Agriculture Bill

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 5:18 pm on 10th October 2018.

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Photo of James Heappey James Heappey Conservative, Wells 5:18 pm, 10th October 2018

When the last Agriculture Bill went through this place in 1947, we were genuinely concerned about our ability to feed ourselves. In the year that potatoes hit the ration list, food security was the core component of the legislation. Times have now changed and so have our priorities. I welcome the fact that the environment is now such an important part of this Agriculture Bill and that the public so overwhelmingly support that principle. However, food security must continue to be a factor.

Last year, the UK produced only 60% of what it needs to feed itself, compared with 74% 30 years ago. In 1947 there were 13,000 farms in Somerset. Today, just a fraction remain, but agriculture continues to be a hugely important part of Somerset’s economy. Seventy-one years on, Brexit gives us the opportunity to reinvigorate our relationship with the UK’s farmers, and to restate the importance of the food security that they provide and their role in caring for our natural environment.

I very much welcome the Secretary of State’s commitment to articulate his vision for a green Brexit in the Bill. There is much to applaud in the way in which environmental concerns have been brought to the fore in the drafting of the Bill, and the Secretary of State and his team at DEFRA have rightly won plaudits from the green lobby for their evangelism on the environment. We have to be careful, however, that we do not superimpose a London-based, non-governmental organisation definition of environmentalism on to the country beyond. I am sure that that is not the Secretary of State’s intent, but there is a danger that we cast farmers and farming as detrimental to the environment when actually so much of the good that happens in our countryside is the work of our farmers.

It should not need to be said, but farming is a good thing—so much of the rural idyll that people picture in their minds is the product of farming—and we should not be sniffy about intensive farming, provided that the right animal welfare and environmental standards are maintained. When farmers seek to deliver quality products at low prices through economies of scale, it is surely a good thing. Mega-farms might exist elsewhere in the UK, but farms labelled as “intensive” in Somerset probably consist of a few hundred cows being milked by two or three robots. We must not talk down those important and innovative rural businesses.

Last week, when I met farmers across my constituency to discuss the Bill, they were passionate about the landscape in their care and talked enthusiastically about the amount of wildlife on their land. Some of them farm sites of special scientific interest, where the habitats are particularly sensitive, and they do so with real love for the land in their care. It was clear, however, that how they defined what was of environmental value differed from farm to farm. For some farms in my constituency, an environmental good might be flood alleviation; for others, it might be planting woodland; and for others, it might even be rewilding. Those are undoubtedly good environmental things to do, but they would mostly happen instead of farming rather than alongside it. We must make it absolutely clear that for all the good environmental intentions, we can never judge an agriculture Bill to be successful if it reduces food production.

At the end of the day, it comes down to how we define the public good. I would argue strongly that while good stewardship and a focus on the environmental aspect is clearly a public good, so too is our sovereign capacity to feed ourselves. The key part of the Bill is the connection between subsidy and environmental good practice. While subsidy per acre is a pretty universal measure, if we are to subsidise environmental good, it will be much harder to say what is worthy of subsidy in different parts of the country. Some farms are more productive than others, so there is leeway to do things in a more environmentally focused way. Many farms in my constituency are on poorer-quality land, and margins are very tight indeed. This summer’s weather affected grass growth badly, so feed costs will be higher this winter. Our subsidy regime, while prioritising the environmental aspect, must have the flexibility and agricultural nous to respond to such pressures.

Decarbonisation grabs the headlines, but methane is a far more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide, so any farming that includes livestock contributes to climate change. We must look carefully at how we help the farming industry with research and development costs to develop livestock farming methods that produce less methane. There is drive towards veganism, but that change in consumer habits will put my constituents out of business. Surely there is a way of supporting agriculture and our environment without casting them as being at odds with each other.