Agriculture Bill

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 4:18 pm on 10th October 2018.

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Photo of Bill Wiggin Bill Wiggin Chair, Committee of Selection, Chair, Selection Committee 4:18 pm, 10th October 2018

It is a pleasure to follow Anna McMorrin. I draw the House’s attention to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests. I am the chairman of the Pasture-Fed Livestock Association, which promotes grass-fed as an alternative to grain-fed in our meat supply chain. I also keep a small herd of grain-free Hereford cattle at my home in Herefordshire.

The Agriculture Bill is a hugely important piece of legislation that will directly affect the majority of businesses in my constituency. There are over 2,000 businesses in Herefordshire in the agricultural sector, and 84% of the land in Herefordshire is devoted to agriculture. Farmers in Herefordshire welcome the reassurances that funding systems for farming subsidies will be slowly phased out over seven years, starting in 2020. That enables them to be sure of what lies ahead in the medium term and gives them the opportunity to have some input into how the system should work after the seven-year transition is over. There are issues with land values and the importance of subsidies over that period, but they can be dealt with.

The philosophy of public money for public goods is the right approach to take as long as we remember that the most important public good is health. That can be improved through the production of high quality, high welfare food for the British market. I am also supportive of increased environmental protections and higher animal welfare standards. I am, however, nervous of a system in which food production itself is not the main goal of agriculture.

There is a way to support agriculture that solves the productivity dilemma. As chairman of the Pasture-Fed Livestock Association, I have visited some of our members’ farms. I believe they provide an excellent model for how British livestock, or beef and lamb farming, should look in the future. The 100% pasture-fed model is one which is: better for the environment, through carbon sequestration; better for animals, coming top, according to Compassion for World Farming, of all welfare systems; better for the consumer, because of the high omega-3 fatty acids; better for the climate and our health; and, crucially, more profitable for the farmer.

In 2016, the PFLA produced a document called “It Can Be Done”. It demonstrates that the economic case for pasture-fed compares very favourably with more intensive farming models. A survey earlier this year showed that it is better for animals. Some 53% of PFLA farmers reported a reduction in the use of antibiotics, 51% a reduction in vet bills and 66% noticed an overall improvement in the health of their stock. It is better for the environment. Some 81% of members have made significant changes to their grazing management, with over 50% achieving a longer grazing season and 25% seeing a movement towards that. Some 32% have reduced their synthetic fertiliser use and 64% have reported an increased diversity in their grass swards and bird life on their farms. Some 55% saw an increase in mammal and insect life. In animal welfare and environmental criteria, nobody reported a single negative outcome. That is good for the consumer, who will get that high omega-3 fatty acid which leads to the manufacture of conjugated linoleic acid, the only substance in one’s body that can fight tumours. This is a really good way of helping not just the richest but the poorest sectors in our society.

There is one thing we need to do to make this work: we need to change the definition of pasture-fed. At the moment, it means that 51% of an animal’s life must be on grass. It needs to mean 100%. We on the Conservative Benches have been campaigning for honesty in labelling for a long time. Brexit offers us a wonderful opportunity to deliver it. I want grass-fed to mean 100% grass fed. I want to see the benefits for the people farming: putting less in and getting a better product out. That is the way for a better future for our agricultural sector.