Farmers will be paid for “public goods” such as protecting water and air quality, boosting wildlife and tackling climate change under new laws for agriculture.
The Government has introduced its Agriculture Bill which will govern farming in England after Brexit, with a shift away from the current EU subsidy system of paying farmers mostly for the amount of land they farm.
Instead, payments will reward farmers for measures to protect land, water and air, support thriving plants and wildlife, tackle climate change, maintain beautiful landscapes, improve public access and boost animal health and welfare.
The Bill, which fell before becoming law when the general election was called, now includes more focus on food production, provides for payments to protect soils, and will require the Government to regularly report on food security.
The Government has pledged to maintain current UK levels of funding, around £3.4 billion, for agriculture, currently administered via the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy, for the length of this Parliament.
Environmental groups have welcomed the proposed legislation to support farmers and tackle the nature and climate crises.
But there were warnings that sufficient funding was needed in the long-term to help nature and that British farmers and environmental standards must not be undermined in future trade deals with countries such as the US.
Environment Secretary Theresa Villiers said the Bill would transform British farming and enable a balance between food production and the environment to safeguard the countryside and farming communities.
“This is one of the most important environmental reforms for many years, rewarding farmers for the work they do to safeguard our environment and helping us meet crucial goals on climate change and protecting nature and biodiversity.
“We will move away from the EU’s bureaucratic Common Agricultural Policy and towards a fairer system which rewards our hard-working farmers for delivering public goods, celebrating their world-leading environmental work and innovative, modern approach to food production,” she said.
The changes set out in the Bill will be brought in over seven years, from 2021 to the end of 2027 to help farmers adjust.
Direct payments for the amount of land farmed will be phased out with the largest reductions starting for those who are paid the most.
The Environment Department (Defra) plans to “delink” payments from actually having to farm land, with farmers able to spend the money on investing in productivity, diversifying their businesses or retiring from farming.
Rosie Hails, from the National Trust, a major landowner, said the system of public money for public goods which it had pushed for was an opportunity to put sustainability, wildlife, protecting soils and flood prevention at the heart of land management.
“We have trialled this approach with tenant farmers and we know that this model can work”, she said.
“It must however be backed up with good quality advice, and the certainty of long-term funding that matches the scale of ambition in the Bill.”
Shaun Spiers, chairman of the Greener UK coalition, said the Government should be “congratulated” for resetting farming policy.
“To provide more certainty for farmers and consumers, ministers should now commit in law to the high environmental standards we already enjoy, and make sure long term funding will be at the level the environmental crisis demands,” he urged.
Kierra Box, campaigner at Friends of the Earth, warned that UK efforts could be undermined by imports from countries that have lower environmental, food, and animal welfare standards.
“The Government must add a legal commitment to prevent trade deals from forcing lower standards on the UK.”
Tanya Steele, chief executive at WWF UK added: “If we’re going to stop the food system wrecking the planet, we need to make sure all future trade deals clearly reject deforestation and other poor agricultural practices, at the same time as we invest in standards and proper enforcement in the UK.”
National Farmers’ Union president Minette Batters welcomed the Bill’s recognition that farmers have a vital role as food producers.
She said it was vital British farming continued to contribute a significant proportion of the UK’s food needs and also crucial the new policy recognised and rewarded the environmental benefits farmers deliver now and in the future.
And she said: “Farmers across the country will still want to see legislation underpinning the Government’s assurances that they will not allow the imports of food produced to standards that would be illegal here through future trade deals.
“We will continue to press the Government to introduce a standards commission as a matter of priority to oversee and advise on future food trade policy and negotiations.”
Martin Lines, chairman of the Nature Friendly Farming Network, said: “To safeguard food security, farmers must be supported so they can protect and enhance our wildlife, soil and environment.
“Farming policy needs to deliver a system based on public money for public goods, as this will ensure we also tackle the climate and ecological emergency.
“Productivity shouldn’t just be about producing more food; it must not be an expense to the environment, and should involve farmers delivering healthy food at world-leading standards.”