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Farmers to be rewarded for protecting wildlife and tackling climate change

Image credit: Magda V | Unsplash

Farmers in the UK 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, marking a shift away from the current EU subsidy system of paying farmers mostly for the amount of land they farm.

Instead, future payments will reward farmers for measures taken to protect land, water and air; to 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 December 2019 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 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 altogether.

The Government has pledged to maintain the existing UK levels of funding for agriculture - around £3.4 billion - for the length of this Parliament. The funding is currently administered via the EU's Common Agricultural Policy.

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.

Theresa Villiers, environment secretary, said that 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," she said.

"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."

Rosie Hails, from the National Trust, a major landowner, said the system of public money for public goods that it had pushed for is 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."

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."

Concerns about trade and the quality of future foreign imports were echoed by Friends of the Earth, which called for a legal commitment to prevent trade deals from forcing lower standards on 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 is important that British farming continues to contribute a significant proportion of the UK's food needs and that the new policy recognises and rewards the environmental benefits that farmers are in a position to deliver.

"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," she said.

"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."

For its part, the European Commission - the executive branch of the EU - this week laid out the financial details of its Green Deal, which aims to slash pollution, electrify transport networks and create thousands of jobs in the process.

The Green Deal covers a vast array of ideas and industries, applicable to countries right across Europe. As such, the money required to pay for the Deal is similarly huge: in-house estimates put the cost at around a quarter of a billion pounds every year up until 2050.

Prior to the UK's exit from the EU, the poorest regions of the UK - such as west Wales, where farming is a key part of the local economy - would have been able to claim funding from the Green Deal in order to support its local communities. It remains to be seen now whether the UK Government is able to address the ongoing issues and make up for the funding shortfall. The new Agriculture Bill is the Government's first post-Brexit laws aimed at tackling the changed situation in the UK.

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