It is a pleasure to see you here, Mr Bone.
The debate is very welcome. It has obviously been a long time since agriculture policy was in such a period of transition, and where there was so much up for debate and needing to be decided; as we come out of the common agricultural policy we look towards the negotiation of new trade deals, and there is an agriculture Bill on the horizon, I hope. The Environment Secretary has made some welcome statements at the Oxford Farming Conference and the Oxford Real Farming Conference—I attended the latter—which were restated in the 25-year environment plan, about trying to shift to the use of public money for public goods. That must be the backbone of the approach. I welcome his clarity about the ending of subsidy per acre, and using it to pay for public goods. It is encouraging that the direction of travel on that is so clear. Farmers want to do much more to conserve their land for future generations; the structure should be there to support that.
We need to do a much better job of internalising the external costs of the damage we do to the environment, including soil degradation, deforestation, biodiversity loss and the impact on public health of the routine use of antibiotics. Those have been disregarded for too long. I am sure that we all agree on the desirability of the new regime supporting the public goods that the Environment Secretary identified, such as planting woodland and restoring habitats for endangered species, and restoring and enhancing soil. I would add other things, but the direction of travel is good.
As chair of the all-party group on agroecology for sustainable food and farming, I would also like specifically to promote the benefits of agroecological approaches. They are sometimes seen as backward-looking, because they can involve reviving some old-age systems, but I am not personally anti-innovation. I think that agroecological measures can be adopted without a reduction in productivity. As the former UN special rapporteur on the right to food, Olivier De Schutter, said, the approach has been shown
“to improve food production and farmers’
incomes, while at the same time protecting the soil, water, and climate”.
That is the balance we need.
I want to focus my comments on two areas about which little has been said so far. The first is post-Brexit agricultural policy, which urgently needs to address how we increase our food sustainability and, given global pressures, ensure long-term food security. The second is the growth of diet-related ill-health and widening health inequalities. As to food security, leaving the EU potentially puts UK food security at greater risk. At the moment we produce less than 60% of the food we consume and rely on the EU for almost 30% of our imports. Post-Brexit, shortages of farm labour and a more volatile market could make that situation even worse. I am vice-chair of the all-party group on fruit and vegetable farmers. Witnesses from the sector, and the wider horticulture sector, gave evidence to the Select Committee on Environment, Food and Rural Affairs a while ago; the sector is already starting to suffer from the Brexit effect. Last year, there were reports of produce rotting in the fields in Cornwall from a lack of EU workers to pick it, put off by poor exchange rates and uncertain future employment. I know that the Minister has attended the all-party group and the Select Committee to hear our concerns. I am sure that the Committee Chair, Neil Parish, will mention that later.
Nothing was said about the workforce in the 25-year plan. Although the Environment Secretary has said that he recognises the need for seasonal agricultural labour, we do not have a clear indication of what he intends to do about that. We need to ensure that agricultural policy addresses the prevalence of low pay, insecure employment and the exploitation of workers in the food and farming sector. I do not think that that is too much to ask.