After almost 20 months of gestation, the Agriculture Bill [1] will effectively be born on Wednesday afternoon when it is expected to complete its final stages in the House of Commons without significant amendments. [2]

The legislation will replace the Common Agricultural Policy in England in relation to food and farming. Yet neither food nor farming feature in the Bill in any meaningful way. [3] As a result, the Bill fails to address the existing threats to food security [4] and the new ones posed by COVID-19. It also fails to address the longstanding problem of an unsustainable food system producing too little of the foods, especially fruit and vegetables, we need for optimum health.

The Sustainable Food Trust (SFT) feels the Government will be making a huge mistake if it pushes through this Bill in its current form. It was conceived, drafted and amended in a period before the first cases of the virus emerged here. It also takes no account of the UK’s already high dependence on imported food [5] and fragile just-in-time delivery systems, the fact that food shortages are already developing in many parts of the world, that large amounts of food are being wasted due to the impact of COVID-19 or that a significant number of food exporting countries are restricting sales to ensure sufficient supplies for their own populations, all of which is increasing global food prices. [6]

SFT chief executive, Patrick Holden, commented that “The first responsibility of any nation is to feed its people with adequate quantities of health-giving food. I was born in 1950 when food rationing was still in place and my parents’ generation never forgot the huge mistake the inter-war governments made by abandoning British farmers and placing their faith in imported food. Contrary to Defra’s claims that, freed from CAP regulations, farmers will be able to increase their productivity and produce food in a more sustainable way, this Bill will force tens of thousands of farmers into bankruptcy, force those that survive to become more, not less, intensive, and see us importing yet more of our daily nutritional needs from other countries, with more and more of that food brought in by air at high environmental cost.

We only have to look at the eye-watering sums being spent to address the coronavirus pandemic, to see how vastly more expensive it becomes when we fail to prepare for predictable crises before they happen. With COVID-19 impacting every country and likely to have continuing effects for years, and farmers facing extreme weather more and more frequently all over the planet due to climate change, we should now be planning for disruptions to the food supply by ensuring that we produce most of our basic nutritional needs at home.”

The SFT would like to see the Bill make all farms more productive, sustainable and nature friendly. For this, it needs whole farm management agreements to ensure high environmental and agricultural standards on all farmland; it needs support for agroecological farming and it also needs a substantial boost to fruit and vegetable production, ideally in a mixed farm rotational setting, with minimal reliance on agrochemicals. We would also like to see support for struggling small abattoirs to help meet the growing demand for locally produced meat. [7]

Tim Lang, Professor of Food Policy at City, University of London said, “We need a joined up food policy in the UK and I am terribly worried that if the Bill goes through now, in its current form, it will tie the hands of Henry Dimbleby and his colleagues who are developing a National Food Strategy, but not expected to complete their work before the end of the year.”

Instead of continuing to make direct payments to English farmers to help them compete against subsidised farmers in other countries, some of which produce to much lower food safety, animal welfare and environmental standards, the Bill will divert agricultural funding to pay for environmental improvements, including tree and hedgerow planting, flood prevention, enhancing cultural and natural heritage, public access to land and unspecified improvements to farm animal welfare. Creating a resilient, productive and profitable food system will require ongoing support for English food producers, at least until subsidies are also phased out in the EU and US. As such, we feel funds to correct past damage should come from other sources, while all future payments should be conditional upon the production of food in ways which enhance, rather than detract from, the environment, human health and animal welfare.

The Bill also envisages making payments to farmers to manage land, water or livestock in a way that mitigates or adapts to climate change or protects or improves soil health and reduces air and water pollution, which is welcome. Our fear, however, is that these will be delivered through piecemeal, siloed schemes often using technical fixes rather than through a fully integrated whole farm sustainable management approach. [8]

Defra has now finally recognised that intensive farming has caused huge environmental degradation and loss.[9] However, instead of producing visionary legislation to create a national food system fit for the 21st century, the Bill will see public money going into green frills round the edges of even more intensively farmed land.[10] This is extremely short-sighted when, in addition to the problems being created by COVID-19, we need to address the crisis of diet-related disease and the threat that climate change will increasingly pose to food security,

According to Defra, direct payments to farmers in England cost £1.65 billion in 2016. That sounds a lot when you have nothing to compare it with, and the idea that farmers are being feather-bedded by taxpayers has taken root in the public mind. But this equates to less than £30 a year (58p per week) for each of England’s 56 million people. And (15%) of this money is already going to fund environmental stewardship.[11]

Mr Holden added, “It doesn’t require a big stretch of the imagination to see food prices increasing by a lot more than 58p a week when there are shortages, or even minor disruptions. If the UK relies heavily on imported food when there are shortages, this also pushes up the price on global markets for the poorest and most deprived people on the planet.”

Contrary to popular assumptions, UK farm profitability is extremely low. Grazing livestock farmers, who make up the majority of producers in the UK, make on average just £15,000 a year and 94% of this is accounted for by direct payments. Even large cereal farms which make an average profit of £40,600 per year depend on direct payments for 79% of this. As these are phased out, an increasing number are likely to go out of business.[12]





Megan Perry – Communications Manager, Sustainable Food Trust




[1] The Agriculture Bill was initially published in September 2018. Its progress was delayed due to Brexit negotiations and it fell in October 2019, when the general election was called. It was reintroduced to Parliament on 20 January in a lightly amended form. The latest version of the Bill and details of the Committee stages that took place in March can be found on the Parliament website here.

[2] The Report Stage of the Bill followed by the Third Reading have been scheduled for 2.00 pm on Wednesday 13 May. The Government used its parliamentary majority (reflected in the make-up of select committees) to vote down all substantial amendments during the committee stages. The Bill next goes to the House of Lords.

[3] After lobbying by farming organisations, the Government inserted a requirement (Part 1, Chapter 1, 1.(4) that ‘In framing any financial assistance schemes, the Secretary of State must have regard to the need to encourage the production of food by producers in England and its production by them in an environmentally sustainable way’. Our concern is that the Bill is very clearly not about encouraging food production and this commitment is not supported by the general thrust of the Bill.

[4] Many official reports, including at least three in the UK, have warned that climate change and the increasing global population will result in food shortages before long. Another new section (Part 2, Chapter 1) was also introduced, which requires the Secretary of State to report to Parliament at least once every five years on the UK’s food security status. Given how quickly food shortages can develop, as they are currently doing due to COVID-19 and as they did in 2007/8 due to poor harvests in several regions, this commitment seems inadequate.

Defra’s view is that having a diverse range of sources for food imports increases the UK’s food security, however, it fails to take note of the concerns expressed by its own Global Food Security Programme. The latest government figures indicate that the UK produces 53% of its food and imports 47%. However, these figures are based on financial not nutritional values and calculated by deducting food and drink exports from food and drink imports. Since exports of high value Scotch Whiskey make up a significant part of our food exports, 53% is clearly a significant over-estimate. According to HSBC analyst David McCarthy the real situation very much worse than Defra’s figures suggests. He is reported to have said that the government figure of how much food we produce in the UK includes foods processed here that are made from imported ingredients and that, in reality, 80% of our food is imported and only 20% is home-produced.

[5] The UK has a particularly high deficit in home-produced fruit and vegetables, just 23% is produced in the UK. While the Agriculture Bill makes provision to support, ‘starting, or improving the productivity of, a…… horticultural activity’ and further makes provision for supporting producer organisations, and points out that direct payments only account for 10% of the profitability of horticultural holdings, it fails to recognise that without that 10%, UK growers will struggle to compete with EU growers still receiving direct payments and with growers in many other countries where labour and other costs are much lower.

[6] While far from as severe as in 2007/8, food prices are already rising and causing major problems in poorer countries. Wheat prices have increased by 8-10% and rice prices by 25-30%, as exporting countries restrict supplies. See our own analysis here and an analysis by The Economist here.

[7] The problems facing small abattoirs, why they are closing and the problems this creates for local meat producers are set out in our 2018 report, A Good Life and a Good Death: Re-localising Farm Animal Slaughter. Policy and background papers and articles with updates on the current situation since then, are available on our website here. Since the lockdown, demand for locally produced meat has increased significantly. With only about 50 local abattoirs left in England now, farmers are finding it increasingly difficult to get animals slaughtered when needed and many are having to travel uneconomical distances, which is also detrimental to animal welfare and the environment.

[8] Defra’s only detailed indications to date of the sort of things it will grant aid for, were set out in February in its paper Farming for the Future: Policy and Progress Update. These included variable rate nutrient and pesticide applicators, precision slurry application equipment, efficient irrigation systems and robotic milking systems. There has been no indication so far that it will fund whole farm management agreements or agroecological farming.

[9] Defra’s Evidence and Analysis paper No.7 pp 19-20 sets out a number of justifications for replacing direct payments, including agricultural greenhouse gas emissions, air pollution, habitat destruction, biodiversity loss, soil erosion and flooding. There is an implication that these have all arisen specifically because of the CAP. There is no recognition that, even before the UK joined the Common Market, MAFF was pushing farmers in the same direction, with subsidies for increasing nitrogen fertiliser use, hedgerow removal and the ploughing of permanent pasture.

[10] In order to qualify for direct payments, farmers have had to adhere to strict management conditions in relation to environmental schemes, while with basic payments they have had to ensure they keep their land in ‘Good Environmental and Agricultural Condition’. While these conditions fall short of creating the sort of qualifying criteria that could have made direct payments a far more valuable tool, our principal concern is that in order to make a living without payments to help support food production and compete on world markets, some farmers, both livestock and arable, will intensify further on their whole farms. There have already been indications that some farmers are likely to consider this. In such circumstances there will be very little Defra can do to influence the way they farm.

[11] Moving away from Direct Payments, Defra, 2018, p11.

[12] Ibid. p20. Defra cites figures for 2016. Average profit on all grazing livestock farms in England (including all direct payments) has since fallen to £12,500.

Photograph: UK Parliament

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