Over recent months the Government has set out a number of significant changes and developments to agri-food and rural policy. CCRI’s Director, Janet Dwyer provides her comments on the Agricultural Bill and the Agricultural Transition Plan.

The autumn has seen further development of the new post-EU framework for agri-food and rural policy across the UK; most significantly for England, the passing of the Agriculture Bill in November.  The Act sets out how farmers and land managers in England will be rewarded in future for providing a range of public goods, with supporting commitments in areas including productivity and enhanced transparency in supply chains.  One significant change that is relevant to a body of CCRI research is the recognition of the public benefits from enhanced soil management and functionality.  There is welcome mention of agro-ecology and the need for a whole farm approach, as well as a commitment to regular review of UK food security.  However, the text makes no direct link between food and public health and, whilst there will be parliamentary scrutiny of any changes, UK trade and food standards are not protected in law.  Early in 2021 the Environment Bill is anticipated, so there is much still to look forward to.

On 30 November the Government published its Agricultural Transition Plan, setting out how it will  approach replacing farm support under the Common Agricultural Policy, in England, during the lifetime of this Parliament (2019-2024). At first reading, the Defra Plan seems to have a lot of positive features and to provide new and welcome details of how changes will be made, affecting the vast majority of farms and farmed land across the country.  The positives include a recognition of the importance of advice and training to help farm businesses adapt to stepwise removal of the Basic Payment Scheme (BPS) over seven years from 2021, and the intention to launch new schemes targeting initial adaptation as early as 2021, when the first BPS cuts will be made. It states as a basic principle that all farm businesses should be sustainable without subsidy in future and describes a policy-making approach in which co-design with ‘farmers and other experts’ will shape future schemes. At the same time, all money saved by the cuts to BPS up to 2024 will be recycled over the period into new projects and schemes to assist the transition process, including retirement support and help to stimulate opportunities for new entrants. Whilst the direction of change is consistent with previous announcements, more details are provided for each main element in the package (but tantalisingly, still not enough for many stakeholders). All the elements in bold here are items that the CCRI recommended, based on its own research, in its response to Defra’s consultation on the future Environmental Land Management Scheme in the summer of 2020. However, we see gaps and concerns in the Transition Plan, and we will provide more detailed scrutiny and recommendations for improvement, in the early part of 2021. Perhaps one overarching concern is a feeling that the package remains piecemeal – a collection of fragmented elements to cover different needs separately, rather than a coherent strategy with institutions and approaches that can foster a holistic process of transformation to a more sustainable future. The changes that Defra is committed to represent a huge challenge to the sector, to prepare for life beyond subsidy in a context when so much else is challenging and uncertain – not least, the continuing absence of a future trade agreement with Europe, and the increasingly apparent climate challenge. The question then is, whether this Plan and its bundle of measures can really enable a sustainable transition and a range of more positive outcomes, or whether it remains insufficient to prevent lasting damage to countryside, communities and culture across England, in the years ahead.

Professor Janet Dwyer

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