I beg to move,
That this House has considered food production and the Environmental Land Management Scheme.
I begin by drawing attention to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests: I am an arable farmer. It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies. I am delighted to have been able to secure this debate today on food production and the environmental land management scheme. I thank the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs; the Minister for Farming, Fisheries and Food, my hon. Friend the Member for Banbury (Victoria Prentis), who is here today; and the Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for Taunton Deane (Rebecca Pow), for addressing us at the highly successful launch of the UK agriculture partnership at the Royal Agricultural University in the heart of my constituency last Thursday.
As more and more land is taken out of food production for environmental schemes, we face the dangerous consequences of becoming reliant on importing larger and larger amounts of food. In short, this debate is all about putting the “F” back into DEFRA. Food should be at the heart of ELMS policy and should be classed as a public good with public money under the scheme. I am aware of the 2021 UK food security report, but it is largely full of dry facts and we are looking for some policy to underpin it.
This is a timely debate because the Public Accounts Committee, of which I am deputy Chair, carried out a detailed inquiry into ELMS and published a report on its findings at the beginning of the year. Now that we have left the European Union, we have a once-in-a-lifetime chance to completely replace our agricultural support system with an ambitious post-Brexit agricultural policy that supports the Government’s ambitious 25-year environmental plan.
Our environmental policy should be joined up with agricultural policy that encourages sustainable food production here at home. Alongside sustainability, we need to help the agricultural sector’s competitiveness and resilience in the macroeconomic, trade and regulatory context. At the heart of ELMS are the changes to the mechanism for distributing funding—that was previously done via direct common agricultural policy payments—to a system that will launch fully in 2024, where farmers will be encouraged towards environmental and productivity improvements.
The Government have stated that all the objectives of ELMS will be delivered for just £2 billion. During our hearing last October, the Public Accounts Committee pointed out that that was a highly ambitious target. As we all know, there are three key elements to the project: the sustainable farming initiative for all farmers to be paid to manage their land in even more environmentally friendly ways; local nature recovery, for more complex and collaborative projects; and landscape recovery, for large-scale projects such as afforestation, rewilding and re-wetted peat.
However, there are clear structural and timetabling issues in ELMS implementation, because details are still not as comprehensive as we would expect by this stage in the scheme. It is not apparent what the aims, objectives or metrics are for supporting more than £2 billion of public funding, whether the schemes will provide good value for money, or how they will help in achieving the Government’s 25-year environmental plan and net zero by 2050. Some farmers are concerned about the practicality of implementing schemes on time. Because of the natural cycle of animals and plants, such schemes can take two years or more to implement, and that is why timely information from DEFRA is so vital.
The Government trialled the first phase of the ELMS programmes with the SFI pilot last year, from which they will draw information before they begin the scheme properly this year. In December, the Government produced a policy paper on how they will expand the scheme over the next few years, but that information is too late for farmers to change their plans. What is clear is that the scheme will require a huge amount of land. For example, the Committee on Climate Change has a target for 30,000 to 50,000 hectares of forestry to be planted every year between 2024 and 2050—an enormous amount of land.
I thank my hon. Friend for securing the debate. One concern that my farmers in North West Durham have, especially as they look to diversify and specialise in their production, is that forestry has to be only part of the solution; it cannot be a replacement for food production. As with gas and heating recently, food security will be so important in the future.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend. He could have rewritten my speech; if he is able to stay for the end—I know that he has other engagements—he will hear me say almost exactly that.
At our PAC hearing, top officials from DEFRA were certain that ELMS would promote increased efficiency on the remaining land that is not going into environmental schemes, but they were not able to tell the Committee how much more food would need to be imported as a result.
In 1984, the UK’s self-sufficiency in food was 78%, but by 2019 it was down to 64%, according to National Farmers Union data. However, according to Government statistics, just 55% of the food consumed in the UK was supplied by the UK—this being the result of subtracting UK exports from domestic production. In 2019, we imported £11.5 billion-worth of fruit and veg and exported just £1.3 billion, and we imported £6.6 billion-worth of meat and exported just £2.1 billion. From a balance of trade point of view, it is critical that we reverse that trend, bolster our home production and find opportunities to export more of our excellent, high-quality British food.
The Department for International Trade, along with DEFRA and the Agriculture and Horticulture Development Board, could do a real trade drive to get experts across the world to promote great British food. At the moment, we are not getting our act together fast enough.
I could not agree more with my hon. Friend, the excellent Chair of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee. He is 100% right: there are a lot of opportunities all over the world for us to export our produce.
As an island nation, it is vital that we are able to feed our population. Considering that we have such a temperate climate, which is well suited to agriculture, we have all the means to increase our self-sufficiency. There is also an argument that we have a moral duty to maintain our food security. With a growing global population leading to increased food demand, alongside climate change, which will have a disproportionate impact on certain countries, it is imperative that we ensure that our own needs are met, rather than being more reliant on other countries around the world.
I entirely agree with what the hon. Member is saying about the need to improve our food security, grow far more in this country and consume it here as well. However, does he agree that the Government’s current policy of pursuing trade deals around the world completely undermines that? It seems as though the whole policy is based on trying to reduce support for farmers in this country and chase cheap food imports from elsewhere.
I am delighted to have the support of the hon. Lady. Given the number of times that we have debated in Bristol and been at odds, to have her support is somewhat amazing. I was on a programme the other day agreeing with the right hon. Member for Hackney North and Stoke Newington (Ms Abbott) as well, and I have never agreed with her before, either. The Whips must be getting worried that I might defect soon.
Even for a global trading nation—this goes to the heart of the point made by the hon. Member for Bristol East (Kerry McCarthy)—shocks can expose real fragilities in any reliance on imports. The current severe spike in energy price is a result of an increasing reliance on imports; we became vulnerable to the global squeeze on energy and gas supplies last year, and going into this year. With technical and geopolitical issues impacting on supply across Europe, we have been hit hard for a number of reasons, including our storage capacity, which is one of the lowest in Europe, and our demand, which is among the highest.
Imports will always play a critical role in our food system, but I say to the Minister that the Government must take our own self-sufficiency more seriously. It is stagnating, and the public will not thank us if there is ever a world food shortage, prices rocket and supermarket shelves are emptied of certain commodities. Although the nation is encouraged to be healthier and eat more fruit and veg, our domestic production of those products falls below our potential. We are only 18% self-sufficient in fruit, 55% in vegetables and 71% in potatoes. The figures for veg and potatoes have fallen by 16% in the past 20 years, despite the sector demonstrating sustained investment. The entire economy is aiming to build back better and greener from the covid-19 pandemic. British farming can be central to that green recovery. We have a golden opportunity to place food security fairly at the centre of our food system and become a global leader in sustainable, high-quality food production.
The Government have a crucial role to play. Food security should be at the heart of Government policy, and there needs to be an annual system of reporting to Parliament to ensure that we do not allow our domestic food production to diminish. UK farmers are best placed to implement many of these environmental schemes, while at the same time maintaining the countryside to the high standard that the public have come to accept. I do not think the public are going to welcome the look of countryside that is going to waste growing brambles and shrubs. It feels highly counterintuitive to have such high environmental standards here that food production becomes unprofitable enough that we need to import more.
Not only does physically importing food produce greenhouse gases, but by relying on farmers from the rest of the world to produce food for us in the UK, we are simply exporting our environmental problems and responsibility to other countries with lower plant and animal standards. The public place real value on high standards of animal welfare, environmental protection and the climate ambition of British farmers. We cannot guarantee or enforce those high standards on farmers from other countries around the world. It would be morally unjustifiable for a UK farmer to be put at a competitive disadvantage by imported food with lower standards—a point made by the hon. Member for Bristol East.
The innovation I have seen from UK farmers throughout my lifetime, working towards ambitious environmental goals, has been incredible. The NFU has been working with its stakeholders to outline the policy mechanism for agriculture to reach net zero by 2040, which is a critical goal. I believe that the best way to reach our environmental targets is by supporting British farmers, not by making food production an unsustainable economic model.
The second of the key issues in the report from the National Audit Office—a highly respected institution—on which the Public Accounts Committee inquiry majored is that, without subsidies, most farms in England make an average profit of just £22,800 a year, after labour costs and investment, and a third of all farms would not make any profit at all. That makes the sector pretty financially vulnerable. For small and tenanted farms operating on wafer-thin margins, there is a real fear that many will go out of business. The consequence would simply be that the average size of farms would increase and the environmental benefits they provide would be lost. ELMS should provide advice and funding to help those small farmers diversify.
The future farming programme for England, which will replace the direct payments with a new scheme based on public money for public goods, will see small farms have their direct payments reduced from December 2021, and 50% will be lost by 2025. There is a real concern that some of the ELMS options will be completely unprofitable, given the amounts available, and too complicated; and that many farmers will simply not take them up, especially if they do not have the administrative capacity to negotiate the complicated bureaucracy. That could mean that only large institutional landowners, such as the National Trust or the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, benefit from these Government schemes. It would be quite wrong if such landowners received a bigger and bigger share of the agricultural subsidy cake when they provide less and less food each year. ELMS should have a part to play in protecting small, tenanted farms and upland farmers—I class small farms as less than 100 acres—alongside their significant environmental aims.
The final problem I would like to take up with the Minister is the average age of farmers, which is currently 59. My own farming situation has been discussed here; my farm is in north Norfolk, in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for North Norfolk (Duncan Baker). I am delighted to see him here today and I have issued an invitation to him to come and visit my farm. I know from my own farming situation that my son, who is in his thirties, is much more adaptable than I am to new technology, which would have two key effects of increasing productivity and innovation. ELMS should have a structural element to help young people who wish to enter agriculture, particularly those who are leaving education, because agriculture tends to be a highly risky, capital-intensive business, combined with very low returns.
DEFRA is providing money to councils, landowners and county farm estates via the new entrant support scheme, to support young people joining the sector with access to land, infrastructure and support for successful and innovative businesses. My own farming business, to which I have referred, provides an opportunity for three different businesses to get on to the farming ladder. Chris is my long-term farming contractor; Ben runs a successful outdoor pig-breeding business; and we are currently discussing an arrangement with a lady who has a rotating ewe flock of sheep, to graze our increasingly over-wintered green cover crops. Existing farmers could do more to help young people into agricultural employment and business.
All in all, if farmers are to survive, they must produce better returns, either from increased productivity, Government subsidies or increased prices from the market. Otherwise, many will simply not survive. The consequence will be that the average farm size increases, employment in agriculture falls and social cohesion in rural areas is lost. The Government are formulating a new policy on ELMS, and we need to see much more detail before it is launched in 2024. I appreciate that a lot more was published at the beginning of the year, but I still do not get the full sense of where the Government’s aims for ELMS really are.
As I have said, we cannot become over-reliant on other countries to fulfil our food needs. We have the means to produce food here in more sustainable and smarter ways, but to do that we must support farmers across the country, and not make the industry so unprofitable that only the largest farms survive. The Government should be much more ambitious with their aim of producing food in the UK. Well over 60% of the food we eat should be produced by UK farmers. That would well and truly put the “F” back in DEFRA.
It is a farm mask made by my little sister, who is a farmer. I declare an interest in that my two little sisters are farmers in north Cornwall; I am very proud of them and what they do. I thank the hon. Member for The Cotswolds (Sir Geoffrey Clifton-Brown) for introducing the debate so well, with his fervent focus on the future of British farming, which is not as secure as it once was. On one hand, the changes being made by Government could be positive, but, on the other, they could be disastrous. The problem is that very few people in this room, including probably the Minister, know which way it will go. That is why it is so important to have parliamentary scrutiny of the proposals and for Ministers to bring forward more information.
The spirit behind the environmental land management scheme is good. It enjoys cross-party support and I welcome it. Even as a remainer, I was not a fan of the common agricultural policy or the common fisheries policy. Frankly, they were rubbish, but we need to replace them with something better—not just better soundbites, but better detail and support for our long-term objectives. As ever, the devil is in the detail, and the problem is that we cannot see the detail because so little has been published. We need to convince the Minister to accelerate the publication of the detail of the scheme, so that farmers can make better decisions about how to farm in the future, and so that parliamentarians can scrutinise the proposals to ensure that they deliver what we need.
There is simply too much uncertainty around future funding for farmers, and particularly for south-west farmers, whose farms tend to be smaller than those on the east coast. Those farmers are worried that the direction of travel favours fewer smaller farms and fewer farmers; that it favours larger farms, more technology-intensive farming methods and more equipment and machinery, which cannot fit down smaller lanes in the west country; and that it will mean greater reliance on food imports to sustain our food needs—with many imports produced to lower standards than those for UK farmers—and less food security.
On top of that, one of the key aims of the environmental land management scheme is to reduce carbon impacts. Yet having supply chains that span the world and relying on food from Australia, Brazil, New Zealand, Canada and America, rather than farms in England, seems an odd way to reduce our carbon impact. The carbon in that maritime shipping is not yet counted, but it will be. What is the point of investing and locking ourselves into an import system whereby the carbon intensity of that food—and, therefore, the future cost—is not counted now, but will be hugely costly down the line?
There is often a sense that the Government’s strategy of larger farms and fewer farmers—in particular, fewer small and tenant farmers—is because of lack of interest, or because Ministers have not quite thought it through. However, in my view, that is not right. It is a deliberate strategy. Hon. Members present from every party need to make it clear that that deliberate strategy is not right. It has the potential to devastate UK farming. Ministers should think again about that high-level strategy.
The hon. Member for The Cotswolds raised one issue with the scheme: the funding. Since we left the European Union, the Treasury has taken large chunks out of the farm support budget. As of December, farms that previously received £150,000 a year in direct support have seen their support cut by a quarter, while those receiving between £50,000 and £150,000 have seen it cut by 20%. I suspect that will continue. Farmers cannot see what ELMS will do to replace it, so they cannot invest in that method of farming to ensure they receive that subsidy in the future. That matters. The hon. Member for The Cotswolds very effectively described it as the effect on the sustainability of farm businesses, and he is right. It has the ability to undermine small farming in England in a way that no Government have done since medieval times.
It also undermines the character and spirit of our farming. I worry about the impact on the mental health of our farmers, in particular. We know that farming is a tough business. New figures from the Royal Agricultural Benevolent Institution show that 47% of farmers are experiencing some kind of anxiety at the moment, while some 36% are probably or possibly depressed. We must consider the mental health of our farmers in these policy changes. The uncertainty that is created around this area is not just for policy wonks, but applies to farm businesses up and down the country, with people worried about how they will pay the bills; how they will make rent, if they are a tenant farmer; and how to ensure that their business will be there to pass on to their children. As parliamentarians, we need to take that much more seriously.
I would like to see funding addressed, but it is not the only hole in the ELMS proposals. The scope of the schemes is not ambitious enough. Of particular concern are tenant farmers, whom I would like the Minister to pay a bit more attention to in the proposals she is looking at. I am not certain what role they will be able to play in all the schemes, and that is a problem Ministers should address early. In many cases, tenant farmers are more at risk because they do not own the freehold on their land and are subject to rent charges. They are at risk from absent landlords who might see the benefits of getting more support by using their land for forestry or rewilding schemes and using that to grow the rental income on those lands, putting further pressure on tenant farmers.
Finally, I want to turn to food production. We need to be much clearer that Britain should grow more of its food in Britain. This is not just an argument about jobs in rural areas—although it is about that—or supporting our rural communities, and the fact that smaller farms are more likely than larger farmers to employ people in the local area. It is about our national security. The 1945 Labour Government classed food security as part of national security. A lot has changed in the intervening period, but the privatisation of thinking about food to supermarkets, in particular, that we have seen over the past few decades has done a disservice to our food security. We need to support an agenda to buy, make and sell more in Britain, but that means growing more in Britain. It is not about an outdated “dig for Britain” nostalgia, but protecting our supply chains and jobs and, importantly, taking the risk out of a future economy that will be much more reliant on the carbon intensity of production. If we get rid of our lower carbon production farmers, to rely on imported food produced with lower standards but often with greater carbon intensity, we need to build into that a massive allowance for the increased carbon cost, which will have a pound, shilling and pence effect in the future—at the moment it does not, but it will do.
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that there is absolutely no point trying to do some of those things if all we are doing is offshoring our carbon emissions elsewhere? All that potential benefit is then eaten up in transportation costs, especially in sectors such as shipping and aviation, at the back end of decarbonisation at the moment.
I thank the hon. Member for his point. Whether it is a farmer in North West Durham, in Gedling or in the south-west, this matters. The Government are making a strategic error in their trade policy. I realise the Minister is not responsible for trade policy, and is merely the recipient of all the silage coming from the Department for International Trade in this matter, but the lack of a joined-up Government policy on food is part of the problem. We need to make sure that future trade deals match our agricultural policies, environmental policies and policies on rural employment.
All that speaks to what type of country we want to be. I think Britain should be a force for good. We should maintain high standards, support people entering those sectors, decarbonise and support nature recovery. We cannot do all those things if we do not have the information about what an ELM scheme will look like, if we rely imports produced at lower standards and if we lock ourselves into the risk of a supply chain spanning the world at a time of greater international instability. This is a really important debate; I congratulate the hon. Member for The Cotswolds on bringing it to the Chamber and I hope the Minister listens carefully to the speeches.
It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies. It is a great novelty that you are in the Chair and I can be the recipient of your rulings. It is an interesting world.
I thank my hon. Friend the Member for The Cotswolds (Sir Geoffrey Clifton-Brown) for outlining very well the position of agriculture and food. Let me say to the hon. Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport (Luke Pollard) that the EFRA Committee will look into mental health in farming and rural communities because there is a real problem at the moment. May I also say to the Minister for Farming, Fisheries and Food that I very much respect and enjoy working with her? She has done detailed work on farming, water, animal transport and all sorts of issues that come out of DEFRA and, dare I say, need sorting out. That is the whole reason we are here this morning.
I do not intend to go into the detail of what my hon. Friend for The Cotswolds said, because he did a very good job. I want to wax lyrical about where I think farming and food is going in this country and where we are not exactly getting it right. I think we all agree that the direction of travel is right, but we are not getting to where we need to go, for the simple reason that the payments coming forward are too small. They will not encourage farmers into a lot of extra bureaucracy and administration, and £20 a hectare for the first scheme under the sustainable farming incentive will not pay for the extra work needed. The Minister could well argue that many farmers are already doing that. That is great, but the whole idea of the scheme is to get those farmers who are not doing it into that place. Eventually, we might get all sorts of sticks to get them into that place, but the carrot will be so much more effective than the stick.
I declare an interest, as a farmer, and as a farmer who is older than the average age of farmers—perhaps I should put that on record. To be serious, we have an opportunity to get this right. None of us here, whether remainer or Brexiteer, wants to go to war to protect or maintain the common agricultural policy, but the one thing it did do under the basic farm payment, for better or for worse, was deliver a good, strong payment into farmers’ bank accounts. Some of the big, wealthy landowners—I have often waxed lyrical about, the barley barons of East Anglia, because I do not represent them—may have been able to take the basic farm payment, put it away in their bank accounts and farm without it. But I tell you what, most of the average family farms depend hugely on that payment.
I would say to our Minister, and, if he were here, the Secretary of State, who I also work with—I work very well with all the Ministers in DEFRA; they are very co-operative—that we have not done enough work on the effect of taking the payment away and how many farms will be viable afterwards. We have gone from having our heads in the clouds, “This is the new policy, isn’t it great?” to a bit of reality. By 2024, half of the basic farm payment will be gone. How will farmers replace that?
Prices are good at the moment; costs are high. There will be a lot of farmers out there who will try to maintain production, and who may even try to enhance their production, which is perhaps not the way the Government want farming to go. That is why the level of payment must be got right.
It is very laudable to plant forest, but it is also very good to have all that carbon held and sequestered in permanent pasture. Our hill farming, our permanent pasture farming and our small family farms are doing an excellent job. Let us be clear: it will be at least 20 years after a tree has been planted that it gets anywhere near holding the carbon that permanent pasture holds. It also is great to rewet peat. All those things can be done, but let us have some food security. Let us make sure that the food we eat comes mainly from Britain. Lots of people struggle to buy food, and these policies will reduce food production: make no mistake about it. That is where we will find that food prices may rise even higher, which would be wrong, not only for farming, food production and food security, but for the people of this country.
Let us look at the landscape. We want some good forests, but do people go to the forest a great deal? No, they do not. They like to enjoy the British countryside. They like to see copses in the fields and enhanced hedgerows. They want agriculture to take perhaps a slightly more organic route, but still produce very good food. We may actually need more land, not less, to do that.
Today gives me an opportunity to say that what we are doing is not wrong, but we need to take a raincheck. We need to get DEFRA out there, talking to the farmers more. I say quite bluntly to the Minister that there are a lot of staff in DEFRA, but I am not convinced I know what they are all doing. We know the proverb, “One boy’s a boy; two boys be half a boy, and three boys be no boy at all.” I do wonder sometimes. I am not criticising any particular individual—all I am saying is that having more staff in a Department does not necessarily make it more efficient.
Let us go back, not to fundamentals, but we have the right policies, wrongly implemented, with farmers not knowing where they are going and losing a lot of money. Should we not look again at the overall cake and say, perhaps, we need more for farming, more for competitive and environmental farming, covering slurry stores and the like? Do we need to slightly tweak the amount that is going to large forests so that we do not, as my hon. Friend the Member for The Cotswolds said, just hand it over to big institutional landowners? If not, the family farms, which are the core of this country’s food production and environment, will be the losers.
It is a real pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies. I want to say a massive thank you to the hon. Member for The Cotswolds (Sir Geoffrey Clifton-Brown). This is an important debate and he introduced it really well. I pretty much agree with everything he said.
Like the hon. Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport (Luke Pollard), my views about the wisdom of the United Kingdom leaving the European Union are on the record; people know what they are. My views on the common agricultural policy are also on the record; if I could find one glimmer of hope or a silver lining about leaving the EU, it is leaving the CAP. That is one of the reasons why I am so frustrated that we are not taking the opportunities that leaving the CAP provides.
In principle, the environmental land management scheme—ELMS—is good. It is good that we should pay farmers with public money for producing public goods. I have no argument with the principle. However, we surely cannot ignore the fact that producing food and being able to feed ourselves as a country is a public good. Also, if we do things that lead us to being able to produce less food, that is a public bad and we should seek to avoid it.
Over the last 20 years, we have seen a 10% reduction in our capacity to feed ourselves as a country. Clearly, that is something that Governments of all colours are responsible for, and that this Government, which now has more power than previous ones to do something about it, should seek to address.
However, given where the Government are going over the transition to the new payments system, my fear is that that will make the situation worse—in fact, it will clearly make it worse. If we lose farmers, we lose our capacity to produce food. By the way, those who think that there is some kind of a challenge or contest between farming and the environment do not understand either. The bottom line is that nobody can achieve good environmental policies without farmers. We could come up with the most wonderful environmental schemes through ELMS, but they are bits of paper in a drawer if there are no farmers out there to operate them. Farmers are the frontline warriors in the battle against climate change and the battle to establish biodiversity.
We value our farmers and it is important that we do so. They are often wrongly blamed for climate change. Seventy per cent. of England’s land is agricultural, but only 10% of our climate emissions come from agriculture. Let us remember that our farmers are our friends and allies in tackling the climate catastrophe, and not blame them for it.
My fear is that the Government’s policies seem set to eject farmers from the countryside, partly by accident and partly by design. By accident? The transition from basic payments to ELMS feels like it is being thoroughly botched. In December, we saw the first loss of the basic payment scheme—BPS—to farmers. Farmers will have lost between 5% and 25% of their basic payment in December, and virtually none of them has access to an alternative scheme. ELMS may be available by 2024, but it probably will not be fully available until 2028.
We have seen a poor take-up of the sustainable farming incentive, or SFI. As the hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Neil Parish), Chair of the Select Committee, indicated, that is largely because the SFI is unattractive. Therefore, we have not got people into the scheme and, consequently, what will they do? They will either go bust or go backwards. They will decide to do things that are not environmentally positive because they cannot get into the SFI scheme, so they will think, “Why bother? Let’s just pile ’em high instead and go farming”, as people sometimes say. The reality is that if we do not get people into those schemes, they will either be lost to farming altogether or they will certainly be lost when it comes to trying to deal with the environmental challenges ahead of us.
In total, 85% of the profitability of the average livestock farm is basic payment. If any of us were in a situation where we were progressively losing massive chunks of our income, year on year, with no alternative to replace it for up to seven years, we would go bust or we would think of something else to do.
That is the situation that the Government are creating and it is why I call upon them to peg basic payment at its current level. I know that the Minister will need to have a word with the Treasury to achieve that, but the Treasury should care about farming and food security. We need to peg BPS at its current level until ELMS is available to everybody.
Farmers are leaving farming and they will continue to leave, which will reduce our capacity as a country to feed ourselves and undermine the Government’s stated environmental objectives. Without farmers, who will deliver those environmental goods?
As I have said, I feel that the SFI is an accidental mistake. I wonder whether it is perhaps down to the fact that hill farmers and small family farmers in particular do not have time to leave the farm and take part in consultation exercises. So is DEFRA just listening to the big boys? That is my worry, because it is easy to listen to them; they have staff who can leave the farm and talk to Ministers. I do not say that Ministers are being deliberately biased; it is just natural that many smaller farmers, including many of my farmers, simply do not have time to leave the farm to lobby Ministers or make their voices heard in other ways. I pay tribute to the NFU and the Tenant Farmers Association, which are doing their best to make farmers’ case known. The Government’s policies on the transition are pushing farmers out of farming and reducing our capacity to produce food—partly by accident, but partly by design. It almost looks as though some aspects of ELMS will deliberately kill farming and our rural communities.
I have been in many Westminster Hall debates, and when we were in the EU, I would have a go at Ministers of different parties about the fact that money went to the landlord and not the farmer, and the Minister’s response would be, “Well, we’d do something about this, but it’s all the EU’s fault.” Now it is down to us. We could do something about it, but the Government are designing schemes that will incentivise big landlords—some institutions and some private individuals—to kick out tenant farmers, turn the house into a second home, and let the place go to seed. They then brag at their Hampstead dinner parties about doing good for the environment, but they are actually killing rural communities, ejecting tenant farmers and destroying the landscape.
What matters is not just food production, but the heritage of our environment and our landscape. I am proud to represent the lakes and the dales. The Lake district became a world heritage site relatively recently. It will lose that status if farms become wilderness and are not carefully managed.
I ask the Government to think very carefully, and not botch the transition by making the same mistakes the EU did in handing wads of cash to wealthy landowners, who kick out the tenant farmers who are the backbone of our farming economy. The Government’s plans are morally unjust, and would destroy our rural communities, remove the Government’s key partners in the delivery of environmental schemes, wreck our landscape and our landscape heritage, and cut food production. It is no surprise, then, that many people in the countryside think that this Government take them for granted. I would love Ministers to react and prove me wrong.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for The Cotswolds (Sir Geoffrey Clifton-Brown), my constituency neighbour; we are both vociferous campaigners for farmers across the Cotswolds and my valleys and vale. I also thank the Minister, who took the time to come to Stroud, speak to famers there, and visit our mighty Frampton country fair. It is incredibly important that we have a DEFRA team that is stocked with farmers and people with real-life experience—the same goes for our fantastic Select Committee Chair, my hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Neil Parish)—because it gives confidence that there is thinking, knowledge and experience behind the policies. However, as we have heard, and as the Minister knows, there is more work to do. I think we would all agree on that.
I could just say today: “Food, food, food; security, security, security,” and sit back down. Ultimately, those are the key points that farmers feel that this place—both green carpet and red carpet—often forgets when creating fancy-pants policies to improve on and replace the common agricultural policy, which we all know needed to go. However, in this increasingly uncertain world, if we do not get the farmers and the public to understand the importance of food production, and do not get the country standing on its own two feet and feeding itself, we will be in a difficult place when sudden shocks hit. Hopefully nothing like the pandemic will happen again, but if it does, we must be ready and able to look after ourselves.
Our farmers earn a pittance. Jeremy Clarkson has done a good job of highlighting, to people who have probably never looked at the agricultural world before, that real stretch. They understand that he toiled seven days a week, and his earnings at the end were quite difficult. For those who are out on the farm every day, working the land, there is no time for paperwork or bureaucracy, and definitely no time to try to understand which scheme to apply for, or whether to hold their horses and go for the next one that might be coming up. There is quite a lot of nervousness, and I understand that.
Farmers are the custodians of our environment. They have been looking after our countryside for years; they were thinking about the land, the trees, the environment, the species and biodiversity long before it was fashionable to do so around city-centre dinner tables, as was highlighted by the hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Tim Farron). If we do not get this right, we will damage the pillars of food production and security, and we will put farmers out of business. That will hinder our ambitions on water quality, biodiversity, climate change adaptation, air quality, natural food management and coastal erosion mitigation—all things that we in this place want, as do DEFRA, the Government, and our environmental groups in Stroud, but they will not happen.
On a practical point about what farmers are dealing with, the NFU surveyed all its members, and 84% of farmers and growers were very clear that they were interested in applying for ELMS. I have regular meetings with my farmers and the NFU, and at my last meeting I was in Slimbridge. The farm there is diversifying, and the farmers are working really hard, but there was a lot of hesitation, and many concerns about the practicalities and the waiting game that they feel they are in. My anecdotal take from that was that the general lack of organisation and support around the ELMS has put off many farmers from engaging with it. More needs to be done to make sure that the schemes are attractive to farmers, so that they engage. They are busy people; if they do not engage, nobody wins—that is the crux of it.
Some farmers have already dropped out of the sustainable farming incentive pilot due to the lack of timely information from DEFRA and the Rural Payments Agency. Food security needs to be considered part of these schemes, and that should be vocalised, or we are asking farmers to ignore the reason why they farm, which is to feed the country. Farmers have asked me for details of the support scheme that the Secretary of State explained to me was available when I raised this in the Chamber last year. There is still a lack of understanding about what is available to farmers. I again highlight that they are busy people, out there doing their job.
Putting on my all-party parliamentary group for wetlands hat, I am very proud to have the Slimbridge Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust in my patch. We know that trees and forestry are definitely not the only gig in town for carbon capture. Indeed, wetlands can do far more than a lot of what is planted. I have spoken to farmers; they have seen the carcases of trees that they have planted with plastic tubes around them. They get funding to plant the trees, but then there is nothing to support their maintenance. They are nervous about that. We need clear thinking about wetlands, and all the options that are available that may do more good—notwithstanding the fabulousness of trees. I am not an anti-tree person.
Finally, I am very lucky to have the chair of the NFU next generation forum, David Ratcliffe, in my patch. With the help of young farmers, ELMS could be a big source of resilience for farming business while delivering environmental outcomes. However, when farmers are in the early stages of their career and are trying to grow, they are at their most vulnerable to price volatility. There is price movement at the moment; for example, fertiliser is at about £600 plus per tonne, whereas it was £250 per tonne previously. That has to be thought through with our young entrants. I have spoken to the Minister before, and she has kindly spoken to David. The problem is with funding; with loans not being available to new entrants; with tenant farms going; and with rich people buying up land that would historically been available for farming. I thank the Minister for all she does. I know she cares deeply about the issue, and that she will do everything in her power to make things better. However, the practical elements need to be fixed very quickly.
It is always a pleasure to speak in any debate, but I thank the hon. Member for The Cotswolds (Sir Geoffrey Clifton-Brown) for securing this one. In his introduction, he hit upon all the salient matters. From what he has said, and from my knowledge of his constituency from afar, it is a richly rural place with beautiful scenery—as is my constituency. I take pride in the rural sections of my constituency, and I like to represent my local farmers. I declare an interest as a member of the Ulster Farmers Union, and as a landowner and a farmer. I say without boasting—that is not what this is about—that we have already made a commitment on our land to planting 3,500 trees, retaining hedgerows and introducing ponds; those are the things that we should be doing, and I have made an active commitment to doing them on our land.
I thank hon. Members for their contributions and I look forward to the shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Cambridge (Daniel Zeichner), contributing; he has a grasp of the issues. I particularly look forward to hearing from the Minister. As others have said, she understands these issues, has a passion for them, and has a feel for what we are trying to say. I am quite sure that when she responds, we will get the answers that we hope for, and the encouragement we want for our constituents.
Farm support across the UK has changed, and will continue to change. Before the UK left the EU, farmers were supported by common agricultural policy funds. That scheme allocated some £4.7 billion to the UK in 2019. The Government said that they will maintain pre-Brexit funding from 2021 to 2027. Those CAP payments will be based on how much land is farmed. Northern Ireland’s farmers have suffered enough from the impacts of the protocol, as we all know. I urge the Government to provide reassurance for those in the farming community that those who own land and have done so for many years will not be further disadvantaged by any new legislation. Northern Ireland is a nation of small farmers. The average farm size is probably between about 70 and 90 acres. We could have reared a family on less than that years ago, but today farmers have increased their land, and the larger ones are still working the land.
The most recent land management strategy released in Northern Ireland was in 2016. It aimed to be a sustainable agricultural land management strategy for Northern Ireland, which would outline how the ambition of “Going for Growth” was to be achieved in a way that improved farm incomes, environmental incomes and food production simultaneously. The strategy said of land management:
“Almost 30% of agricultural land is let in Conacre”—
an important issue for us back home—
“a short term arrangement which denies tenants security in their land tenure and therefore impedes long term planning”.
We therefore have special circumstances, and that might be where our difficulties are. The Minister is not responsible for that, but it would be remiss of me not to make this plea on behalf of my constituents. We have the Comber Early, a potato that has had protected geographical indication status under the UK scheme since 30 October 2020. I am a man of simple tastes, and there is nothing I enjoy more than early Comber potatoes with a pat of butter. There is not a meal like it. The EU protected them, and we wish them to remain part of what we are about in the future. The Minister and the UK Government have issued that protection as well. That tells us what the land does: it produces the best of products, so it is important that we protect it.
The new Agriculture Act 2020 passed by Parliament in the previous Session had several new measures for protecting land management and food production services. They included requirements on Ministers to consider the need to encourage environmentally sustainable ways of producing food, and to report on food security at least once every five years; measures on agricultural tenancies, fertiliser regulation, and the identification and traceability of animals; and the red meat levy. That perhaps indicates that Government have grasped the issue—they have put in place three pointers to what needs to be done.
There is general support for replacing the CAP system of paying farm subsidies based on the area farmed, and for instead paying farmers to provide public goods such as environmental and animal health improvements. Farm groups, however, were concerned that food production was not included in the list of purposes for which funding could be provided. DEFRA has stated that it is maintaining farm support in every nation of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, and that is imperative for farming in all nations.
I know that the Minister is in regular contact with our Minister back home at the Northern Ireland Assembly; they have regular discussions about agriculture and fishing. I am very pleased that we have an active Minister present who has those discussions as a matter of form—not because we ask it, but because she knows it is the right thing to do—so again I thank her.
The National Audit Office revealed that there were 85,000 recipients of CAP payments in 2017. It also stated that 82,500 would participate in the new environmental land management scheme by 2028. I hope that that will be the case, and perhaps we will capture all current recipients. The new Agriculture Act prepares our agriculture sector for the future, so that it can meet the needs of the country.
I will conclude, Mr Davies; I am ever mindful of the timescale for the debate. I urge the Minister—I know that we are pushing at an open door—to have all necessary discussions with organisations such as the National Farmers Union, the Ulster Farmers Union and the Countryside Alliance, which is very active on these matters, to ensure that the financial protection of our local farms across the United Kingdom. Without doubt, land management and food production have suffered in some ways as a consequence of Brexit. It is time to get this right for our farmers across this great nation of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. As I always say, we are better together.
It is good to see you in the Chair, Mr Davies. You were far too lenient on the EFRA Committee Chair, my hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Neil Parish), so well done; that shows great character and integrity.
I thank my hon. Friend the Member for The Cotswolds (Sir Geoffrey Clifton-Brown) for securing this critical debate. How wonderful it is to talk about the countryside, our farms and our farming and food production! We are up in London, in the midst of all sorts of nonsense, but for those who are privileged, as I am, to live in one of the most beautiful—mine is the most beautiful—part of the United Kingdom, it is great, when we get back to the constituency, to get out in the morning and have all that disappear while we appreciate God’s great gift of the countryside. It is fantastic to be able to talk about it today.
The three core areas of ELMS are: supporting sustainable farming; the recovery of nature; and collaboration between landowners to deliver, as hon. Members have said, public money for public goods. West Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly are great examples of where much of that has already been done. There is an irony, in that farmers who have been delivering public goods for a long time may not benefit in the way that ELMS intends, as they have less far to go to get our countryside to where it needs to be.
It is a great privilege for me to visit farms across west Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly and see the good care and concern of farmers for the natural environment. They know it is the hand that feeds them. Many farms in Cornwall have developed the ability to produce food and energy. There was a time when Cornwall was the county that produced the most renewable energy on land in the UK. It also grows trees. I committed to planting 20,000 trees in 2020, and it was landowners and farmers who found pastures that were not productive for food, and who gave up that land so that the Woodland Trust, I and my volunteers could plant over 21,000 trees on it. I appreciate how long it takes for them to bear fruit, as it were, but planting trees is certainly an important part of managing our countryside; it has benefits for run-off and flood management, and is a good thing to do on balance.
We need to strike a balance between farming, food production and biodiversity. I hear comments—not necessarily from DEFRA, although comments can be misinterpreted—about the need to produce much less meat around the UK. That is most definitely true around the world, but there are examples on my farms where grazing and producing meat supports and enhances biodiversity. We need to be careful, in all messages from Government and DEFRA, to get the balance right. For promoting biodiversity and looking after many parts of our countryside around the UK, meat production is a positive and helpful thing, if done properly.
We heard about public money for public goods. I was delighted when the Secretary of State at that time came up with that expression. It reassured me that we were going to get the policy right and turn our backs on the common agricultural policy. There is an enthusiasm across farming for public money for public goods, but there is a frustration that it has taken so long to get the detail, and I worry that we might not be delivering what we set out to. Everything that has been said today pretty much agrees with what I am hearing farmers say.
On ELMS, as has been said, we need to ensure food is being produced. The first debate I ever had in Westminster Hall was on food security. At that time, we were producing around 54% of the food that we could produce in the UK. We have to increase that. We need to enthuse our farmers and, rather than bogging them down with red tape, give them a renewed passion and enthusiasm, and let them know that DEFRA and the Government are on their side when it comes to producing good, healthy food for our constituents to eat.
We learned in the pandemic that it was the local food producers that helped to address the food chain supply problems. Let us not lose the lessons we learned just two years ago. We must do whatever we can to cut through red tape and give farmers the enthusiasm to produce the food we need, and we must protect and value their knowledge. We have heard already about the knowledge of farmers. It is no accident that they produce food from the land they own or look after. It is an incredible art and a gift. It is years and years, or generations, of experience. If we do not get this right, we will lose them and that experience will not be passed on, which takes me to my next point. DEFRA and the Department for Education must get together and use ELMS, if possible, to promote careers in agriculture and food production in our schools and colleges, harnessing that experience and knowledge and giving young people the opportunity to have a job on the land.
We are concerned about mental health and, as my hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton and Honiton said, particularly about mental health in farming. However, the countryside has an awful lot to contribute towards supporting people’s wellbeing and good health. We must look after soil security. The Climate Change Committee has talked about that. We allow our soil to wash into rivers and seas, where it is lost forever. We must be cleverer and use ELMS to stop that.
Although ELMS may encourage some farms to get things right, there is a danger that it will discourage others from engaging, and that they will work the land and the soil will be wrecked—it takes an enormous amount of time to recover soil. ELMS must deliver good soil health across the country.
Finally, we need to protect small farms. We have heard about landowners buying up parcels of land, and we are really seeing that in Cornwall. Small farms that are no longer viable are being snapped up by hobby farmers. They are maintaining a piece of countryside, but it is not as productive as it could be, and it is not supporting the opportunity to bring fresh blood into the industry. We must do everything that we can to support small farmers and to preserve small farms. We have to get on with that and not give in to those voices telling us to delay ELMS. Seize the day, get it right, and help our farms produce the food that we need.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies, and to follow my hon. Friend the Member for St Ives (Derek Thomas) and all colleagues who have spoken so clearly. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for The Cotswolds (Sir Geoffrey Clifton-Brown) for securing this important and timely debate.
In the short time that I have, I want to ring the alarm bell on behalf of hundreds of thousands of farmers across the land. What I am about to say is felt unanimously by farmers, including those in Dorset who I meet quarterly, and farming organisations, such as the NFU under the determined leadership of Minette Batters. I am most grateful to the Minister, who came down to Dorset at my behest and met our farmers. She has heard what I am about to say from the lion’s mouth, so nothing here will surprise her. Those farmers say, “None of us can see the logic behind much of the Government’s thinking—and this is a Conservative Government. It and its Ministers seem in thrall to the environmental and wildlife lobbies, which have a role to play, but are behind the push for this greener agenda, at the cost of food production.”
The Government have got themselves into a pickle. They are replacing the basic payment scheme, which is paid to ensure food resilience and affordability, with a system that offers taxpayers’ money to take land out of production, in part to improve
“environmental and animal welfare outcomes.”
The local nature recovery scheme and the landscape recovery scheme will see £800 million spent on replacing productive land for both crops and livestock with wildlife habitats such as peat bogs and wetlands, and nature reserves and tree planting.
We all love trees—I plant trees—but during the last election I think the Labour party promised to plant so many millions of trees that it worked out at about 100 trees a second. Common sense is what farmers are desperately calling for. The green mantra does not make sense. This narrow agenda implies that nature and farming cannot co-exist, but they have done so for generations. The words “food production” were not even in the first Agriculture Bill, so the mad path we are heading down is hardly a surprise. As my hon. Friend the Member for The Cotswolds said, our food self-sufficiency has dropped from 78% in the mid-1980s to 64% now. Where on earth are the policies that we need to grow more of what we are good at and produce to the highest standards in the world? We are an island nation and in the face of any serious adversity we might not be able to rely on imports. Our island’s history should have taught us that basic fact many times.
What annoys farmers even more than the misguided green agenda is that the BPS, on which they have relied for so long, is to be removed before its replacement has been fully tried and tested. There are genuine fears that some farms, particularly in the grazing livestock sector—both lowland and upland—will simply not survive. The NFU predicts that 80% of them will become unprofitable. Those policies are a threat not just to the farmer but to the consumer. As the Public Accounts Committee stated in January, DEFRA has also
“not explained how the Scheme’s changes in land use will not simply result in more food being imported, with the environmental impacts of food production being ‘exported’ to countries with lower environmental standards.”
I join the NFU in calling for an urgent review of DEFRA’s future farming programme for England, including of the temporary postponement of direct payment reductions in 2022-23. I agree with the hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Tim Farron), who spoke with such common sense and who has repeatedly made that point. Those new schemes must be piloted because we cannot afford to see them fail. Farmers are crying out for secure, fit-for-purpose measures that will sustain food production while, of course, continuing to protect our countryside and all that lives in it. Reckless rewilding, pushed by those with the best of intentions but with little grip of reality, is a classic example of nonsense. Placing beavers in small Dorset rivers, for example, while no doubt pleasurable to see, will create havoc to river flows and banks and lead to flooding as dams are built and then, no doubt, protected by law.
The argument to subsidise farmers in some form or other—or not—is a live one. If the Government want to see farmers, especially the smaller ones, go to the wall, food prices and imports increase and our rural economy die, then end all support. There is a balance to be drawn, but farmers and food production must be given the priority they deserve.
Thank you, Mr Davies. As an MP representing a rural constituency that is predominantly agricultural, I thank my hon. Friend the Member for The Cotswolds (Sir Geoffrey Clifton-Brown) for securing this debate. I had to speak in this debate, because he farms not only in my constituency but in the very villages that I grew up in, so I would be in a lot of trouble if I was not here this morning.
In general, I am a great supporter of the Government’s ambitions with the new agricultural reforms. I get them and, as has been said, they have cross-party support in large areas. It is right to say, however, that there are some real concerns about them and our ability to produce our own food in a way that is not just sustainable to fit with the new ELMS, but profitable for our farmers to be able to make a livelihood.
It is natural that as we exit the European Union we will have some concerns as the new regimes settle in. There is a risk that the scheme will not work adequately, and we have heard this morning about the harsh reality and impact on farmers if that were to happen. They will, of course, diversify. If the balance is wrong, farms will not produce food in the way they currently do, preferring natural schemes instead. Our food security could diminish and we would import cheaper, lower quality food from overseas. That is a worst case scenario, but we have to get it right.
Rather than repeat many of the arguments which have been so eloquently put this morning, I want to focus my short comments on a different area, which is labour and skills, and the shortages that we have to address. Production, which is at the very heart of what we are debating this morning, will not be helped if we cannot get the very skills to be able to bring the harvest home.
The timing of this debate is very apt because on Friday night I met Norfolk farmers at an NFU dinner, where we discussed their concerns. The labour market and skills shortage that they face was by far and away their greatest fear. That is the huge area that they wanted to discuss, whether it related to fruit picking, pig production or turkey farming. Pickers, pluckers and butchers are all in short supply. That was the unanimous feeling across the industry. It was felt that the labour market can adjust, but not as quickly as the stringent rules that the Home Office is operating—note that I said Home Office, not DEFRA.
We have two problems. First—I have experienced this at first hand in my constituency recently and have spoken to the excellent Minister about it—it is simply not sufficient that only 30,000 workers will have temporary visas. There are strawberry growers in my constituency. Sharrington Strawberries requires—it will not mind me saying this—just 33 foreign workers. Pro-Force could offer it none—zero—out of its allocation of 7,500. When I pressed Pro-Force further, it said that it had already received 6,000 additional requests for visas on top of those 7,500.
Secondly, if one operates a scheme with just four operators, that is simply far too few for the 30,000—or even 40,000, with the extra 10,000—visas we are allowed. On behalf of Norfolk farmers from Broadland, South Norfolk and West Norfolk, we will meet the Home Secretary very soon to ask for some help.
To sum up, farming is the lifeblood for all of our constituencies. I am very grateful to the Minister. She has always been very helpful to me, whether on issues of pigs, potatoes, fishing or the like; it is very good to have a Minister who knows, from sheer experience, what she is talking about. I am sure that she is always welcome in North Norfolk, and quite possibly at the farmhouse of my hon Friend the Member for The Cotswolds.
It is a pleasure to serve with you in the Chair, Mr Davies. I congratulate the hon. Member for The Cotswolds (Sir Geoffrey Clifton-Brown) on securing the debate and on outlining so successfully the problems that face us. In particular, I am pleased that he endorsed many of the positions that Labour Front Benchers took two years ago when the Agriculture Bill was discussed. We very much wanted annual food security reports, and for food to be a key priority. The Minister will remember the lengthy discussions that we had on the Bill.
We genuinely want ELMS to succeed. I was pleased that the Minister offered me the opportunity to go to look at some of the tests and trials, and I thank some of the people who showed me the 23 Burns project in Northumberland—Louis Fell in particular—the Barningham Estate, and Alex Farris, the Exmoor national park conservation officer. From those conversations I learned that there are people who are putting a huge amount of effort into this—they have a passion—but that the scheme is also very complicated and bureaucratic. Most of all, I came away thinking that the scheme is not going to work for everybody. For some people, it will work, but what about everybody else?
There have been lots of reports, including the PAC report and the National Audit Office report. I will not repeat all the criticisms that have been made, which are well known. It is certainly the case that a proper impact assessment for ELMS, as the NFU has called for, should be done soon and quickly.
I have some very specific questions for the Minister that repeat some of those that I raised two years ago. We are now into the scheme. We heard the excellent speech that my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport (Luke Pollard) made about the money that farmers have lost this year. We know how much has been cut, but how much has gone back to the frontline, rather than lost in bureaucracy, in producing reports and all the rest? The Chair of the Select Committee, the hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Neil Parish) pointed out, very expertly, as always, that not only is money coming and going; the scheme is costing farmers money. How much is it costing them, at a time when farming margins are so very tight?
Why are we facing those problems with ELMS? There is so much agreement: we want to tackle the environmental crisis, and overwhelmingly people in the sector want to see farming conducted in a more sustainable way. What is the problem? I will explain it. I know that not everyone loves “Countryfile”, but it had a very balanced report on the issue this week. The Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs was there, looking very dapper on his farm. When asked how many farmers would still be in place in 10 years’ time, he could not possibly say.
That took me back to a conversation that I had with a farmer in Cambridgeshire. When he last did the forms, they came back saying that there was a mistake—that he had got the numbers the wrong way round, putting 1692 instead of 1962. He said, “No, it was 1692 when we started here.” The point is that farmers have been there a long time, over many generations. I know that the world moves faster now, but I put that question to the Minister: how many farmers does she expect to be here in 2030? I think that the Secretary of State expects far fewer, and that is why he set up the scheme to help people out.
My hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport, the Chair of the Select Committee and the hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Tim Farron) made exactly the same point: this is an attempt to clear out British farming for market fundamentalist reasons. That is the fundamental difference between Opposition Members and some Government Members. I do not think there is unanimity among the Conservatives. Being a market fundamentalist explains why, when we had the food security report at the end of last year, the Secretary of State was an agnostic. In fact, I do not think I have heard the Secretary of State commit to the NFU’s 60%. Perhaps the Minister will do that today.
I am glad the hon. Lady is committed to it, but that is not what the Secretary of State indicated. That goes back to a point well made by the hon. Member for South Dorset (Richard Drax), whom I do not normally find myself in agreement with. He was absolutely right about the first iteration of the Agriculture Bill, which did not forget food by accident. It forgot food because those who are driving the agenda do not consider it to be the prime purpose of farming in this country any more. That is a fundamental difference.
Of course, the Government have not only managed to upset a huge part of the farming sector. They are also failing to satisfy the environmental sector. I will not go into the internal dispute in the Conservative party, but let us look at some of the outcomes. I commend the House of Commons Library for its excellent briefing. The fact that it is such a lengthy briefing and many people struggle to get through it tells us something about the nature of these schemes. If we look at the ELM outcomes on page 34—we are finally beginning to see something from the Government on what this might lead to—we see that it mentions 6 megatonnes of CO2 and just 10% of agricultural emissions. If we are trying to tackle a climate crisis, that is not nearly enough.
If we look at the response from the environmental organisations—we could go all over the place to find these, but page 49 of the Library briefing has a good little selection of responses from the Wildlife Trusts, the National Trust and others—we see that they, too, are disappointed. I am sorry to say to the Minister that she is disappointing both sides.
I do not have much time—I could speak for a long time because I feel passionately about this issue—but I will raise a couple of extra points relating to tenant farmers who seem to have been put in a particularly difficult position. Of course, George Dunn and the Tenant Farmers Association are very powerful advocates. They keep making the same points, and they strongly argue that farm business tenancies should be included in the Agriculture Act 2020 provisions, because they are worried that tier 2 and 3 ELMS tenants will not have an automatic right to be a part of it. Perhaps the Minister will say something about that.
I am conscious of time and I want the Minister to have a full opportunity to respond. On the points about uplands livestock farmers, if we look at the Library briefing and information provided by the Agriculture and Horticulture Development Board, we see that the figures are terrifying. Given the amount of money available—this goes back to the point made by the Chair of the Select Committee—people will not take up these schemes if they find that implementing them costs almost as much as what they would get back from them. On the fine margins—I heard the point about grain barons in the east—many of the farms even in the east of England are also marginal without farm support, so this cuts rights across the country.
In conclusion, there is another way, and that is to be firmly committed to making, buying and selling more in Britain. That is the Labour party’s position, and I suspect it is a position with which large numbers of Members of other parties agree. That is a fundamental difference of view. We are not market fundamentalists. We do not think we can just leave it to the market and that trade deals and food will come from elsewhere. We believe that the other way is sensible for this country, for many of the reasons that we have all rehearsed today. As my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport has argued, it is a national security issue as well. We are absolutely committed to that. If we start from that position, we can and will make the schemes work.
It is a delight to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies, as it always is under the chairmanship of my hon Friend the Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Neil Parish). I should declare my farming interests, which are well rehearsed in this House. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for The Cotswolds (Sir Geoffrey Clifton-Brown) on securing the debate. I greatly enjoyed visiting his constituency last week for a challenging and thought-provoking afternoon, when we discussed water and nutrient pollution. I thank all the farmers in the country for producing the food that we enjoy eating—at least three times a day in my case.
Farmers produce food. That is their job, and that will not change as a result of the future farming policy. My hon. Friend the Member for Stroud (Siobhan Baillie) put it extremely well when she said, “Food, food, food.” I am very much looking forward to encouraging the nation to join a national conversation about food in the White Paper, which is shortly to be published by the Government. There will be much more to say about that in the coming months.
The pandemic has reminded us how important food security is. Under the Agriculture Act 2020, where food definitely features right at the beginning, we have a legal responsibility to review food security every three years. Our first report, which I recommend to those present, was published just before Christmas and highlighted the resilience of our food supply chain. Our production-to-supply ratio remains high when judged against historic levels. We must not forget that the figure was about 30% in the late 19th century and about 40% just before the war. I take the challenge from the hon. Member for Cambridge (Daniel Zeichner) to commit to 60%.
I am delighting in the ancient history lesson, but can we be serious about the fact that we ought to judge production from after the war and from where we were in the 1970s and 1980s? We need to get that production up. While I respect the Minister’s views on ancient history, we need to move forward slightly.
Fair enough. This is an important issue, and the clever statisticians are always reluctant for Government to commit to an absolute figure. That is not because of any theological argument, but because we cannot stop people eating, for example, rice or bananas, and nor do we want to. The important measure to look at is food that can be produced here.
I will not, because I want to give my hon. Friend time at the end of the debate.
The figure at the moment is about 74% and that seems about right. I am committed to buying local, buying sustainable and promoting buying British wherever possible. It is important that we keep a close eye on our food security and our ratios. As hon. Members know, we are changing the way we support farmers and moving away from area-based payments. It is clear that there are worries about how this will affect food production levels, but many of the sectors where we have the greatest self-sufficiency are those that were not traditionally subsidised. We are close to 100%, for example, in poultry, eggs, carrots and swedes, and for many of those successful sectors, direct payments have never really been part of the business model.
There is no reason why we cannot produce the food we need while accommodating some land use change. We know that there is not a direct correlation between the amount of land farmed and the output. For example, around 60% of our output comes from just 30% of our land, farmed by just 8% of farmers. Delivering our environmental targets will inevitably require some land use change in some places, but we need to look at that in a wider context. We have 9.3 million hectares of farmland in England, so we are looking only at a small proportion being taken out of production. I associate myself with what has been said about carbon capture in permanent grassland and I commend my hon. Friend the Member for St Ives (Derek Thomas), who made some important comments about restorative agriculture.
In the last 20 years, the appreciation of the scale of the challenge we face on issues such as biodiversity loss and climate change has grown. Those challenges mean we must act now to establish a new system of rewards. That is why the Government have chosen not to remove the farming budget, but to repurpose it. The amount of money available is the same and I expect the number of farmers to broadly be the same in the future, though some of those farmers may be farming in a different way to the way in which they farm now. We are designing our new schemes in partnership with farmers, and to that end it was good to hear from my hon. Friend the Member for The Cotswolds, my hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton and Honiton, the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) and my hon. Friend the Member for South Dorset (Richard Drax). It is always good to hear strong farming voices in this House.
We want to support the choices that individual farmers make on their own holdings. Farmers will be free to choose which elements of our new policies work for them. Some people may decide to embrace them extensively, but for others the schemes may be a smaller part of their business model.
I have spent the best part of 25 years in different roles in Whitehall, and I have never seen iterative policy making quite like this. We are doing it over a seven-year period, in close conjunction with the industry. Today, we have about 4,000 farmers actively testing things for the new schemes. I accept, and indeed embrace, some of the criticisms made in the PAC report about the beginnings of the policy. We will be responding to that report formally next month.
I agree that regular, annual impact assessments are a useful and positive part of the development of these policies. In many ways, I have enjoyed the cut and thrust of this debate. It is important that these policies are not set in stone. We are developing them in conjunction with farmers, as we make progress.
I know this is a time of huge change for farmers, but it has been good to see how many have embraced that change. The Chair of the Select Committee, my hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton and Honiton, wants carrots, and I would gently say that one of the most useful carrots this year has been the extensive take-up of the countryside stewardship scheme. We have seen a 40% increase in applications, including, I should add, from my own farm. We are encouraging farmers to join that scheme as an interim, while we roll out the new scheme.
As a carrot, we have announced a 30% increase in countryside stewardship payment rates, which I hope will act as a bridge to our new schemes. Using the future farming resilience fund, we are supporting farmers through the transition. The fund awards grants to organisations that are trusted in the farming community, to help farmers work through how the policies affect them individually.
Tenant farmers are a vital part of our farming industry. For DEFRA’s agricultural reforms to succeed, tenant farmers must be able to fully engage in these schemes. On Friday, I was pleased to see my Secretary of State announce an independent tenancy working group, chaired by Baroness Rock, who has long been a champion of this sector, and dedicated to looking at ways to ensure our new schemes really work for tenant farmers. In passing, I should say that BPS has not always worked for tenant farmers and may have been one of the reasons why rents have been artificially inflated. We want to ensure these new schemes work.
This is a period of change and it is understandable that there is worry, but there is also great opportunity ahead. One year into a seven-year transition, it is clear that there is much agreement in the House with the principle of the policy. There is also agreement that food and food security are at the heart of everything we do. I look forward to working with Members on both sides of the House and with our 86,000 or so farmers to make sure we get the roll-out of the policy right.
I thank my hon. Friend the Minister for that encouraging winding-up speech. What I would like to see is substance on her words, which is a much bigger challenge and something our farming constituents in the Cotswolds and elsewhere really want to see. They face a situation where BPS is being cut by 50% over the next two or three years. They are worried not about how they are going to get to the end of it in seven years but about how they are going to survive the next year, two years or three years. That is the real worry out there.
On the substance of what my hon. Friend said, I challenged her in my speech to have an annual report to farmers on food sustainability, not a three-year report, because three years is too long. If we leave it three years, and it takes another three years to rectify the problem, that is six years gone, which is too long.
I welcome the initiatives for tenant farmers. One thing that has come out of this debate is the fragility of farming, particularly in England. I repeat the figure I gave earlier: £22,800 is the average farming profitability in England without subsidy. That means that in some areas a third of the sector does not make any profit at all without subsidy. In some parts of the sector, particularly at the small end, which I define as under 100 acres, the tenant farmers, the small owner-occupier farmers and the hill farmers are extremely vulnerable, and we need to consider them very carefully.
All in all, I have never known such unanimity as in this debate. I hope the Minister takes it back and translates it into real policy so that the farmers really know what they are supposed to be aiming at.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered food production and the Environmental Land Management Scheme.