Agriculture Bill

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 3:30 pm on 10th October 2018.

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Photo of Julian Sturdy Julian Sturdy Conservative, York Outer 3:30 pm, 10th October 2018

My hon. Friend makes a good point, but is that not more about our tax system than this Agriculture Bill? Perhaps that is something to consider going forward.

As chair of the all-party parliamentary group on science and technology in agriculture, I support the principle of shifting state funding for the sector towards supporting innovation and productivity gains, alongside public money for public goods. Leading technologies of the fourth industrial revolution, such as robotics, data science, autonomous vehicles and biotechnology, have the potential to transform agriculture, so it is wise to concentrate support on facilitating the growth and efficiency gains of tomorrow. To that end, a commitment from Ministers to a certain level of funding for productivity and innovation after the “same cash total to 2022” guarantee expires would be most useful in this area.

I note that, as some Members have already said, soil health is not specifically mentioned in the text of the Bill as a public good that deserves financial assistance. There are, though, very encouraging references to it in the Department’s policy statement; that is important given the importance of soil for flood prevention, for the preservation of fertility and for productivity for future generations. I hope that Ministers can give greater prominence to soil health as the Bill progresses.

I broadly support the transition to a system of public money for public goods, but I urge the Government not to lose sight of the fact that the main activity of most farmers will and should remain the production of food. Moreover, food production and environmental stewardship are already two sides of the same coin, as several Members have said. A resilient and profitable agricultural sector is nature’s best friend. If we remember that, we can have a good environmental policy.

The supposedly natural landscapes and countryside of today have been shaped by centuries of agriculture, from the clearing of the forests that once covered virtually all our islands to the first planting of cereals. Policy making in this subject area will therefore benefit from the constant understanding that farming is not some imposition on or extraction from the country, but a positive evolutionary force that has shaped the green and pleasant land that we all seek to protect.

I am glad to see that food security is covered in DEFRA’s accompanying policy statement, but it is not specifically mentioned in the Bill. The National Farmers Union recently estimated that if the UK tried to live solely off locally produced food for a whole year, starting in January, we would run out by 6 August. Global population growth means that humanity will have to produce sustainably 70% more food by 2050. That represents 1 billion more tonnes of rice, wheat or other cereals alone. Such figures illustrate the question to which any comprehensive farming and environmental policy will have to stand up. I know that Ministers are deeply aware of this policy aspect, but it would be reassuring to hear further detail on the Government’s vision for food security as it relates to domestic food production.

The Government need to make sure that the move towards supporting public goods does not have unintended negative consequences. I have spoken to the Minister about this issue in the past. The classic example of the unintended consequences of the CAP is the renowned three-crop rule. Although it might have been put in place for the right environmental reasons, it has had huge negative impacts, certainly throughout the UK. The Secretary of State rightly emphasised that the CAP currently incentivises farmers to put every possible acre into food production, so less public funding is available for natural capital assets such as wetlands and forests. Equally, I am sure that he does not want to see a situation in which policy incentivises farmers to take as many acres as possible out of food production, or to cease farming altogether, lay off workers and just collect payments for managing land to provide public goods. Balance is needed, and we have to find that balance for the policy and in the Bill.

Similarly, in designing the policy, Ministers must take care to ensure that funding for the sector is not substantially transferred to people who just own land and are not actually farmers. That might best be done by putting in place clear commitments on future funding to support innovation and productivity increases on farms.

I applaud the measures in the Bill that will allow the Secretary of State to introduce regulations to ensure fair dealing with agricultural producers and to facilitate that through the collection of data, which is mentioned in the Bill a lot. It is important that Ministers make clear as soon as possible how they intend to use the powers and how they can be made as comprehensive and effective as possible, with real teeth, ultimately. There are many positive aspects to the Bill that I support, but the devil will always be in the detail, and that is what I will scrutinise as the Bill progresses through Parliament.