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Farming and our Countryside

Volume 636: debated on Tuesday 27 February 2018

I am publishing today the first consultation on a wholly domestic agriculture policy in nearly half a century. “Health and Harmony: The future for food, farming and the environment in a Green Brexit” sets out our ambitions for farming in England and seeks the views of all readers on its proposals.

Leaving the European Union marks an unprecedented opportunity for fundamental reform of agriculture in the United Kingdom. The farmed environment is a source of food that nourishes the body and a landscape that nourishes the soul. We want an agricultural policy that values not only the great British food farmers produce but also the unique public goods that farming, horticulture and forestry provide.

We believe these proposals could work for the whole of the UK, but we recognise that devolution provides each administration with the powers to decide its own priorities. We will continue to work closely with the devolved administrations to establish common frameworks, where these are necessary, in order to enable the functioning of the UK internal market or so that the UK can negotiate, enter into and implement new trade agreements. Overall, it is the Government’s expectation that the process will lead to an increase in decision-making powers for each of the devolved administrations.

UK farmers and land managers have operated within the constraints of the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) for decades. While the CAP has pioneered some of the world’s first agri-environment schemes, which have helped to protect our wildlife and habitats, it remains flawed. Paying land owners for the amount of agricultural land they have creates an unjust, inefficient system that can drive perverse outcomes. The bureaucratic structure of the CAP has constrained our ability to deliver genuine improvements to our countryside and natural environment.

We now have an opportunity to transform agricultural policy. Our proposals are underpinned by the ambitions we have set out in the Government’s 25-year environment plan, so that we leave the environment in a better state than we found it for future generations. We want to incentivise methods of farming that improve soil health, create new habitats for wildlife, increase biodiversity, reduce flood risk and better mitigate climate change and improve air quality by reducing agricultural emissions.

Good environmental land management has benefits beyond improving the natural landscape. Human life can be enriched by a deeper connection to our countryside, be it through the air we breathe or access to public footpaths. Farmed animals are also an integral part of our countryside. We have a responsibility to maintain their health and welfare throughout their life and we want to safeguard the welfare of our livestock, building on our existing reputation for world leading standards.

We are proud to have some of the most productive and innovative farmers in the world. Leaving the EU presents a huge opportunity for UK agriculture to increase its competitiveness. This paper proposes various methods by which the industry could achieve this, including developing the next generation of food and farming technology, adopting the latest agronomic techniques, reducing the impact of pests and diseases, investing in skills and equipment, and collaborating with other farmers and processors. We will ensure that in future public money is paid for public goods—principally environmental enhancement, but these could also include improving productivity, providing public access to farmland and the countryside, enhanced welfare standards for livestock and measures to support the resilience of rural and upland communities.

In England, direct payments will continue during an “agricultural transition”. So that we can support farmers to prepare for change, we will need to redistribute some existing funds. To do this, we propose to apply reductions to farmers’ direct payments, starting with the largest landowners, to free up money to pilot environmental land management schemes and to help farmers unlock their full potential for sustainable production.

We recognise that some sectors may find it more difficult than others to adapt—for example, those located in the most remote, wild and beautiful parts of England. The upland way of life, the unique food produced, and the great art and literature that these landscapes have inspired attract visitors from around the world. In this paper, we ask how these rural communities can be supported for new generations and what the right support should be during the transition and into the future.

For the first time in more than 40 years, the UK will also have its own trade policy. We want to maximise our trade opportunities globally and across all countries—both by boosting our trading relationships with old friends and new allies, and by seeking a deep and special partnership with the EU. We are proud to have some of the highest animal welfare standards in the world. Maintaining and enhancing our high standards of food safety, animal welfare and environmental protection will remain paramount.

We will introduce an Agriculture Bill that moves away from the CAP, providing us with the ability to set out a domestic policy that will stand the test of time.

This consultation marks the exposition of a new settlement for agriculture. As we leave the European Union, this is an historic chance to do something economically sound, socially just, and environmentally essential.