Adam Bedford, the NFU’s regional director in the North-East, tells The Northern Farmer that he finds much to be pleased with in the new Agriculture Bill, but says some changes to it would benefit the industry.

SO, WITH the new year has come a fresh take on what our future domestic agriculture policy could look like and the latest Agriculture Bill certainly presents a more positive prospect for farmers across our North East region.

What’s particularly pleasing is that with the 2020 Agriculture Bill, the Government has responded to many of the concerns raised by the NFU and our members following the publication of the earlier version. That’s not to say that there aren’t important changes to the Bill that we would like to see – most notably on standards – but it is certainly refreshing to see farmers’ vital role as food producers being recognised and valued.

The Government’s commitment to report every five years on food security is welcome, as this work will also include an analysis of the share of produce coming from British farms. However, we do question whether initially this reporting should happen more frequently given the significant changes likely to be affecting the industry and its operating environment in the short term. It’s also unclear how the Government would respond if we were to see a continued decline in the share of domestic food production contributing to our nation’s food security.

The other big win for the industry is the Government’s commitment to longer-term budgets that will set the strategic direction for seven years initially and then for five-year periods. Given that Government financial commitments usually change from year to year as the Treasury draws up its budgets, this is a very welcome recognition of farming’s need for certainty. Alongside the Conservatives’ manifesto pledge to maintain the agriculture budget for the life of this Parliament, this pledge provides reassurance that money is being and will be ring-fenced for farming.

It is also good to see the Government expanding its thinking on the public goods that should be rewarded through their new assistance schemes. The Bill suggests that work to improve soils should be recognised in this way and that’s something that has resonated well with our members.

The same is true of the Government’s commitment, when developing future financial assistance schemes, to have regard for the need to encourage food production in an environmentally sustainable way.

Of course this Bill is only what’s called enabling legislation. It sets policy goals and aspirations, the overall direction of travel and outlines Government powers and responsibilities, but much of the detail will come later.

With such a protracted Brexit process, uncertainty has been the watchword and despite the significant improvements in the 2020 Bill compared to its predecessor, we are not out of the woods on this yet.

Key asks from the NFU in all discussions on Brexit have been a level playing field for farmers across the UK and recognition and protection of UK farmers’ world-leading standards. The Bill is primarily focused on policy development in England and it is less clear what will happen in other parts of the UK. In the North-East, given our border with Scotland, we would not wish to see marked divergence in farming policy on different sides of the border.

On standards, we have had assurances from Government that they will not allow the imports of food produced to standards that would be illegal here through future trade deals. We want to see legislation to underpin this and so will continue to press for the establishment of a standards committee as a matter of urgency to oversee and advise on future trade policy and negotiations.