Could the new Agriculture Bill navigate us out of the mess?

New farm policy has the potential to provide a healthy, fulfilled and sustainable future, says Sustain’s Vicki Hird

Despite all the distrust and fears of the final outcome, many farm policy watchers are imagining rather wonderful ways in which new farm policy could provide us all – from farmers, nature and workers to consumers and livestock – with what we need to be healthy, fulfilled and sustainable.

This is possible. The nature of the debates on future farm policy (paying farmers for ‘public goods’, catchment approaches and so on) and the exciting new networking and diversification by some parts of the farming community suggest that innovative approaches are being both discussed and tried out. The embracing of old and new techniques (e.g. cover crops, mixed farming), low carbon tech (such as small robots, precision farming) and even new diets are all encouraging (Hodmedod’s UK chia seeds anyone?). The Defra proposals for new farm support contain some innovative approaches and their engagement and openness to new thinking is even more encouraging. The concept of replacing the old subsidies with paying for a clearly defined but broad set of public ‘good’ outcomes from farmers and land managers has been largely welcomed and potentially fair and effective.

But let us not be naïve. Brexit is about as set as jelly in a heatwave. A ‘no deal’ would crush much goodwill and progress. And overcoming the very real constraints (which have built up over decades) to a better farming and food future will be far from easy. The trends in farming have all been, bar a small, high-quality niche market, in the wrong direction. Pollution, wildlife loss, vanished farms and low returns for farming, obesity and so on all point to an on-going crisis. Small gains in terms of the environment or animal welfare have been met with powerful resistance by the food industry wanting cheap raw materials. Many efforts towards sustainability and farmer-led progress seem to fall apart at the first whiff of shareholder loss. The depressing stats on farmer co-ops show we have some way to go to create the right conditions for effective farm cooperation and collaboration in a harsh market.

We need to join together to both make (i.e. regulate) the market (including imports) so it works differently and also to create a new contract between citizen, consumer and producer. We need to price the costs involved in food production differently so they reflect the values involved and so the price is paid by the right part of the chain.

Crucially, the public is led by staggeringly sophisticated marketing to buy ‘cheap’, processed produce whilst not realising the consequences (for climate, health, local economies…anything). So, whilst the good has got better, the junk has got junkier and more dominant on the shelves.

How can we get round this huge market obstacle? Can we break it down – a politically powerful, globalised and largely effective industry (in consumers’ eyes)? Or can we get around it somehow? Farmer organisations seem to suggest that we need to deliver what the market needs, always, and blame everyone else for any woes that follow. This is unfortunate.

We need to join together to both make (i.e. regulate) the market (including imports) so it works differently and also to create a new contract between citizen, consumer and producer. We need to price the costs involved in food production differently so they reflect the values involved and so the price is paid by the right part of the chain.

Could the forthcoming Agriculture Bill do some of this? Not alone but it could be more than a damp squib delivering ‘business as usual’. It could

  • build in effective powers to tackle unfair conditions and even totally unrealistic prices in supply chains so making sure the market pays the full costs of sustainable, ethical production so not letting downstream buyers leave all the risk to farmers and their communities,
  • help good farmers and groups of farmers find alternative markets (including public procurement, and via capital grants and investment in infrastructure…),
  • ensure the industry can deliver on a range of price points to suit all purses but not one which creates costs elsewhere (polluter pays and incentives for good practice),
  • deliver a ‘public money for outcomes’ approach that works and works for all farmers – not just those who can afford a consultant to fill in forms. It should deliver on the whole farm and support good systems as well as practices for specific outcomes. A new approach to measuring productivity would help build in true cost accounting,
  • provide specific support and advice, training and facilitation for farmers in the transition to a new era of farm policy and help with delivering environmental outcomes as well as succession and getting more new entrants instead of amalgamations and abandonment.

Alongside supporting farmers effectively, the Bill should also include new arrangements for farm workers to collectively negotiate pay and conditions.

Dry fields and images of 20-mile lorry queues at Dover may stimulate an alternative, unenlightened approach to feeding ourselves. The temptation to continue with BAU – basic income support for farmers via direct payments – is strong. But this will just continue the status quo where payments are capitalised in land prices and the downstream food industry gets cheap produce and doesn’t pay its way. But climate change is a real and present danger. Old subsidies approaches won’t deliver a resilient farming future or what the taxpayer may consider fair. As Jonathan Baker of the CLA (Country Land and Business Association) put it – after visiting different countries to assess different farm policies – “a reliance on existing tools and centralised policy-making risks missing the opportunities provided by this ‘moment of change’.”

Given the huge farmer grumbles about the red tape and poor administration involved in agriculture policy support, one particularly interesting finding Jonathan made was that, “no one in the countries visited felt that administration of agricultural policies was a problem. Local accountability and adaptability seemed to avoid the sprawling rule-driven administration we specialise in.” But there is a chink of light as the interim report of the Defra Farm Inspection and Regulation Review heralds a real sea change for future inspections and bureaucracy.

Future trade policy and deals are obviously central yet worryingly indistinct. The chapter (ch.14) on Trade in the Defra Health and Harmony consultation was confused and Defra’s Michael Gove and the Department for International Trade’s Liam Fox don’t seem to be on the same page when it comes to maintaining standards so UK farmers do not have to compete with lower quality imports. We should join as one to demanding that trade policy must be subservient to the needs of our farming and food system. The public reaction to TTIP (Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership), and recent polling confirm that the nation is not up for lowering food standards.

The new Agriculture Bill and devolved policy approaches should and could herald a new purpose for farm policy – redesigning not only the way farmers are incentivised to produce the goods we want from farming, but restructuring supply chains and trade policy too, to support a vision of resilient, nature and health friendly food production.

Vicki Hird is Sustainable Farm Campaign Coordinator at Sustain: the alliance for better food and farming