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British Farming, British Rules

Grindingly slow negotiations have left Michael Gove’s Agriculture Bill dangling, while farmers face an uncertain future as a result of the volume of unanswered questions. CountryStore takes a look at what can be gleaned to date – and what the farming community thinks.

For the food and farming sectors, pinning down the Brexit Agriculture Bill couldn’t be more pressing. Changing – or even tweaking – food production and land management can’t be done overnight, so understandably farmers, landowners and agri-businesses are chomping at the bit. At the front of many minds is the fate of the subsidy payments made through the EU’s Common Agriculture Policy (CAP) upon which many farming businesses depend. How, when and if they’ll be replaced is a major anxiety.

The bill is tasked with managing agricultural policy post-Brexit, disentangling us from the CAP and ensuring future compliance with the World Trade Organisation (WTO) agriculture agreement. But with a lot of Parliamentary hurdles yet to clear, the Agriculture Bill is a long way from coming into force.

According to Michael Gove, Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, the bill will “provide…farmers with a new platform to modernise agriculture; to be able to produce, sell and export more food; and, at last, to receive the rewards that they deserve for their environmental work and the other public goods that they provide.” So what can we glean from the Agriculture Bill so far?

Public Goods

 ‘Public goods’ may be an unfamiliar phrase, but it’s central to the bill. Clean air and water, healthy plants and animals, a biodiverse environment, productive land and public access to the countryside are all classed as public goods. Everyone benefits from them, but responsibility for their delivery lies broadly on farmers’ shoulders.   

The bill proposes payments made as part of an Environmental Land Management Scheme to assist farmers, acknowledging that these public benefits should be paid for from the public purse. Under the current system, farmers receive support for this kind of work via direct payments, rural development grants and participation in schemes such as Countryside Stewardship in England.

Upland farmers and those managing disadvantaged land with comparatively low productivity could be beneficiaries of this aspect of the bill.

Direct Payments

Farmers currently claim ‘subsidies’ through the Basic Payment Scheme (BPS), which operates under the CAP and distributes EU money. BPS payments will carry on as usual until 2021, after which a seven-year phase will start.

One of the most keenly felt elements of the bill, this is justified by the argument that payments are currently based on land ownership, not on what’s produced, how it’s produced and its environmental impact. Legislators see this as an unfair system that pays the bulk of the CAP budget to wealthy owners of vast areas of land. The suggested ambition is to level the playing field for innovative and new-entry farmers.

The uncoupling of land area from direct payments is known as ‘delinking’.

Marketing Standards

The banning of over-bendy bananas is one of many myths that grew from the EU’s marketing standards legislation, designed to regulate the quality, size and freshness of foods sold to EU citizens. The bill is tasked with modernising these standards, tailoring them to the new realities of UK trade.

It’s a vital element: real-life issues important to both producers and consumers parties are tied up in marketing standards. These include traceability and animal welfare, retail and wholesale pricing, packaging, labelling and product information as well as quality and presentation. As yet, a lot of the details are fuzzy.

Fairness in the Supply Chain

The relationship between farmers and supermarkets has long been fraught – with dairy being a notable victim of a skewed balance of power between the two. To redress this, the bill has an ambitious goal: to support farmers in achieving fair prices for their produce and clamping down on unfair trading practices.

One main issue for focus is codes of practice that exist to regulate the relationship between grocery retailers and their immediate suppliers. As most farmers trade indirectly with supermarkets they aren’t protected. That means new regulations must reconsider the nuances of supply-chain relationships. They must also balance the power gained by economies of scale that leaves retail conglomerates holding all the negotiating cards.  

Data Collection

As part of the proposed drive to strengthen the position of producers, the bill seeks more transparent information about the supply chain. It’s been argued that a lack of detail puts food producers at a disadvantage. The Agriculture Bill’s data collection clauses are therefore intended to gather and publish information that could help farmers manage risk, be more productive and plan ahead. At the same time, transparency is intended to improve fairness and positively influence animal and plant health and environmental protection.

Although farmers may shudder at the thought of new admin requirements, it’s been indicated that new schemes introduced by the bill should ‘improve applicants experiences’. Finger crossed.

Market Intervention

Measures currently under the CAP seek to support agricultural markets during times of crisis and the bill aims to provide similar – but not identical – support.

This would cover extraordinary incidents like disease or catastrophic weather. If extreme price volatility will be legislated for remains to be seen, as part 4 of the bill isn’t specific, only providing the Secretary of State with powers to define future interventions.

World Trade Organisation Requirements

Whatever deal (or no deal) marks Britain’s departure from the EU and whether international trade deals are cued up or not, on exit we’ll still have to comply with the World Trade Organisation (WTO) Agreement on Agriculture. That means government will be responsible for ensuring its policies dealing with financial support of domestic agriculture (including export subsidies) and rural development comply with WTO rules.

Farming Voices

Giving evidence to Parliament on the Agriculture Bill, NFU President Minette Batters said:

“This Bill offers the Government a once-in-a-generation opportunity to shape the future of farming policy… British farmers and growers deliver the high-quality, traceable and affordable food that the British public expect and support. Getting this Bill right and making sure it’s about agriculture and horticulture… will shape the future for the food industry and the jobs and growth associated with it for generations to come.”

In a statement relating to crucial amendments to the Agriculture Bill, the Tenant Farmers Association Chief Executive George Dunn stated:

“We have seen, in the past, that individuals farming land often lose out to those who own the land when schemes are available to support agri-environment objectives, diversification and productivity. We want the assurance that payments can only be made to individuals who are in occupation of the land being used for the scheme, taking the entrepreneurial risk of the activities on that land and in day-to-day management control.”

Jacky Harrison, Shropshire farmer and trustee of the Highland Cattle Society

 “If recognition is given to the need to have livestock on the hills to protect the landscape, disadvantaged areas should be able to provide a lot of support to production of ‘public goods’. Farmers at our consultation meeting were very positive and agreed that they could input into most items on Defra’s list as long as the scheme acknowledged that one size does not fit all.”

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