The UK deserves an Agriculture Bill that backs British farming
New legislation will affect farmers for decades to come. We need a UK-specific agricultural policy that champions environmental, animal welfare and food standards, writes Kerry McCarthy MP
There was a strong sense of deja vu during the Queen’s Speech as the Government, for the second time in as many years, announced it would introduce an Agriculture Bill.
For those of us who worked on the bill in the previous session, there is still a deep sense of disappointment that the Government made no attempt whatsoever to carry it over.
As a result, we find ourselves back to square one with only the faintest hope of progress until a general election resets the process once again.
While that is no comfort to farmers up and down the country who are desperate for certainty, this reset does offer a rare opportunity for the Government to think again about how farming can help tackle the nature, climate and health crises together.
From my perspective, that requires several changes when the revised bill is published, but the cornerstone should be an ambitious transition to sustainable, agroecological farming by 2030.
The bill must also address the darkest cloud hanging over the sector by providing a cast iron guarantee that the Government will not lower environmental, animal welfare and food standards in any future trade deal.
It’s an issue that broadly unites the House, as I can attest from my amendment to the original bill that sought to do just that, and I will not hesitate to put it down again if there is no black and white assurance.
The strength of feeling on this issue outside the House should not be underestimated. A recent letter coordinated by the RSA’s Food, Farming and Countryside Commission, calling on the Government to back British farming and not offshore our climate and nature commitments, was signed by more than 100 high-profile business figures, environmentalists, campaign groups, representative bodies and academics.
No one wants to see a race to the bottom, or consumers unprotected against the damaging impacts of poor-quality imports, produced to low or non-existent standards.
The urgent need for a guarantee was brought sharply into focus earlier this month by a leaked Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs (Defra) briefing that stated “significant pressure” will be put on them by the Department for International Trade (DIT) to weaken standards to secure trade deals, particularly with the US and Australia.
It reinforces a viewpoint I’ve held for a while that, over three years since the referendum, Defra and DIT still don’t appear to be talking to each other about shared priorities and, in turn, leads me to question whether public commitments by ministers actually mean anything.
Based on the Government’s watering down of agricultural regulations via secondary legislation in the last session, I’m not filled with confidence.
The most concerning example is in relation to the creation of a standalone UK pesticides regime. To date, oversight has been reduced, the requirement to obtain independent scientific advice has been weakened, and decision making has been significantly consolidated in the hands of ministers.
What’s more, a mistake in drafting earlier this year led to the removal of a blanket ban on hormone-disrupting chemicals that are known to cause adverse health effects. It’s a worrying precedent.
Whatever happens next in the Brexit process, whether we leave or remain, the UK deserves an Agriculture Bill, and the Common Agricultural Policy can no longer be used as an excuse for domestic inaction.
We only need to look over the channel at France for inspiration. Last year, they approved a wide-ranging field-to-fork reform that set about ensuring fairer incomes for farmers, promoted organic practices, strengthened environmental protections and created new public procurement targets for local food.
It’s an example we should seek to follow at the earliest opportunity.
Kerry McCarthy is Labour MP for Bristol East and former shadow environment, food and rural affairs secretary
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