Without such a commitment, even the most generous and sensitively structured support that emerges from the legislation could be fatally undermined.