Agriculture Bill

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 5:07 pm on 10th October 2018.

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Photo of Richard Benyon Richard Benyon Conservative, Newbury 5:07 pm, 10th October 2018

I refer hon. Members to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests. I welcome the Bill. When the coalition Government were formed in 2010, I recall that the Government’s chief scientific officer spoke to us about the possible perfect storm of shortages of food, energy and water all at the same time. Farmers are in the lucky position of being able to provide all three, and the medium to long-term opportunities for agriculture in this country are very good. I hope that the Bill will set us on a path to farmers being able to achieve that in a way that is connected to the market as much as is possible, rather than requiring recourse to the taxpayer.

Let me start by talking about clause 1. Many hon. Members have made the good point that it contains no mention of food production as a public good, but I urge a bit of caution there, as the argument of agriculture can be weakened in terms of other parts of the food industry and other sectors in the economy. It is much more important to talk about food security, and the public good of producing healthy food with high animal welfare and environmental standards. That is much more connected to the aspirations of the public than talking about just the production of food.

The Government should take credit for the 25-year environment plan, which is an excellent document. I want to see its themes running right through this Bill as we get into its detail and the statutory instruments that flow from it. I am also extremely proud of the natural environment White Paper, which was produced in 2011. It did a number of things, including hard-wiring the concept of natural capital into our thinking right across government. Natural capital is not only something that should appeal to the environmentalists among us, but good business. As a farmer, I am carrying out a natural capital audit of the land for which I am responsible not just because I want to know what I am doing well and whether there are improvements to make, but because I want to use it as a baseline from which I can show the public that I am making the improvements that they need.

That brings me on to one of the most important factors: the concept of “water first”. DEFRA asked me to chair the UK Water Partnership, which we are taking forward. Basically, if we are doing the right thing for water, everything else environmentally and for those businesses that depend on the environment falls very quickly into place. I commend Mary Creagh, the Chair of the Environment Audit Committee, for mentioning the four parts per 1,000 initiative. If we are doing the right things for water, we are doing the right things for soil. That means that soil is locking up carbon and being retained for future generations. That is good business as well as good environmental management.

In the short time that I have left, I want to refer to a very important theme in the Bill. When we talk about agriculture, we need to remind ourselves that the second part of that word is “culture”, and culture is all about the human element of farming. We have heard eloquent speeches today about the beauty of the landscape. Many billions of pounds are made by industries such as tourism on the basis of human interventions in our countryside that go back centuries. That is apparent even in our wildlife. Barn owls, corn buntings and field mice are species that developed because the landscape was managed. We need to encourage the next generation of farmers to be the great land managers of the future.

I hope that I have read the Bill correctly and that it includes an element that will allow those who have come to the end of their farming career to make way for the new generation. I am hugely impressed by the young generation of farmers I meet. The people whom I met at the south of England show last Sunday were getting awards for really innovative thinking. They are the ones I want to see managing the land in the future. It is unkind to call farmers “bed blockers”, but there are some who want to retire and to be given the incentives to do so. If I have read this Bill correctly—I hope the Minister will give us some assurances—it implements mechanisms that will allow long-term farmers to retire with dignity, making way for a new breed of entrepreneurial land managers who can cope with the difficult environmental problems of the future and make a contribution to agriculture in our country.