Agriculture Bill (Third sitting)
The Committee consisted of the following Members:
Chairs: Sir David Amess, † Graham Stringer
† Brock, Deidre (Edinburgh North and Leith) (SNP)
† Clarke, Theo (Stafford) (Con)
Courts, Robert (Witney) (Con)
Crosbie, Virginia (Ynys Môn) (Con)
† Debbonaire, Thangam (Bristol West) (Lab)
† Dines, Miss Sarah (Derbyshire Dales) (Con)
Doogan, Dave (Angus) (SNP)
† Eustice, George (Minister of State, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)
† Goodwill, Mr Robert (Scarborough and Whitby) (Con)
† Jones, Fay (Brecon and Radnorshire) (Con)
† Jones, Ruth (Newport West) (Lab)
Jupp, Simon (East Devon) (Con)
† Kearns, Alicia (Rutland and Melton) (Con)
† Kruger, Danny (Devizes) (Con)
† McCarthy, Kerry (Bristol East) (Lab)
† Morris, James (Halesowen and Rowley Regis) (Con)
† Oppong-Asare, Abena (Erith and Thamesmead) (Lab)
† Whittome, Nadia (Nottingham East) (Lab)
† Zeichner, Daniel (Cambridge) (Lab)
Kenneth Fox, Kevin Maddison, Committee Clerks
† attended the Committee
Dr Nick Fenwick, Head of Policy, Farmers Union of Wales
John Davies, President, National Farmers Union Cymru
Huw Thomas, Political Adviser, National Farmers Union Cymru
Tim Render, Lead Director for the Environment and Rural Affairs, Welsh Government
Gareth Morgan, Head of Policy, Farming and Land Use, Soil Association
Public Bill Committee
Thursday 13 February 2020
[Graham Stringer in the Chair]
Examination of Witnesses
Dr Nick Fenwick, John Davies, Huw Thomas, and Tim Render gave evidence.
We will now hear oral evidence from NFU Cymru, the Farmers’ Union of Wales, and the Welsh Government. Thank you very much for coming and welcome. We have until 12.15 for this panel. Would you introduce yourselves before we move to questions?
Huw Thomas: I am Huw Thomas, NFU Cymru political adviser, based in Builth Wells.
John Davies: I am John Davies, president of NFU Cymru.
Tim Render: I am Tim Render, director for environment and rural affairs in the Welsh Government.
Dr Fenwick: I am Nick Fenwick, head of agricultural policy for the Farmers’ Union of Wales.
John Davies: Thank you, Minister. Obviously, we await any announcements eagerly. We would look to amend where there are, we would say, unfair penalties for minor infractions. There are major improvements to be made there, for instance. There will be a need for more trees to be planted in future; where there are hedgerows or woodlands, at present, they are taken out of any calculation. There are minor adjustments to be done there that could reduce stress quite significantly in the interim period, I would suggest.
Dr Fenwick: We entirely agree with that. Penalties are a huge issue. It is widely recognised that they are very often completely disproportionate to things that have no impact on the wider environment or the general public. Things that may have cost Government, for the sake of argument, a few pounds, can incur fines of many thousands of pounds.
Greening is another issue. The 100 trees per hectare limit has had a very big impact and goes completely against the current thinking on the importance of trees. The way that it has been implemented in Wales—understandably, given the wording of the European legislation—seems counter-intuitive, given the priorities in terms of silviculture and agriculture co-existing.
Tim Render: From the Welsh Government perspective, we consulted on this question in our last document on ideas for taking farming policy forward and future farm support measures. We also identified that, as part of the transition, you would need to look at simplification. The four things that we flagged were very much penalties, as union colleagues have identified; some of the issues around cross-border payments and the single application rule; the basic payment scheme window for unvalidated beneficiaries; and how the environmentally sensitive permanent grassland rules operate. As I say, those are things that we consulted on. We are assessing the consultation responses at the moment and will make policy decisions on how to implement that when we have the powers, through the Bill, to implement—potentially from 2021.
Huw Thomas: One thing to point out is that the powers relating to Wales in schedule 5 are far more modest than those described for England in clause 9. The scope of the ambition for Wales is perhaps somewhat curtailed by that. In relation to England, you have far more powers to remove and reduce burdens, penalties, financial costs and so on; for Wales, the powers are a bit narrower in scope. That is just something to note.
John Davies: I would say that it is very difficult to farm in a prescriptive way. We have a real challenge this year with the weather, which will cause real issues around the three-crop rule, so we need to be flexible in our approach there, because it is simply not practical in some areas at some times. We need more flexibility.
Dr Fenwick: We agree entirely. Something that is aimed at certain types of farms has actually had an impact on the types of farms that it was not aimed at—I am talking about the impacts of greening. Indeed, that has been recognised across the EU. The European Commission is undertaking the same process of looking at greening and how it should be improved, and has taken steps in that direction. I think it is universally recognised as completely disproportionate.
Tim Render: We would be happy to look at that in the light of the consultation responses we get.
John Davies: We have a very clear vision and ambition to lead the world in producing the most climate-friendly food, and that is to be realised with proper policy and proper support going forward. Obviously, it would be a disaster if that were then undercut by food production systems that are illegal in the United Kingdom, so we would be deeply concerned about the opportunity there and we would like to see that much more strongly identified in the Bill and ruled on.
We welcome the comments that a number of you made during the Second Reading debate. Also, Liz Truss, International Trade Secretary, said last week:
“In addition, nothing in any agreement will undermine the Government’s commitment to tackling climate change.”—[Official Report, 6 February 2020; Vol. 671, c. 15WS.]
We lead the world with our commitment to net zero by 2040, so we look to that being honoured. That is an absolutely key statement to us going forward.
Dr Fenwick: In clause 36, which relates to organic products, subsection (5) makes it clear that it is possible to restrict or prohibit the import of organic products. That will be legislated for once the Bill becomes an Act. We would have expected an equivalent paragraph or provision relating to other production standards to have been incorporated in the Bill. It is there for organic, yet it is not there for all these other issues and in particular the key issue that John raised—our environmental and climate change obligations.
John Davies: If we take America to start with, there is real hunger to access the UK market, but they are pretty adamant that their standards are the standards and that they work on equivalence. Obviously, we would have deep concerns about that for a number of specific aspects. Other countries are more flexible and will look to change, I guess, but I think it needs to be written in absolutely, in black and white.
Dr Fenwick: It is clear from the leaked trade talks document that came out in November—which we assume are valid—that there is that appetite. It seems to provide evidence that that appetite is there. We also know that from the defensive position taken by scores of countries when the UK and the EU first agreed how certain issues would be balanced—in those few areas where agreement was reached—in terms of the splitting of our quotas as regards New Zealand lamb and Australian products. The objections submitted then to the World Trade Organisation by these countries make it clear how important we are as an existing trading destination for them and as a potential destination.
“The regulations may make provision requiring a devolved authority to provide information to the Secretary of State.”
Do you want a corresponding requirement for the Secretary of State to consult the devolved authorities on the operation of those provisions? This is about classifying domestic support in so far as it affects the agreement on agriculture and relates to our position in the WTO. It is a very specific question: do you think that Wales—and Scotland and Northern Ireland—should be consulted, as well as required to provide information?
Tim Render: That question is probably for me. This is an issue that we had extensive conversations with the Minister about regarding the equivalent text in the previous version of the Agriculture Bill. Yes, we would love a consent provision, but in the context of the last Bill we came to a bilateral agreement between the UK Government—the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs—and the Welsh Government on how the provisions would be operated in practice. The Minister has confirmed to us that that agreement will be carried over with this Bill. We look forward to him making that statement again during this stage of the Bill or at a later stage in the House, about how we would work together on that, about the advice and about, were there to be disagreement, our opposition being formally presented to the House of Commons to be part of your decision-making process. We have agreed a way of working to ensure that that voice is heard effectively.
Tim Render: It is not in the Bill, but I have the text in front of me. It is an exchange of letters that was published in the context of the previous Agriculture Bill. In our bilateral conversations with the Minister and DEFRA colleagues, we have assurances that that can be taken forward in the context of this Bill.
Tim Render: We would be happy with that, yes. That is essentially our way of working, but if it is written in the text, that would be even stronger.
Dr Fenwick: We would also welcome such an addition. It must be noted that this extends to far more than WTO issues, given where we are with our current financial ceiling; we are well below WTO limits. The WTO issue is absolutely essential to avoid disputes, but a key issue for us is the fact that we are moving from a very specific framework of financial ceilings for different areas of spending to one that is almost as liberal as it could be. It appears to us that there will be a single financial ceiling for agriculture expenditure in each of the devolved regions and in England.
For example, under EU legislation, we have multiple ceilings relating to how much we can spend on direct interventions in agriculture production and on young people, how much money can be diverted to rural development spending and so on. I am afraid that this area just screams divergence between nations at an unprecedented level, as do many of the other sections.
Huw Thomas: On the red meat point, we are broadly content. We have been calling for this for a number of years. The issue of repatriating the red meat levy has been a bit of a running sore for a long time, so we welcome this. There has to be a will on the part of the parties concerned to use the new powers that they are about to have conferred upon them. It is all well and good to legislate, but the parties need to work together and find an equitable solution to this problem.
We are glad to see this change, but we would not preclude collaborative working at a pre-competitive stage between the domestic levy bodies on things such as red meat, health and climate, which are not directly related to the market. Repatriating the levy is certainly something that we welcome.
Dr Fenwick: We recommended precisely this sort of action in the Radcliffe review, which was published in 2006. That is how long this issue has been running for. We very much welcome that this is there, but this is the first step—it simply opens the door. Given that lengthy period of waiting, and the imbalance in where the levy has been spent, this needs to be acted on once that door is open.
Tim Render: We welcome the clause on the red meat levy, and we are grateful to the Minister, who has put a lot of effort into working with the devolved Administrations to craft this, to resolve this long-standing issue. On the way the Welsh Government are looking to take things forward, we have said that we plan to produce a White Paper by the end of this year, which will set out the framework for a Welsh Agriculture Bill. Ministers have said that they want to take that forward early in the next Assembly term in 2021.
In terms of operational measures, we have already announced that we will effectively maintain the basic payment scheme approach in 2021 as well, so we have that package of measures to take forward in our own Welsh Bill. That would, I suspect, mirror and address some of the wider issues that this Bill takes forward but are not reflected in the Welsh schedule, as well as dealing with some wider things.
Tim Render: Of course, agriculture is a fully devolved policy area, so we will be developing our own equivalents of the land management approaches that England is proposing. We have already issued two major consultation documents with a lot of detail on that. What we are looking to do through this Bill is to ensure continuity: to make sure that a lot of the important operational elements that mean the agricultural market can work effectively and we continue to have the powers to pay agricultural support to farmers, will be in place and can be maintained beyond the end of this year. From a Welsh perspective, the main thing this Bill does is give us those continuity and keeping pace powers.
However, what we have explicitly decided not to take through this Bill—this is a change from the previous Bill—are powers to make radically new types of payments, analogous to the ELMS in England. We discussed that with the Assembly, and they felt that it was potentially such a large change that they wanted to be able to influence that development of a Welsh agriculture policy, so we have not taken those powers to make major changes in the future; that is what we would do through a Welsh Bill. Obviously, this will depend on the Government after the Assembly elections in May 2021, but we would expect that to be taken forward fairly rapidly as a new Welsh agriculture Bill in that period. As I say, we will be setting out detailed ideas as to what would go in that Bill, particularly the new powers, building on the very detailed proposals we have already set out in consultation documents.
John Davies: It is vital that we take our time over this, because we still do not know what trading environment we will be operating in, and there is an awful lot of volatility out there. It is absolutely vital that we get this right and do it in a co-production way. If we get it right, there are real opportunities; it needs to be a co-operative model that we not only design with the industry, but across different Departments of the Welsh Government. Recently, the Welsh Government have announced that we have hit our target for food sales from Wales, which is £7.5 billion. If we get our “sustainable farming and our land”—that is the name of our new agricultural policy —and sustainable brand values right, we will have two gears meshing, which will really benefit our climate credentials and validity by being able to prove that what we do and how we do it are totally sustainable. It is vital that we get this right and do not rush it.
Huw Thomas: Probably the biggest missed opportunity is the one about standards, which we have already covered, but there are certainly provisions in the Bill that we welcome. The food security provision, for example, is new and something we have been pressing for for quite a while. The requirement to report every five years is not especially ambitious; it should be every year. Especially as we are transitioning out of the EU and leaving those structures behind, we need to ensure we have a review every year. I would also suggest that the Bill does not impose any positive obligations on a DEFRA Minister—for example, in the light of an adverse finding in a report on food security. You could consider placing obligations on Ministers if we are found to be deficient in food security.
Dr Fenwick: From our point of view, it is about more than farming and food production per se; it is about the families that farm on the land. There are certain types of farming that continue, but effectively the communities do not. We see that in parts of England; thankfully we do not see it so much in Wales, if at all. We would say there has been a missed opportunity to include among key priorities the sort of ambition that is there at EU level in terms of the reforms that are going through, which relate to looking after farming families and communities and to laying out sentences explicitly in legislation.
I refer you back to what Tom Williams said about the 1947 Act, which was in place until it was superseded by EU regulations. He said it was based on providing
“adequate remuneration and decent living standards for farmers and workers”—[Official Report, 17 December 1945; Vol. 417, c. 931.]
with a reasonable return on capital investment. We would welcome that sort of aspiration being inserted into the Bill.
The other day, we heard evidence from John Cross of the Traceability Design User Group and Simon Hall, who is the managing director of Livestock Information Ltd, which is a new organisation. I thought they were a little vague on details of the traceability service that they are setting up in England, and on how it will integrate or potentially even overrule existing traceability services in the devolved nations. I would be very interested to hear your thoughts on that.
Dr Fenwick: Having only had the time to look at this and go through it as thoroughly as I could yesterday, that clause did ring alarm bells for me. Compared with other systems, Wales has a very successful sheep traceability system that it took into public ownership, rather than farming it out to a private body. It works very well. It could work better, as is the case with all systems, but we hope to develop it into an improved system that will encompass more species. That is certainly the aspiration, and that clause of the Bill certainly raises questions about how those two things interact.
It certainly makes sense to have some form of central data collection point for the UK, given that we are a single country and that it is important for our trading arrangements with other countries. Nevertheless, it depends on how that functions. That part of the legislation would effectively grant powers to non-public bodies—boards that are given certain powers by the Secretary of State. That in itself raises questions; indeed, it is why you took evidence from the witnesses that you mentioned.
Tim Render: To build on that, there are clearly some really important operational issues with the livestock identification systems. We are developing the livestock identification system that we already have in Wales, which works very well. It was co-designed with the industry for ease of operation. We also built it with expansion to different species in mind, so we are looking to turn it into a full livestock ID system, building on a proven IT platform and user interface. It is absolutely vital that we get the behind the scenes IT with what happens in England, Wales and Northern Ireland to have that interchange of data, because you have got cross-border trade and that is how you manage animal health issues, which do not respect borders. That is the big piece of IT work that we are doing with colleagues in DEFRA and colleagues in the other Administrations around the livestock identification system. We will build our own front-end system for Welsh farmers to use, building on what the industry sees as a successful system.
John Davies: It is vital that we get this right. Animal disease does not respect boundaries well, and I concur with everything said in terms of the databases talking to each other. There is also an opportunity here to bring realtime information to purchasing decisions around animal health and the likes, and we need to get this right.
Dr Fenwick: If I may come back, to lessen the potential adverse impacts of clause 32, which amends the Natural Environment and Rural Communities Act 2006, there needs to be at the very least a duty to consult and reach agreements with Welsh Ministers, the Scottish Government and so on to ensure that this does not hand over an extreme power to, in effect, an English board.
It is the Agriculture and Horticulture Development Board.
Dr Fenwick: Yes, or it could be anyone, because it is only created with those powers.
Tim Render: At the moment, it is only sheep for which there is a full integrated electronic system.
Tim Render: In the UK. The other systems are much more primitive, it is fair to say. For instance, the British cattle movement service is not essentially an online realtime system. This is one area where we have what are technically called concurrent powers and we are in discussion with DEFRA about these powers and those around organics being subject to consent by devolved Administrations rather than just consulting, for the reasons that colleagues outlined.
Dr Fenwick: There are about 600 cross-border farms. Some are administratively answerable to England and some to Wales, depending on the proportion of land on each side of the border—I think that is how it works. Those guys have consistently been the last people to receive payments of any form for the last 15 years, since basic payments and what is generically called the single farm payment was introduced in 2005. They have a very tough farm and are placed at significant disadvantage.
Divergence will clearly be an issue for those farms. Conversely, some of the powers in the Bill would lessen the impact, allowing their payments to be released earlier by changing EU regulations that make it difficult when one payment authority is slower than the other at processing applications—because unless everything has been processed, payments cannot be released. The ability to change the rules is therefore welcome, but as things diverge, as they may well do—it is difficult to see how they would not—a lot of thought and care needs to be taken regarding those impacts. It is not just divergence over payment systems and policies; it is also about standards. This provides an opportunity for Wales to, for example, have different assurance standards from England, yet we have a 300-mile-or-so border, which is effectively porous.
John Davies: As one of the UK NFUs, we have a fantastic working relationship. We met last week in Glasgow at NFU Scotland’s AGM. Divergence is front and centre of all our minds, because it is vital that we do not diverge too greatly and create a different trading environment in the UK. That is really important. The key basis that we always operate on is that everything should be done through agreement, not imposition. That is our guiding principle.
Tim Render: Divergence is a consequence of devolution, in that you are making different choices to reflect different circumstances, although I have a lot of sympathy for Mr Davies’ points about operating in a common market, and about standards and not diverging in some of those areas.
The issue of cross-border farms keeps me awake at night, as I think about how I move to develop a new policy. It is one of the really difficult issues. We do not have clear answers to it yet. We are working with the industry and DEFRA on what doing potentially quite different things in return for public support on either side of the border means for those 600-or-so farms that are potentially on either side of that. How we manage that is a tricky question. I do not have any answers to that, but it is something that we are working on with DEFRA and the industry, to work out what the most practical, simple and effective way of doing it is.
Dr Fenwick: When it comes to divergence, of course devolution implies divergence. We as a union supported devolution, so we have no problem with divergence, but it was divergence within boundaries. The current EU framework has strict boundaries in terms of flexibility within legislation and flexibility within financial limits. We are looking, potentially, at a complete liberalisation of those boundaries, so that they become far wider and the degree to which divergence can be market distorting becomes potentially far greater under what is happening at the moment.
Tim Render: I think we can. The questions around water and diffuse agricultural pollution are live in Wales at the moment. In terms of our regulations under the various water rules, we are some way behind the rest of the UK, and we are looking to take action to ensure that we have effective measures for the management of agricultural pollution.
One of the things, looking to the medium term, is an ability to think about how we do some of the wider regulation: what conditions we attach to future payment regimes; how we link that to the regulatory floor; and things around earned autonomy for more flexibility, in return for clearer, authenticated and demonstrable actions that take account of flexibility while there are, at the same time, clear ways of ensuring and providing assurance that the necessary actions are taken. Those are some of the opportunities that we have in the medium term, adapting some of the regulations, but it is probably through more sophisticated regulation and earned autonomy approaches that we can really provide some of that greater flexibility.
John Davies: Thank you, Mr Goodwill, for the opportunity to comment on this, because obviously regulation has been one of the reasons that Europe has had less favour. Nitrate vulnerable zone regulations are among the most prescriptive and least effective of those that have been implemented by Europe. Let us move away from that. Let us ensure that regulation, when it comes, fills the gaps and is effective. Anybody who thinks that they can farm by date will fail. It is vital that we farm by the ground conditions. We have a changing climate here, and we have to respond to that. We have to evolve, adapt and work effectively to reduce the number of incidents. It is coming down slowly, but we need to move more rapidly to reduce it. It is vital that we get on top of that through effective, proper, reasonable regulation.
Tim Render: I agree with that. Equally, there are some measures that need to operate across the UK for trade and operators. The red meat levy is a very good example of something that needs to be applied at the UK level, but from a devolved Administration perspective, where some of those powers operate at a UK level, that needs to happen with our consent and agreement. Yes, let us agree a common approach to something—that is very often the best approach—but, for us, those sorts of concurrent powers need to be with consent.
Dr Fenwick: To give an example of the sorts of divergence at a very simplistic level that will potentially have an impact in the coming months, the Direct Payments to Farmers (Legislative Continuity) Act 2020 received Royal Assent the day before we left the EU. That effectively cuts and pastes EU payment regulations back into domestic legislation. However, one section of the Act allows devolved regions—this relates primarily to Scotland—to exceed those financial ceilings that are effectively derived from EU-set ceilings.
Within hours or minutes, effectively, of our leaving the EU, we have the potential for financial divergence that would increase the difference between the average payments received by a Scottish farmer and a Welsh farmer, which is already in the tens of thousands, potentially to far more. That relates to the Bew review, which has given lots of additional money to Scotland. Previously, that money could not be paid to farmers. The new legislation allows them to diverge—I go back to that word—from the ceilings that are set in the legislation.
John Davies: We have a very clear ambition for a policy made in Wales, where we see the productivity and the environment meshing together, underpinned by a stability pillar that will give us real opportunities. We are ambitious for the future. There is real opportunity out there to make policy in Wales, for Wales, by Wales.
Order. I am afraid that we are at the end of the time allotted for the Committee to ask questions. On behalf of the Committee, I thank the witnesses for their evidence.
Examination of Witness
Gareth Morgan gave evidence.
We will now hear oral evidence from the Soil Association and we have until 1 pm for this session. Welcome to the Committee. Please introduce yourself.
Gareth Morgan: I am Gareth Morgan and I represent the Soil Association, a charity engaged in sustainable food and farming. We also run some certification of organic agriculture and sustainable forestry.
The acoustics in this room are appalling. Can you speak up and project your voice?
Gareth Morgan: Yes, will do.
Gareth Morgan: Unsurprisingly, we were delighted to see that addition, which we thought was a grave omission last time round. There was a rather arcane debate around whether soil health was a private or a public good. What matters is that we achieve better soils, because we know that there is a soils crisis. Indeed, Michael Gove highlighted that in some of his speeches.
The other problem, as you allude to, Minister, is that soil is highly geographically variable and contains many different parameters, from organic matter in terms of the ability to sequester carbon to soil biodiversity, productive capability and the rest of it. That challenge has made it very difficult to set standard provisions around soils for farmers to follow. I suspect that that side of it will probably be best developed through the 25-year plan in the Environment Bill, so in a sense the Agriculture Bill is the place where the tools for farmers to improve their soils can be placed, and where the provisions around what sorts of soils we need, and where, will need a lot of research and geographical specificity. Farmers will need assistance to understand their soils, so a top-down approach to the same soils everywhere is probably not the right way to go.
One exception is that the concept of a steady increase in the carbon content of soils seems to be widely accepted. I think the UK is in the “4 per 1000” club on this, which is around a steady percentage increase of organic matter in soils. That will be a useful single aspiration for farmers and policy makers to coalesce around.
Gareth Morgan: The lack of knowledge should not be used as an excuse to not do anything. I agree with you that far. In terms of understanding at the field level what a particular farmer needs to do, I do not think I agree that that is always obvious. You might have shared the same train journey that I had today from Bristol. Going through Wiltshire and looking at the waterlogged soil-laden water lying on the fields, so that it is pouring into the River Avon at the moment, is a signal to me. That is not necessarily the fault of the farmer, but there is a gap between academic understanding of what soils should be like and what is happening in practice in the fields. There is a huge need for farmers to better understand what is appropriate on their farms. That will involve a fair bit of Government investment to help them in that process.
Gareth Morgan: Yes. The Soil Association is rooted in the philosophy that the essence of successful farming lies in the soil. There has been a welcome resurgence of interest in soil over the last few years. It is not an exclusive club; there are things such as minimum tillage, which is not necessarily an organic philosophy. A lot of farmers are increasingly focused on soil as the central organising principle of productivity, pest resistance, carbon sequestration and biodiversity, but that recognition still has a long way to go. I do not think organic is the only way in which that can be achieved, but it is one simple codified way of farming that we know builds on that understanding of soil and organic matter in soil.
Gareth Morgan: No, I would not say that. That is why there is increasing use of the term “agroecology”, to suggest that there is a more inclusive approach to sustainable farming. Organic is a great codified way of doing that and guaranteeing to the farmer and the consumer that the farmer is following a particular practice, but agroecology is wider in the sense that it incorporates practices such as mixed farming, where there is a mixture, or ruminant livestock and arable so there is a natural fertility cycle. It incorporates a focus on reducing pesticides—it would be fantastic in the Agriculture Bill to have some target for the reduction of pesticides as an aspiration—and a focus on leguminous plants, to increase nitrogen naturally, to avoid the use of artificial nitrogen. We are going to have to wean ourselves off artificial nitrogen at some point if we are to meet our carbon targets, because we have not found an alternative way to make it. All those practices can be incorporated into conventional farming systems.
Gareth Morgan: There is a soils crisis, which is expressed in a number of different ways. It is probably slightly alarmist to talk about a certain number of years of soils left, which is quite graphic and gets people engaged in the topic, but that will be different in different places. Soil can regenerate, so we should not look at it as a one-way trajectory of decline; we know ways in which soil can be recovered. The decline in organic matter in soil is a key dimension of that crisis.
The other big element of soil health that has been neglected by the environmental side as much as by the farming side, is biodiversity in soil. I assume that is as simple as the fact that it is below the ground, and therefore you do not see it. I heard an interesting statistic the other day: in a typical sheep field, the weight of creatures underneath the field far exceeds that of the animals on the surface, whether as simple as worms or down to bacterial and fungi. The problem is that, because we do not see it, it is not that immediately obvious to us. It becomes obvious through things such as feeding birds in the winter—the number of lapwings on the fields. If there are no invertebrates in the fields, there will not be birds above them. Getting back to a sense of the biodiversity of soil will be a good way to re-engage with it.
Gareth Morgan: I absolutely agree with the latter point. We may come on to the issue of trade equality later in the discussion, I imagine. There is simply no point in us exporting our production by forcing up standards here when we are importing products that are produced to low environmental and climate-change standards from other places. We urgently need to find a way to address that, because the tsunami of change that is about to hit farming in this country will not be able to withstand that, so we have to find a way of addressing that issue.
I do not think that should be used as an excuse for not starting to tackle some of these big crises, such as the soil crisis. It would be useful in the Bill, for example, for the food security provision to talk about things such as soil as part of food security. At the minute, it is very focused on economic factors. If we do not sustain the simple biological and physical nature of farming over this period, we will not have food security. That is one place where it would be useful to put this in the Bill.
Gareth Morgan: I do not think anyone has found a simple solution to this, other than a protectionist model, which is what we are trying to get away from. The most interesting example I have heard is talk from Dieter Helm at the Natural Capital Committee about some kind of carbon border adjustment. It would seem ridiculous for us to import products from countries that are not signed up to the Paris treaty and may be subsidising fossil fuels for their farmers in order that they can produce cheaply, and for those products to be on the market in this country, going against products that properly factor in the carbon price. It is not going to be easy to get around, but we cannot duck it. A number of groups have put forward potential amendments to the Bill to try to address some of that, and that also needs to be reflected in the trade Bills. Just ignoring it, as is being done at the minute, is not satisfactory for our farmers or our environment.
Gareth Morgan: I think the Bill is a good step, in terms of providing the toolkit to give farmers the financial assistance to provide some of those public goods. The environmental land management scheme seems to have got quite bogged down over the past couple of years because it has been trying to get round this issue of working to more outcome-focused schemes, rather than just prescriptions for farmers, but there is a reason why we ended up doing prescriptions, although they are very frustrating for farmers to work to, because it is a list of rules that you have to follow and that is not a very creative way of doing things. The reason we do that is that you can audit them and specify them, even if it is a bit rough and ready, whereas saying to a farmer, “We would like to see 10 pairs of skylarks on your land. You decide how you do it,” is quite open-ended and not that helpful to the farmer. Hopefully, ELMS is the place where we will find a way of reconciling those two conflicting priorities.
That is helpful. Thank you.
Gareth Morgan: One reason I joined the Soil Association —I was previously working at the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds—was the sense that you can do quite a lot for particular things, such as bird numbers on farms, without affecting the underlying sustainability of farming operations. I do not think the Bill deliberately plays into that, but it could be an unintentional consequence. There is a whole series of public goods that a farmer could choose to provide, but—particularly if we are going to lose things such as cross-compliance now, which is the basic way to encourage a farmer to look across the whole farm—there is a considerable danger that we will just focus on the easy or obvious bits, such as doing a flower margin or some skylark plots on a farm, and not really think about why the ecological operation of a farm is not satisfactory.
At the moment, there are two distinct dangers. First, some farms might opt into the public goods system while other farms will decide to farm to the market, especially if they are competing with foreign imports produced to lower standards. Secondly, even on individual farms, a farmer might be tempted to look for a particular thing that can be done that will be good for the environment, but neglect what is happening on the rest of the farm, for example the state of the soil across the whole farm. The whole-farm approach should be at the centre of the Agriculture Bill, but it is not at the moment.
Gareth Morgan: It is fantastic that the NFU has taken the position of committing to an early net zero target for the agriculture and land use sector. That has shifted the debate enormously. Establishing the route map by which you do that is quite difficult. I am not entirely sure that a net zero clause in the Bill is the right way to go about it.
In several sectors—such as transport and energy generation—we have a clear idea about what that route map needs to be. Land use will be much more complicated. We do not know all the answers yet—for example, in the current argument about red meat, we are veering a different way each month. Setting a clear trajectory in farming to net zero in law could be counter-productive. The easiest way for us to go net zero in terms of land use in the UK is to stop farming and plant trees everywhere and import food off our balance sheet. That would be madness, but it could be an inadvertent consequence if we get the wrong sort of legal fix into law. I think the Bill could be more explicit about net zero and the need to achieve it, but we need to be careful about the way in which we phrase that.
Gareth Morgan: That is a well-made point. In food, demand and production need to be balanced. That is true not only of organic produce; it is a general point.
One key point is that it would be helpful if the Bill recognised the specific contribution that organic farming can make against a whole range of public goods. Rather than inventing a complicated system in parallel with organics—for example, saying, “If a farm satisfies the carbon criteria, the biodiversity criteria, the rotations and the rest of it, then we will make a payment”—let us just cut to the chase and say that it makes sense for there to be some kind of organic maintenance payment to recognise additional public goods that are there but cannot be recovered through the market. I think that would in some sense help with the conversion issue, because if farmers are clear that if they move to an organic model they will be rewarded, both by the market and for the public goods that they provide in the longer term, then that will give them that level of certainty.
Regarding conversion, you are right—I think there needs to be caution around doing that, because in the past we have had examples of where there has been over-conversion to organic ahead of the market being ready to be there. So I think the focus on some sort of organic maintenance payment in ELMS is absolutely vital.
There is a role for help with conversion, but it may not be in terms of straightforward payments during that period. It may be through things like the ancillary productivity payments or some of these other issues that are acting as a barrier to conversion. For example, bringing livestock back on to arable farms will be quite a difficult operation, and most people who convert to organic would need to do that if they are an arable farm. So help with the process of establishing those things might be the way that one could assist in that process.
Gareth Morgan: At the end of the day, there will have to be some sort of whole-farm planning process. I am sure the Minister has thoughts about this: there is an aspiration to reduce our transaction costs, around the amount of advice and so on that schemes involve. I think there is a limit to how far that can go, so at the end of the day I suspect that any farmer who is receiving substantial public good payments will need to have some kind of system of working with an adviser around a whole-farm plan, which will enable them to put the measures into place, particularly for something like soil.
There are general measures that are great for wildlife and the environment, like having flower margins around fields, having rough grass margins and the rest of it; they will be useful anywhere. With something like soil, I cannot really see how that can be done without the support of an agronomist, or a specialist, or someone helping the farmer and working on the nature of the soil on that particular farm. That need not be done by Government advisers; it could be done by certifiers, or private suppliers and so on. But without that level of support being built into the system, it is quite hard to see how farmers will be able to make the transition that they might want to make on their farm to things like sustainable soil management practices.
Gareth Morgan: I am quite pragmatic about where those targets should lie and if it is not in the Agriculture Bill, there are other places; I have already alluded to the potential for both the Environment Bill and the 25-year plan to be the place where those targets and metrics could reside. It is disappointing that at the moment the Environment Bill does not have a soil chapter, because it would seem to me logical for that to be the place where, say, a target for increasing organic matter in soils at a national level would reside.
Regarding the targets for an individual farm, clearly it would not be sensible for those to be iterated in this Bill, because they might have to be done farm by farm. However, some provision for making sure that farmers are clear what they are working to on the soils on their farm over a particular period will be vital. I do not know whether some provision can be made in the Bill for there to be that level of assessment before public good payments are made on a particular farm, for example, because you are right: unless the farmer is clear about their current resource or what the expectation is about where they will be going, it is going to be quite—and this may be one of the reasons why soils were not previously itemised in the Bill, because of this precise problem about that geographical specificity.
Gareth Morgan: I think a soil organic matter target nationally is realistic. I think there is a fair consensus that increasing organic matter in soil ticks so many boxes that that is something that would be useful. That does not necessarily help the individual farmer to know what needs to be done on their farm. There is a good national soil survey, so there is good spatial information about soils that we could be using as part of this process, so it does not all have to be done from a base of no knowledge.
Given the complexity of the issue, is there not a danger that if you are waiting to try to identify the target, you end up effectively delaying action—the worst of all worlds? Does it perhaps matter less that there is some sort of prescribed target, and more that you encourage and incentivise good soil husbandry from year one as best you can with the knowledge that you have? You can measure trends. You can get a sense of whether the trends that matter are moving in the right direction from the interventions you are doing. Is not that perhaps a better way to approach these things than some kind of prescriptive target?
Gareth Morgan: I think you are right, in the sense that the best must not be the enemy of the good, and there is plenty that can be done on soils tomorrow. I do not think I agree that the absence of a target is something that we should be content with in the long term, particularly at the Government level. Targets have been useful in focusing the attention of policy makers on results. The farmland bird recovery target, although the bane of many people’s life, was useful in terms of focusing attention on what could be done to reverse the decline of farmland birds.
I think national targets around soils would be helpful in terms of focusing and attracting funding. Ultimately the Treasury is going to come and say, “I can see you are doing lots of interesting things on your farms; what, actually, are you benefiting, in terms of the natural capital account for the country?” Unless we can go back to the Treasury and say, “This investment of £2 billion or £3 billion has achieved the following things over this period,” I suspect the money will dry up pretty quickly.
Are you content with the revised organics regime that we are about to inherit from the EU, as it stands, or would you be interested in us using these powers to make specific changes that might make the future UK organics regime work better?
Gareth Morgan: That is a little bit off my area, so I will not speculate too much. The Soil Association is only one part of a very broad organic movement, so there are a number of players who, I think, will want to come back. I think the general feeling was that the provisions in the Bill provide the right enabling starting point for creating a domestic structure around organic regulation.
The one concern that I have heard expressed is that, given we have quite a collaborative model for developing organic standards and lots of players in this country, building that level of engagement with the various players and consultation into that process will be important. At the European level, the International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements, or IFOAM, has been involved in the ongoing development of organic regulation. We will clearly need to have something similar at a domestic level to ensure that everyone, from the farmers to the certifiers to consumers, has a stake in the development of the regime.
Gareth Morgan: Taking the first point, it does feel that there is still a gap in the policy and legislative architecture in agriculture. We have “Health and Harmony”, which sets out a good, new, broad trajectory for agriculture, and we have quite a technical, nitty-gritty enabling Bill here in terms of saying, “Here are the tools that can be deployed to achieve things.” At the moment there is not anything knitting all that together to say, “What are food and farming for? Do we have any sense of what the right model might be?” I suspect that is perhaps a bit of a legacy from having had the CAP, which was a prescriptive and sometimes flawed model of European farming. We have almost moved away from that to being afraid to say we have any preferences at all. We have a series of tools and a broad aspiration that farming should be good for the environment, and then the market does the rest.
The reason for putting down a marker on public health was to say that food and farming are not just about a commercial transaction; it is of huge national importance whether people have secure and healthy food supplies and access to the right sort of food and whether the farmer is able to get a just return from the market. Some of those things are touched on in the Bill, but it almost feels like there needs to be something right at the front of the Bill to say what all this is for, as opposed to, “What should we pay farmers for and how?” It feels a bit too fast. That does not necessarily have to come in the Bill, but it has to come somewhere, to our mind. Again, that is where we would say that a presumption in favour of a move to a more agroecological way of thinking about farming probably would sit. Equally, it is the place where the national food strategy would fit in to say that food is more than just a market transaction for consumers.
Gareth Morgan: I would tread very warily in that minefield.
You do not have to answer if you do not want to, but the fact that you are treading warily tells us what we need to know. Thank you.
Gareth Morgan: I should first say that other certifiers are available—for example, our colleagues in Organic Farmers and Growers. It is a competitive market. I am not from the certification side of the organisation and so I will follow up with written evidence on that point, if that is acceptable.
Thank you. If there are no further questions from the Committee, I thank you, on behalf of the Committee, for giving your evidence, Mr Morgan.
Ordered, That further consideration be now adjourned. —(James Morris.)
Adjourned till this day at Two o’clock.
Agriculture Bill (Fourth sitting)
The Committee consisted of the following Members:
Chairs: Sir David Amess, † Graham Stringer
† Brock, Deidre (Edinburgh North and Leith) (SNP)
† Clarke, Theo (Stafford) (Con)
† Courts, Robert (Witney) (Con)
Crosbie, Virginia (Ynys Môn) (Con)
† Debbonaire, Thangam (Bristol West) (Lab)
† Dines, Miss Sarah (Derbyshire Dales) (Con)
† Doogan, Dave (Angus) (SNP)
† Eustice, George (Camborne and Redruth) (Con)
† Goodwill, Mr Robert (Scarborough and Whitby) (Con)
† Jones, Fay (Brecon and Radnorshire) (Con)
† Jones, Ruth (Newport West) (Lab)
Jupp, Simon (East Devon) (Con)
† Kearns, Alicia (Rutland and Melton) (Con)
† Kruger, Danny (Devizes) (Con)
† McCarthy, Kerry (Bristol East) (Lab)
† Morris, James (Halesowen and Rowley Regis) (Con)
† Oppong-Asare, Abena (Erith and Thamesmead) (Lab)
† Whittome, Nadia (Nottingham East) (Lab)
† Zeichner, Daniel (Cambridge) (Lab)
Kenneth Fox, Kevin Maddison, Committee Clerks
† attended the Committee
Jonnie Hall, Director of Policy, NFU Scotland
Alan Clarke, Chief Executive, Quality Meat Scotland
George Burgess, Deputy Director, Trade Policy, Food and Drink, Scottish Government
George Monbiot, journalist and author
Professor Bill Keevil, Professor of Environmental Healthcare, School of Biological Sciences, University of Southampton
Diana Holland, Assistant General Secretary (responsible for Food, Drink and Agriculture), Unite
Jyoti Fernandes, Campaigns and Policy Co-ordinator, Landworkers Alliance
Vicki Hird, Campaign Co-ordinator, Food and Farming Policy, Sustain
Dr Nick Palmer, Head of Compassion in World Farming UK, Compassion in World Farming
James West, Senior Policy Manager, Compassion in World Farming
Sue Davies MBE, Head of Consumer Protection and Food Policy, Which?
Public Bill Committee
Thursday 13 February 2020
[Graham Stringer in the Chair]
Examination of Witnesses
Jonnie Hall, Alan Clarke and George Burgess gave evidence.
We will now hear oral evidence from NFU Scotland, Quality Meat Scotland and the Scottish Government. Thank you for coming. The panel will finish at 2.30 pm. Could you introduce yourselves for the record?
Alan Clarke: Good afternoon, everybody. My name is Alan Clarke. I am chief executive of Quality Meat Scotland.
George Burgess: Good afternoon. I am George Burgess. I am the head of food and drink at the Scottish Government.
Jonnie Hall: My name is Jonnie Hall. I am director of policy for NFU Scotland.
Jonnie Hall: I am happy to start. I can quote Mr Eustice back at him and say that the CAP has largely “incentivised inertia”—a phrase he has used many times. We agree. The bluntness of area-based payments has not driven innovation or productivity, or indeed delivered on environmental challenges.
In that respect, we see the departure from the EU and from the CAP as an opportunity to develop bespoke agricultural policy tailored to the individual needs of the devolved Administrations. We have some capacity for that already, in the fact that we have four different settlements of pillar 1 and pillar 2 under the CAP, but we are nevertheless constrained by an awful lot of bureaucracy and by the rules and regulations around mapping, inspections, penalties and so on.
It is vital for us to take the opportunity and for Scotland to be allowed, under the devolved nature of agricultural policy development and delivery, to develop its own suite of schemes and measures that fit the needs and profile of Scottish agriculture, which is significantly different from that of the rest of the UK and, in particular, England. That is absolutely right and, therefore, this provides us with an opportunity.
George Burgess: The Scottish Government position, as I am sure all Committee members will know, has not been in favour of Brexit. We believe that continued membership of the single market and customs union is the best way forward on economic, social and environmental grounds. That includes on the common agricultural policy.
Obviously, there will be areas in the common agricultural policy that are not necessarily to our liking. Work has been under way in Scotland, under the “Stability and Simplicity” consultation, to identify, in the short term, any areas where some improvement could be made to the common agricultural policy. That might be around issues such as mapping and penalties, as Mr Hall has mentioned. We are working, through a farming and food production future policy group, to look at longer-term policy in Scotland.
Alan Clarke: I have a couple of points from Quality Meat Scotland. This gives us an opportunity to look outside our normal markets. Currently, 69% of Scottish red meat is being sold in the rest of the UK, outside of Scotland, and 10% goes internationally. It gives us an opportunity to continue to build on that. To do that, protection of our protected geographical indicators is essential.
In addition, we need to have no reduction of standards of any other imports coming into the country, to make sure that we have a level playing field for our food producers. We would like to see transparency of price reporting throughout the supply chain, to enable us to make better decisions across that area. As you will perhaps hear later from me, we have been working closely with the Agriculture and Horticulture Development Board and Hybu Cig Cymru on levy repatriation work. We think there is a lot of work that we could build on across the three nations, if not the four nations.
George Burgess: The Scottish Government’s approach through the “Stability and Simplicity” consultation is that, for the period from now until 2024, we will essentially retain the features of the current CAP system with some scope for simplification, improvement and piloting. Beyond that, we are open to looking at a more radical reform of the policy. That is the approach we are taking through our future policy group, which includes representatives from the farming industry, food production and environmental groups, so that is the forum for considering the longer-term changes in Scotland. Whether it retains area-based payments or moves to some other system, or a combination of the two, remains to be seen.
Jonnie Hall: I support that, in the sense that area-based payments are far too blunt and do not deliver the objectives that we all aspire to, not only in supporting agricultural incomes and productivity but in addressing challenges such as climate change, biodiversity and so on. The sooner we move to an approach that is more action- based than area-based, the better. However, we are in alignment with the Scottish Government in the sense that from 2021 onwards, we will be venturing into uncharted territory in many ways, given the changes in our operating environment, trading issues and other areas. The ability to retain direct income support that offers some stability in the interim is key. We are absolutely in alignment about change, but the key questions are about the pace of that change and how we manage it.
We note with interest what is happening in England and the Bill’s proposals for phasing out direct support. Of course, that would be inappropriate and inapplicable in a Scottish context, so we need the devolved capacity to do things differently. The direction of travel is very much the same and the landing space is probably the same as well, but we have to consider the pace of that change and recognise the challenges and issues that are particularly pertinent to Scottish agriculture.
George Burgess: No, I do not think so. The Agriculture (Retained EU Law and Data) (Scotland) Bill, which implements the stability and simplicity approach for the period between now and 2024, is currently before the Scottish Parliament. I have mentioned the future policy group, which aims to bring forward proposals by the summer of this year. That is the point when we will begin looking at the transition—things that may be piloted between now and 2024—so we are definitely not looking at a sharp cliff-edge transition in 2024.
Hopefully within that time period, we will gain a clearer understanding of our trading regime with Europe and the rest of the world. At the moment, it is frankly quite hard to work out what we should be doing with sectors such as sheepmeat, given that we do not know what the situation with our largest export markets will be.
Jonnie Hall: A number of interests in Scotland have suggested that there should be a sunset clause in the piece of legislation that Mr Burgess has referred to, so that it comes to a definitive end in 2024. However, we would not agree with that, because it would potentially create a cliff edge where we would go off the stability elements that we have talked about and into the unknown. We want to avoid that; we need to be able to adjust to and reflect on the circumstances of the time, and it is right that the Scottish Government have the ability to do so under the legislation that is going through the Scottish Parliament.
Alan Clarke: It would be a disaster for the Scottish red meat industry. The Scots were pioneers of quality assurance. Scotland was the first country in the world to set up whole of life, whole of supply chain quality assurance, and that gives a unique selling point to our world-class products of Scotch beef PGI, Scotch lamb PGI and specially selected pork. For any diluted product to come to market and be able to compete directly—as far as I am concerned, that has no place on the supermarket shelves.
George Burgess: I suspect you will find a very large measure of agreement at this table. The Scottish Government are very concerned at the prospect that future trade agreements could allow for a dilution of standards.
Jonnie Hall: It is also worth adding that the produce of Scotland—commodities is the wrong word—is not about, “Stack it high, sell it low.” We are not going to compete on world markets. We are not a volume producer. We are based on the authenticity and the provenance of our product, and the welfare standards and environmental standards behind that. If we expose Scottish agriculture to cheaper imports of substandard production methods and so on, we will blow large sections of Scottish agriculture out of the water. That will have significant impacts on the agricultural industry itself, but also, more importantly, on the wider issues around rural communities and the environment and habitats that Scottish agriculture underpins with its extensive grazing systems and so on.
Jonnie Hall: It is quite clear, in many ways, in the sense that the development and delivery of agricultural schemes and policy, in terms of what outcomes we want to achieve from managing our land in an agricultural sense, should absolutely be devolved, and is today. However, when you are looking at the operation of the internal UK market, we need to be able to operate to the same rules in a very transparent and open way across the United Kingdom.
Our worry and concern is that a lot of the discussions from outside of the Government appear to be about common frameworks, but we are unsighted on that. We are not seeing what common frameworks might look like. More important to me is the governance of those common frameworks going forward. Like or loathe the European Commission, at least it acted as some sort of referee when it came to compliance with regulation, standards and so on across member states and within the UK. If we are going to preserve the internal UK market, as Alan Clarke has pointed out is so important to Scottish agriculture, we need to ensure that we are all playing to the same rulebook on a whole range of issues. We are unsighted on an awful lot of that. We are still trying to flush out of Governments—plural—the actions and discussions that are going on.
I am sorry to interrupt the hon. Lady. We are halfway through and a number of Members want to ask questions, so I would be grateful if you could be short and precise.
Certainly. Mr Hall, your counterparts in Wales are happy with the pace at which the Welsh Government are bringing forward their equivalent Agriculture Bill. Are you content with the pace of the Scottish Government?
Jonnie Hall: If anything, we would like the pace to be a wee bit quicker. As I said earlier, we recognise that we are all venturing into an unknown world, in terms of the operating environment in which we will find ourselves, so it is probably more pragmatic not to give ourselves distinct deadlines. I mentioned the proposal for a sunset clause in the current legislation, which might suggest a deadline for new policy to be put in place for the longer term. We do not want to be a hostage to fortune on that. Certain sectors of Scottish agriculture might find it particularly bumpy in 2021, 2022 and possibly 2023. We want to see change happen sooner rather than later, but let us not push ourselves into a situation where we must accept change but that change does not take us in the right direction.
Jonnie Hall: We have had a beef calf payment since 2005 under the CAP. There are strict rules on how much money can be spent on that. It is about how important the suckler herd is to the socioeconomic fabric of rural Scotland. It certainly has not driven production, because suckler cow numbers have continued to decline over that period. If anything, it has slowed the decline down, so I would not call it a production support. It recognises the additional cost of suckler production in our hills, in particular, and therefore it is a very important piece of the policy toolkit. It enables the retention of suckler beef in Scotland, and that has significant implications further downstream and into the supply chain, as I am sure Alan Clarke would agree.
Alan Clarke: Absolutely.
Jonnie Hall: In our evidence we cite a number of areas. If you look at the Scottish Bill going through the Scottish Parliament and the Bill that you are considering now, there are clear overlaps, not just on animal traceability issues but marketing standards and other things. Many of those issues are devolved, but our concern goes back to the operation of the internal UK market. It is quite right that those things are devolved, but how do we ensure that there is consistency in application of those devolved issues across the United Kingdom? If there is not consistency, there has to be at least co-ordination of those things. It is right that the capacities are devolved. It is right that the Scottish Bill is doing what it does and the UK Bill does what it does, but it is about where those things might rub together to create problems in the UK internal market. There are a number of examples in there. [Interruption.] I am not saying that it will happen, but we need to have consistency if not co-ordination across the UK.
George Burgess: From the Scottish Government’s perspective, the Bill is something of a curate’s egg. The provisions that we like include the red meat levy provision, which we played a large part in developing at the outset. We very much welcome that, and we would like to see a commitment from the UK Government to its swift implementation.
Other provisions in the Bill on food security and fertilisers make a great deal of sense, but we have some difficulties with others, including the livestock information provision, which has already been mentioned. Again, the concern is really about governance and the appropriate role of the Scottish, Welsh and Northern Ireland Governments.
Similarly, the organics clause to some extent recognises devolved competences, but we are concerned about the power that is given to the Secretary of State to act in devolved areas without seeking the consent of the Scottish Parliament. Other concerns of long standing from the previous Bill relate to producer organisations, the World Trade Organisation agreement on agriculture, and fair dealing in supply chains, where we have a very different view on devolved competence from DEFRA.
Alan Clarke: I will pick two, Deidre, because I am conscious of time. In relation to the LIP system that we talked about, I think there has always been a history, if there has ever been a disease breakout, that everybody has worked extremely well together and come together and shared all the information. I think it is important that that is retained and that anything that is developed in England must read across to the rest of the UK. ScotEID, again, has been leading the way on that in Scotland. There must be those links. I know the meetings happen regularly every month with the devolved associations and the developers of it, but the mechanism that George talked about is one to consider.
The second issue is levy repatriation. I have been working very closely with AHDB and HCC towards getting a scheme of operation, which can be put to Ministers, showing what the long-term solution for levy repatriation would look like. We have identified, using that scheme, the numbers involved. It would mean that every year, £1.2 million of producer levy that is currently trapped in England would come back to Scotland, and £1.1 million of Welsh levy currently trapped in England would come back to Scotland—to Wales. Apologies—Wyn will not forgive me for that one. Essentially, the scheme has been agreed by the three levy bodies. It has now gone to each of the boards, and we hope to be in a position to put that to the Ministers in a short period of time.
Behind the scenes, we have been looking at the interim solution of the ring-fenced fund—the £2 million that has been ring-fenced for the benefit of levy payers in England, Wales and Scotland. We hope to make an announcement in the next few weeks on greater working relationships between the three levy bodies. This gives us a really good opportunity. We would like to see a date put into the Agriculture Bill to say when the legislation must be passed and the scheme be in operation by. The three levy bodies are working to a date of 1 April 2021 for a long-term solution to be in place, meaning that this is the last operational year of the ring-fenced fund that we will be coming into in April. It would be nice to have that enshrined in law.
Jonnie Hall: First, I do not think the likes of game—pheasant, grouse and, indeed, wild deer, because we have farmed deer as well—should be governed as agricultural activity. The husbandry is not the same. They are wild animals. The habitat may be managed in their interests, but nevertheless they are not livestock that are bought, sold and managed in the same way as cattle, sheep, pigs and so on, so I do not see the benefit of that.
I do see, particularly in the Scottish context, the benefits of multiple land use in the same vicinity—the same land—such as having grouse moor management and managing wild deer populations in the interests of conservation, as much as in the interests of stalking and venison, alongside extensive grazing systems for the delivery of key habitats. That is one thing, but we will also be thinking increasingly about the preservation and restoration of our peatlands in the effort to tackle climate change. Grazing management will become a more fundamental issue—and extensive grazing management in Scotland—specifically for its public benefits and public good delivery, rather than just the production of an agricultural product.
That debate is an important one, but at this moment in time I do not view those things as agricultural activities. They can be supported through other means, because they are essentially environmental delivery mechanisms as well.
Jonnie Hall: Again, at the risk of repeating myself, the preservation of the internal UK market is vital to the interests of Scottish agriculture. Alan Clarke mentioned some statistics about red meat. Our most important market is the rest of the UK, but we want to grow markets beyond that. I have often referred to the spending power within the M25, where we are sitting right now, as our bread and butter. That remains key, so we are very mindful of anything that rubs against the free flow of not just finished agricultural produce, but livestock. If I were a beef producer in the Scottish borders and wanted to buy a bull from Northumberland, I would not think it a smart move to operate different animal traceability systems and have all sorts of checks and balances at Berwick. In theory, that could be the outcome if we do not get these pieces of legislation to align.
Jonnie Hall: I do not think it is a huge deal for produce leaving Scotland and going to Northern Ireland, but it is a very big issue for Northern Irish colleagues, who obviously want to access markets in GB—the rest of the UK. That is a real conundrum, in the sense that regulatory alignment with the EU will clearly be a vital issue on the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic. If that has implications for regulatory alignment with the rest of the UK and the EU, I can foresee lots of headaches and issues with that.
From what I see, we are moving more and more towards the potential of triangular trading agreements between ourselves, the EU and non-EU countries—for example, those in North America. There clearly has to be some sort of tension point at some level, because the UK Government have made it clear that there will not be regulatory alignment with the EU, although there will be equivalence—whatever that might mean—in order to secure deals with non-EU countries. That puts in doubt or jeopardy our potential to trade both with the EU and with other countries at the same time. That is a major concern for us.
I call Danny Kruger, and this will have to be the last question.
Jonnie Hall: I think it is a very important point for the future direction of agricultural policy anywhere. I would say at the outset that blunt area payments reflect neither activity nor outcomes; they are simply a ticket to receive an income by declaring an area of land and doing some compliance. We really need to work on a system that recognises the actions that deliver an outcome; you then pay for the actions that deliver the outcomes you require. If it were exclusively about delivering outcomes, that is a very risky situation for farmers and crofters in Scotland. We probably need a combination of both systems, and we are piloting various things in Scotland—for example, an outcome-based approach to agri-environment in different parts of the country.
It is about actions on climate change and so forth. How do we encourage more efficient production systems, soil management and extensive grazing systems? That is within the gift of the farmer or crofter. What is not in their gift is the precise outcome that we get from that. We might think that we will get the right outcome, but we do not 100% know. There are lots of forces at play in agricultural land management, and the risks need to be managed carefully. The key thing is to move away from area-based payments in the first place, with actions then delivering the outcomes and objectives that you want.
Order. I am afraid that brings us to the end of this panel. On behalf of the Committee, I thank the witnesses for coming along this afternoon.
Examination of Witness
George Monbiot gave evidence.
We will now hear evidence from George Monbiot. Welcome to the Committee. This panel will finish at 3 pm. Would you introduce yourself, please?
George Monbiot: Thank you. I am an environmental campaigner and journalist.
I suppose it’s down to me?
Yes. The Minister has gone to see the Prime Minister.
George Monbiot: I think it really important to tighten the definition and to stick with, basically, the classical definition of non-rivalrous and non-excludable. There is potential for slippage within the wording of the Bill, for example into food production that does not fit the definition. We should basically also be funding public goods that are additional and which are not going to be delivered anyway.
We should be very careful not to use subsidies as a substitute for regulation. There is a real danger in saying, “We will put all this on a voluntary basis and we will pay people to do the right thing,” rather than saying, “You may not do the wrong thing.” I feel that there have already been a lot of failures in monitoring and enforcement of cross-compliance under the current subsidy regime. If we are not careful, we could see those failures become a lot worse.
George Monbiot: One of my aims would be to reduce the area of land used for agriculture. All agriculture is a radical simplification of ecosystems, until you get to the point at which it is so extensive that it is not really agriculture. The Knepp Castle Estate, for example, is a wonderful example of rewilding, but I worked out that if we were to universalise that across much of the UK, we would need to cut our meat consumption by about 99.5%—that is not a great example of agriculture. Until you get to that level of extensification, you are really removing huge numbers of species and a huge amount of potential carbon storage that would otherwise be there.
In this country, we suffer grievously from what I call “agricultural sprawl”—large areas of land used to produce small amounts of food. It gets to the point at which, for instance, sheep farming in the uplands, according to my estimates, occupies roughly 4 million hectares—almost as much land as all our arable and horticultural production put together—yet produces roughly 1% of our food by calories and roughly 2% by protein. That is a remarkably wasteful use of land, which could be much better used for carbon storage through regeneration and rewilding, and for the great resuscitation of ecosystems and the recovery of our very put-upon wild species.
George Monbiot: That is a very good question. The Bill discusses both natural heritage and cultural heritage. Both are very important values and neither should be dismissed, but there is an assumption in a great deal of rural thinking in Britain that they are one and the same. We have to acknowledge that they are often in direct conflict. Maintaining sheep on the land is highly damaging to ecosystems, but getting rid of sheep farmers can be highly damaging to local cultures and languages. We have to see that a balance should be struck.
We have so often fudged the issue, the classic example being the world heritage bid in the Lake district, where they were assumed to be one and the same. It is always resolved in favour of farming, because farming is assumed to be good for ecosystems, but in the great majority of cases it is not—the best thing to do for an ecosystem is to withdraw farming from it. But because we do not acknowledge that there is a conflict, we do not produce a balance that ever favours wildlife.
“farming is no longer essential to human survival”.
In contradiction to what the Soil Association told us this morning—that we should have more mixed farming and more livestock, allowing soils to be improved by the use of natural manures—you suggest that we should abandon livestock production, particularly on the uplands, and plant trees and rewild large areas of our country. Is that a correct appraisal?
George Monbiot: That is broadly correct. One thing to say is that in the uplands there is almost no mixed farming. In fact, it would be very hard for mixed farming to be established in the uplands, which are very unsuitable on the whole for arable. In the lowlands, if we were to reintroduce mixed farming, at the microlevel that could be a very good thing by comparison to the arable deserts of East Anglia, but we would see a major decline in total yield. There is very little research on what that decline would be, but everyone can more or less accept that we will see that decline.
The global conundrum we are in is that roughly half the global population is dependent on NPK, to put it crudely, and certainly on nitrogen and other artificial fertilisers. If we were to take those out of the system, we would have mass starvation—huge numbers of people would die. However, we are aware that applications of N, P and K and others are causing global disaster: they contribute significantly to climate breakdown, soil loss, downstream pollution, air pollution and a whole load of other issues. We cannot live with it and cannot live without it. We are in an astonishing and very difficult conundrum. If we were to switch—as the Soil Association recommends and as my instincts would tell us to do—to mixed rotation or organic farming, we would not be able to produce enough food. It is as simple as that.
How do we get out of that conundrum? I see some hope in factory-produced food—microbial protein and cultured meat. That could be the only way of reconciling environmental needs of future generations and the rest of life on Earth with the need to feed people alive today and in future. We need to find ways of feeding the planet without devouring it. That could be the way.
George Monbiot: I do not know whether this would fit in the remit of the Bill, but I would certainly favour banning driven grouse shooting, which is a major cause of peatland erosion. I would look at the strongest possible measures we could introduce for the restoration of blanket bogs. I would, at the very least, commission new research into the impact of agriculture on peatlands, and whether we are better off without agriculture on peatlands in terms of the carbon budget.
There is a paper in Food Policy by Durk Nijdam that points out the extraordinary levels of carbon opportunity cost on Welsh farms with high organic soils. He talks in some cases of 640 kg of carbon per kilogram of lamb protein, as a result of the lost opportunity to protect those organic soils, which is a result of farming continuing there. It would be far better in carbon terms not to farm soils, if his research is replicable.
George Monbiot: There are a lot of things we need to save ourselves from at the moment, and the most urgent is climate breakdown and ecological breakdown. Huge tracts of this land are scarcely feeding us at all. There are very large areas of land where you have one sheep per hectare, per 2 hectares or, in some places, per 5 hectares. That is not producing food in any appreciable amount, yet that land could be used to draw down large amounts of carbon, to stop the sixth great extinction in its tracks, for the restoration of wildlife and ecosystems, or to prevent flooding. There is a whole load of ecological goods—public goods—that that land could be delivering, but it is not currently delivering them, because it is producing tiny amounts of food instead. We are probably all against urban sprawl and believe it is a bad thing because it takes up huge amounts of land while delivering not many services for the people who live in a sprawling city. We should be equally concerned about agricultural sprawl, which takes up far more land.
George Monbiot: I would characterise the Peak park as an ecological disaster area. It is remarkable how little wildlife there is. You can walk all day and see just a handful of birds; I will see more in a suburban garden. We need a completely different approach to managing land like that.
What you can tell the farmers is, “Let’s pay you to do something completely different, such as restoration, rewilding, bringing back the missing species or bringing back the trees.” Where are the trees above around 200 metres in the Peak district and, indeed, most of the uplands of Britain? They simply are not there. This is a disaster. Anyone who visits from another country—someone from Brazil or Indonesia, my friends, tropical forest ecologists—says, “What’s happened here?” They see these places we call our national parks and say, “How can you call that a national park? It’s a sheep ranch.”
By all means let us keep people on the land, but let us use public money to pay them to do something completely different. Let us face it: there would not be any hill farming in this country without public money. It is a loss-making exercise. If we, the public, are going to pay for it, I think we, the public, have a right to determine what we are paying for. We should be paying for public goods, not public harms.
George Monbiot: I think this should be the perspective through which we start to see everything. This is the greatest crisis humanity has ever faced: the breakdown of our life-support systems. The Governments that will be judged favourably by future generations are those that put that issue front and centre. Other things are subsidiary to our survival. It is imperative that we should start favouring a low-carbon diet and use public policy to disfavour a high-carbon diet. Whether through farm subsidies—I think that does play a role—or meat taxes, which I think could also play a role, we should find all the instruments possible to steer and encourage people to reduce the environmental impacts of their diets.
The most important metric here is what scientists call carbon opportunity costs, which is basically, “What could you be doing on that land if you weren’t doing this?” If, for instance, you are producing beef or lamb on this piece of land, what is the carbon opportunity cost of that? What would be the carbon storage if, instead, trees and wild habitats were allowed to return? There has been some new research just published, or a new compilation of research, on Our World in Data showing that when you look at the carbon opportunity costs, those of beef and lamb are massively greater than those of anything else we eat. It is really, really huge. Even when you take food miles into account, they are tiny by comparison to those carbon costs, and that is what we should focus on.
George Monbiot: It should certainly not be linked to the public goods agenda; it should not be seen as a public good.
My next question is this: do you agree that a grass-fed cattle herd on open pasture in Wiltshire has a net positive effect in terms of carbon capture? I appreciate that you have an argument about opportunity costs—missed opportunities from grazing—but the terrible carbon impact of beef is because of intensively farmed, closely packed cattle—
George Monbiot: No, that is not true at all.
George Monbiot: No, that is simply not true. That claim has been made many times, and it is now basically reaching the level of climate denial—climate science denial—because it is so far removed from what the science base actually tells us.
I can pass the papers on to you if you wish. There has been a meta-study done by the Food Climate Research Network that looked at those claims. It investigated 300 sources and found that in none of the cases that it looked at was carbon sequestration in the soil under pasture compensating for carbon losses. The highest level of compensation was 20% to 60% of the overall carbon losses; there is a net loss in every case. The extensive grazing systems also have a higher net loss and a higher carbon opportunity cost than even the intensive grain-fed systems.
There is a paper by Balmford et al in Nature, I believe. There is another one by Blomqvist et al—I think it is in Science of the Total Environment. They show that, paradoxically—unexpectedly, perhaps—intensive systems per kilo of beef produced are less carbon-damaging than extensive systems per kilo, and that is simply because of the amount of land that they occupy.
George Monbiot: I would see them as ecological restorers—people who have a different but very rich relationship with the land, bringing back wildlife and ecosystems. We would hopefully see a constant racking-up of ambition as time goes by.
It is hard to universalise it, but there is now quite a big literature on nature-based economies, showing that, certainly in some circumstances, they can employ a lot more people than farm-based economies, even in quite fertile areas. For instance, I was at Gelderse Poort in the Netherlands last year, in an area that was previously dairy and maize farms. For the purposes of creating more room for the river, the dykes were taken a mile or so back from the river and the land was rewilded. The farmers were saying there would be a loss of employment. In fact, it turns out that there was an increase of between five and six times the total employment as a result of the tourists who have come in to see the wildlife, the bed and breakfasts, the cafes and the rest of the things associated with that. The farmers have done very well out of it.
I do not know the answer to whether we can replicate that everywhere, but we should be urgently investigating other new rural economies based around the restoration of wildlife and nature. Given that we are competing here with a loss-making economy—an economy where the farmers would make more money if they took the subsidy and stopped farming—it is not a very steep competition that we have to win if we are to show that nature-based economies are more productive in terms of employment and income.
George Monbiot: Yes, how did nature survive before humans came along? It is extraordinary, this idea of stewardship and dominion—this idea that humankind has to intervene to protect wildlife and ecosystems. We do not. We can do a lot to encourage the protection and to kick-start things, and we will always need a role as rangers to ensure that there are not too many conflicts between people and ecosystems. However, the idea that we are necessary to create healthy soils and healthy ecosystems—the best thing we can do in the great majority of cases is to remove extractive economies from the land and to let ecosystems recover. We need to bring back missing species, to take down fences, to kick-start woodland in places where there is not a seedbank left and stuff like that, but we need very little human intervention to get a healthy ecosystem going. While farmers are absolutely right to say that they need a healthy ecosystem to sustain their farming, we do not need farming to sustain a healthy ecosystem.
George Monbiot: I think it would be a clear distinction between the additionality that public payments for public goods could produce and the regulatory environment. I am not skilled in framing policy, but basically we need to lay down a distinction between, “Here is the list of things that you as a steward of the land are expected to do. That will be a matter of regulation with monitoring and enforcement. For most of those things, you will not get paid,” and, “Here are the additional things that are not being done anyway, for which you will be paid if you do them.” Quite how you draft it to deliver that, I am not sure. Is that a clear enough answer?
In terms of those things that you would have them do, are these elements of rewilding or some form of carbon—
George Monbiot: Rewilding, carbon storage, watershed restoration—there is a whole series of additional ecological interventions that you could consider that would clearly fit the notion of public goods, but I worry when I see things like, “Animal welfare will attract public payments.” Surely animal welfare should be something that we legislate for. Hopefully we legislate for ever higher animal welfare standards.
George Monbiot: It can be both. It can be highly productive in producing a handful of crop species and deserted in terms of wildlife. There are large areas of arable land, particularly in East Anglia, where there is little wildlife. We see a lot of nitrate pollution, soil erosion and water pollution. It is not in a good ecological state, even though, thanks to lashings of NPK and lots of pesticides, we are producing a lot of food there.
We must recognise that what is great on one metric is not so great on another. The attempt to pretend that they are one and the same—that agriculture is good for ecosystems and that the more we have, the better it will be for ecosystems—clouds this whole debate. There is an inherent conflict between an extractive economy, which simplifies ecosystems, and the complex, rich ecosystems, with food webs that are both wide and deep, which an ecologist like me wants to see.
George Monbiot: I am afraid I have not seen changes commensurate with the declaration of a climate emergency. This should be front and centre. An emergency is an emergency. We should be maximising mitigation and absorption of carbon from the atmosphere. The Paris agreement asks us for the greatest possible ambition; we do not see that in the Agriculture Bill.
George Monbiot: The public goods agenda is something useful that we can build on. It is a massive improvement on the common agricultural policy, but it must be much more explicit about what public goods are. Carbon storage, as a metric, must run throughout it like a stick of rock, but also ecological restoration—we do not want to make it just about carbon. We want to maximise the recovery of wildlife and ecosystems, which are in such a dire state in this country.
It must be recognised that the ecological difference between farming and not farming, particularly in the uplands, is far greater than the ecological difference between, say, BPS sheep farming and HLS sheep farming, which is very small in ecological terms. Having a cessation of farming in those areas, bringing back many of the missing species and having an ecosystem dominated by trees and other thick vegetation would be massively better, in terms of both carbon and ecology, than a modification of farming in those places.
A very brief question from Theo Clarke.
George Monbiot: As I say, we should distinguish between environmental improvements and not doing harm. I do not think we should be offering payments for not beating up old ladies. That is the way I see it. Lots of people do not do bad things in society, but they do not get paid for refraining from doing bad things. Keeping soil on your land should be a regulatory requirement. We should not have to pay people to do that; we should say, “You are not allowed to destroy our natural heritage in that way.” But we should pay for bringing in ecosystems that do not currently exist.
Order. That brings us to the end of this session. On behalf of the Committee, I thank you for your evidence. I apologise to those members of the Committee who would have liked to ask questions. You have answered more questions per minute in half an hour than anybody else. Thank you very much.
Examination of Witness
Professor Bill Keevil gave evidence.
We will now hear oral evidence from Professor Bill Keevil from the University of Southampton. We have until 3.30 pm. Will you introduce yourself, please?
Professor Keevil: Good afternoon. I am Professor Bill Keevil, professor of environmental healthcare. I head the microbiology group at the University of Southampton.
Professor Keevil: To my mind, food security is the supply of wholesome, nutritious, safe food. Within that the key issue is safety. There has been a lot of discussion this afternoon about whether the UK can provide its own food. If it does not, we have to rely on imports. What is the veracity of checking the safety of those imports?
We made a short written submission to the national food survey—it may have been circulated to you—in which we talked about the microbiological safety of food, particularly from the processing point of view. It deals in particular with the chlorination of food, which has become a very contentious issue in how the UK sees its future trading relationship with countries that use that practice. Currently, the UK follows EU law, with the standing position being that they dislike chlorinating food. Their perspective is not that chlorination poses a toxic chemical risk if you ingest the food; they are more concerned about animal husbandry. As a microbiologist, I would go further and ask the question that most people have ignored until now: does chlorine actually work? Our published research shows that, in fact, it does not.
For more than 100 years, we have relied on the gold standard of examining a sample from patients, the environment or food by culturing it and growing samples in a Petri dish on a nutritious agar medium. If anything grows, something is still alive; if nothing grows, by that definition, everything must be dead. Our research and that of other groups around the world shows that that is not true; it tells us that the current methods of analysis, which help us set the standards, are not rigorous enough. We have to use modern molecular and biochemical methods, which are available, but which, by and large, have not been adopted so far.
Professor Keevil: As you rightly say, when we look at the data, depending on the source, it can be difficult to interpret because of the way it is recovered. For example, in the USA, they report on infections, some of which are assumed from the evidence they have available. If you look at the reporting of the numbers of pathogens in American produce, such as poultry, they report it in terms of the answer to the question, “Does the food contain more than”—for example—“400 counts of a pathogen per gram of food?” In the UK, the Food Standards Agency reports in terms of “low”, “medium” or “high”. National surveys such as sampling from supermarkets, for example, show that 50% of poultry have very low numbers of pathogens such as a salmonella; only about 5% or 6% have food samples with over 1,000 counts of a pathogen. By those criteria, UK foods appear to be safer—but, I must stress, according to those criteria.
As I say in the written evidence, we now have this vexed question of viable but non-culturable—VBNC—bacteria. When looking at some of the published data, it is very difficult to take that into account, but the work that we and other labs have done is now telling us that we cannot ignore it. We have published our work on chlorine treatment, but we have also looked at what happens when you stress a pathogen such as listeria by depriving it of nutrients. For example, in a factory where you are washing down with tap water, the listeria can still survive, and in those conditions it can become this VBNC form. If all you are doing is regular swabbing and then reporting, you could say, “Our factory is clear of listeria.” In fact, if we used the more modern methods, that might be found to be not true.
We are really talking not just about standards now, but the standards we should adopt in the future, both in the UK and in what we would expect other countries to adopt if we are going to import food from them.
Professor Keevil: As you rightly to point out, it is very complex. We have to talk about the food chain, but let us look at the route which is the primary source of pathogen ingress into the food chain. To take the case of poultry, one of the issues is that some countries, including America, they have intensive rearing of poultry; they also have cattle feed lots, where animals are raised and fed in a dense community. In the UK and Europe, our husbandry standards appear to be better, poultry are reared in less intensive conditions and we do not have cattle in feed lots like the Americans do, so the animals have more space, they appear to be healthier and, from what we have seen so far, they have reduced numbers of pathogens at that stage.
Of course, you are quite correct that every step in the food chain is a potential source of contamination. If we use lorries, provided that those lorries are properly cleaned and decontaminated, that should not be an issue. When food is produced for restaurants, if the staff adopt good hygiene, they should not transmit pathogens to the customers—that has been well documented. The supermarkets are very responsible; they have a reputation to maintain—they do not want to be seen as the supermarket that poisons their customers—so they maintain very high standards.
Professor Keevil: That is a tough question, partly because all the time we are seeing pathogens emerging. For example, we have E. coli 0157, which not even been heard of 30 years ago. We have Cryptosporidium, which had not been heard of 25 years ago. We are being presented with new challenges all the time. If we look at the more conventional pathogens, however, such as salmonella, if anything British farming is doing a good job. Salmonella-contaminated eggs have virtually been eliminated under that scheme, and the quality of the poultry sold by supermarkets appears to be a lot better. These are good things.
Professor Keevil: The previous speaker was very concerned about the carbon footprint, and he rightly commented that the world needs NPK. The UK, if it needs NPK, has got to import it, and that means a very high carbon footprint from shipping, so that is in a way counter-intuitive.
For hundreds of years, the UK has been very good at crop rotation and the recycling of animal and human wastes. My research team has previously done work for DEFRA and the Food Standards Agency, looking at how safe composted animal manures and treated human wastes are. Our research shows that if they are treated properly, they can be recycled safely to land. That is a valuable source of NPK.
In terms of ecosystems and services, we are looking for balance and harmony. If anything, I would support more the view of the Soil Association. I think we can live in harmony, but we need to get that balance. For example, there has been a lot of concern about the availability of bees to fertilise plants. If everything was converted over to woodland, would we have sufficient banks of wildflowers to support essential insects to maintain the ecosystem? The plant life in the UK needs it; certainly, agriculture needs it. We need that balance. I think there is a role for farming in the UK.
On the impact on the environment, we still have green pleasant lands, and when you speak to visitors who come to the UK, a lot of them comment as they fly in that it is a pleasure to see well-kept farmland alongside woods, which I think is a good thing.
Professor Keevil: Yes, it does. As a microbiologist, I support the safe production and supply of microbiologically safe food. One of the problems is that when we import food, there is a potential issue. If that means that that food is cheaper than what can be produced by UK farmers, the Bill must address that, because otherwise they could be at a financial disadvantage. The UK has always prided itself on quality, and I know that British farmers would like to maintain that reputation for quality. Perhaps the food they supply may be a little more expensive, but in a way that can be reassuring. If it means that the customer has to pay more, that is something that the Government have to look at within the Bill. When they talk about subsidies and remuneration, can it be facilitated that farmers who produce to the highest-quality standards are in some way remunerated for that?
Professor Keevil: A lot of it is price driven, not surprisingly. Certain countries say, “We are in a competitive economy, and we believe we can supply food safely for a lower cost.” That is what our research and that of others is starting to challenge.
In terms of global supply, we talk a lot now about international jet travel. For example, we can travel around the world in 12 hours or what have you, hence the current problems with coronavirus, but many people forget about migratory birds. We know that some birds fly thousands of miles north and south, east and west. They can bring disease with them. That is partly why we have the problem of emerging diseases that we must be conscious of for the future. We have had concerns, for example, with avian flu and DEFRA maintained high surveillance of the farms where avian flu had an impact, to ensure that it did not decimate the poultry industry in the UK.
Those are all issues that we will have to face. We do not live in a sterile world. We have mass migration of people and particularly of wild birds. We must allow for that in all our farming practices and ecosystems services. I maintain that good husbandry practice is the way forward. The previous speaker mentioned factory production, and I agree with him in that very good supply chains are now being established for vegan burgers, much of which is produced from bacteria and fungi. That is a good thing.
Vertical farming is starting to become more prevalent. That is the horticulture where crops such as salads are grown in an aquaculture-based system, and everything is stacked up. We are now seeing very large factories where they control the quality of the water, the lighting regime and so on. That seems to be a very safe, nutritious way to produce salads. In the winter the UK imports a lot of salads from the Mediterranean countries—we used to import a lot from Kenya, but I think that is reduced now. We used to import a lot from Florida and California, and that is a carbon footprint, but if we can do more vertical farming ourselves, particularly in the winter, that is a substitute. We can get this mix of what we might call modern biotechnology with more traditional farming.
Professor Keevil: To my mind, every five years should be the minimum frequency. That is because, as I have said, we are continually beset with emerging diseases and we have to be able to respond rapidly. The Food Standards Agency reports much more regularly than that, so in a way we already have inbuilt mechanisms to supply the information. It is true that the Bill says it should be every five years as a minimum, but I think DEFRA and the food standards agencies report more frequently. Whether that should be incorporated within the Bill is up for discussion, but we have good reporting.
That is what I would like to have your opinion on, because obviously five years is a long time. Do you have any thoughts on the timescale? Would you make a recommendation?
Professor Keevil: I would like to see it reported much more frequently, every year or every two years.
Professor Keevil: That is a good question, because you will get different metrics if you go to different sources. What we tried to do with those numbers was look at the annual reporting by the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta. You will find the information on their website. A lot of the agencies say, “Well, these are the numbers of actual reports that we have received,” for example, through people going to hospital, to their GP and so forth, and then they apply a multiplication factor for the numbers who could have been affected but for whom the signs of disease are much less—people who do not report that they have had any disease. A lot of the information is based on those types of numbers—for example, 14% of Americans do not report to a doctor to say they have had food poisoning—but they are extrapolated. As I say, you will get different metrics depending on your source. It could be that the figure in the UK is more than 1.5%, but I do not think it is anywhere near what the Americans have extrapolated.
Professor Keevil: As I said at the start, the issue is very complex because food security is not just about supply; it is about whether it is nutritious, wholesome and safe. You cannot separate one from the other, so we have to be aware of the microbiological safety of the food that is being produced and consumed. The work that we and others have done shows us that our current methods of assessing safety are not adequate. That has to be recognised. As a scientist, I would always say we need more research done; I sincerely believe we do in this particular case. Knowledge improves standards, and we have to adopt and enforce the highest standards. We need better research and continual reassessment of what we are being challenged with, and perhaps the Bill can reflect that.
It seems we have no more questions. Professor Keevil, on behalf of the Committee, I thank you for your time and answers this afternoon.
Examination of Witnesses
Diana Holland and Jyoti Fernandes gave evidence.
We will now hear oral evidence from Unite and the Landworkers’ Alliance. We have until 4 pm. Welcome. Would you introduce yourselves?
Diana Holland: I am Diana Holland, Unite’s assistant general secretary, with responsibility for food, drink and agriculture. We are the only union that represents agricultural workers directly, as the historical Agricultural Workers Union is part of Unite.
Jyoti Fernandes: I am Jyoti Fernandes. I am a farmer in Dorset and president of the Landworkers’ Alliance, which is a union for small and family farms, mixed farms, market gardeners and community supported farms.
Thank you. The acoustics in the room are poor, so it would be helpful if you raised your voice.
Diana Holland: The measures we were thinking about have previously been raised in a number of submissions: first, looking at the impact of the Bill on workers in agriculture, and secondly, looking specifically at the reinstatement of the protections of the Agricultural Wages Board, which currently exists, in some form, in Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales, but not in England.
Why do we think that is important? We do not think that agricultural workers are like every other worker; we think that they are different and their experiences are different. As a union with an incredibly long history of representing them, we speak from experience. They have a special place in the union, and we think that they should have a special place in the Agriculture Bill, too.
Right this moment, the director of labour market enforcement has a session going on to look specifically at the problems of wage theft and employment law non-compliance in agriculture. The Gangmasters and Labour Abuse Authority has had a licensing system in agriculture for 15 years, but it is still recognised as an area with a high level of exploitation and threat of exploitation. That is the background to this.
When the Agricultural Wages Board covered everywhere, there was a level of protection and information that is no longer available to us. Increasingly, you will find that statistics relating to agriculture have little stars by them and a note at the bottom saying, “The sample figures are too small.” That does not mean that there are no other workers to record; it means that they are not hitting any of the official ways of recording people. Increasingly, we find that people are employed in different ways, meaning that they are not recognised in the official statistics in the way they used to be. The Agricultural Wages Board provided a way of ensuring that all that information came to the forefront.
Finally, we have always argued that safe, healthy food and high-quality jobs go hand in hand. There is lots of evidence that where workers are badly treated, there is also an undercutting of food quality standards across the board. We see this as part of ensuring and protecting food standards, food security, supply chains and all the other issues in the Bill. They all have workers associated with them, and we think they should be included and recognised.
Diana Holland: There are a couple of ways. One would obviously be an additional clause that covered the impact on workers of those developments in agriculture and how the protections that exist in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland could also be applied to agricultural workers in England. On top of that, in the rules for agri-food imports, where we will be looking at future developments, we are extremely concerned, first, that there is a lessening of all standards and, secondly, that where food is concerned, while there may be some recognition of protections for food standards, and even of animal welfare, workers may be left out. It should all go together—food, environment, labour protections for everybody.
As I said, when we wrote to our rural and agricultural representatives to ask for examples of issues—I am aware it is anecdotal, but it is important—we found that there are still pressures to hide problems that agricultural workers face, because in small isolated communities personal relationships often extend over other areas and the employer may have other roles in the community that people feel could have an impact on their lives. There is pressure all the time not to speak out about problems that arise. Your accommodation is often tied to your job in some shape or form, whether that is on the horticultural or agricultural side of things. It is those kinds of pressures and those sorts of experiences that we think need to be included; otherwise there is a real danger that, as well as being wrong for the people concerned, they will undermine some of the other things that the Bill is trying to achieve.
Diana Holland: First, there is a bit of a dearth of information. We have been constantly asking for that to be specifically looked at. We have done some research ourselves, however. Not long after the board was abolished, within the first year or two years, we surveyed all our members who had been covered by it. We were really shocked, although perhaps not surprised, to find that a huge proportion had had no pay rise since the Agricultural Wages Board had been abolished. Those who had had a pay rise, the vast majority, had had no say or discussion over that pay rise—it had just been introduced.
The employers we have talked to in the sector have said that they would find it helpful to have a process that could be relied on and about which everybody has said, “We’ve come to a conclusion,” rather than the pressure of having to negotiate individually or to find that the pressure is on and to think about what is fair in the circumstances. There is also exploitation in the sector—I will not run away from that—but I am not saying that every single person is deliberately trying to exploit. Sometimes there are other pressures.
There was also some survey work done in 2017 that compared Wales with England. There was a suggestion that protections in Wales meant that there was a 6% higher rate of pay overall. As I say, again, these are often small samples and figures, and we need to look more. We have had a chance, however, to talk to the employers in Wales. Some of the evidence from the employer representatives has made us concerned that there are employers in the sector—who previously followed a system that has been abolished—who are not aware of their responsibilities and who saw the national minimum wage as a voluntary mechanism rather than an absolute requirement. That might seem impossible, but it is a reality that came out in the discussions and the evidence. We feel that where the Bill talks about public money for public goods, that should also include ensuring that the workers are treated decently.
The minimum wage does not cover all the additional things. Career progression was provided, relating it to the jobs and roles that people have, allowances for having a dog, overtime and sick pay rates. All those details were included, but they are not in the national minimum wage, which does not take into account the particular considerations that the Agricultural Wages Board does. But that does exist elsewhere. That has been a massive loss to those people, without any demonstrable gain to anybody.
Diana Holland: Can you explain what you mean by that? Do you mean in terms of the workforce?
In terms of farmers being at one end of the supply chain, dealing with much larger retailers and much longer, complex supply chains. Do you think the Bill gives them any further protection than they already have under the Groceries Code Adjudicator or the grocery supply code of practice? Do you think that the Bill will work well with existing policy measures?
Diana Holland: First of all, we really welcome the recognition that protection needs to be built in to the supply chain. However, we are concerned that there is not sufficient detail, and how it will work in practice needs to be fleshed out in more detail. In our experience, holding different stages in the supply chain to account is a very difficult thing to enforce. Often, when workers are at the end of that supply chain, they are the last people to be considered. Something that may have been very well intentioned at one end of that supply chain pushes enormous pressures at the other. If there are savings to be made, it would be on the amounts of money that are paid.
We want protections built in, so that part of enforcement along the supply chain would be to check that that is not happening, and that it is not a method of passing on pressures to cut standards and people’s pay. It is really important that it is in there, but we feel that there should be more detail. I have not identified any contradictions with other legislation, but when it comes to the detail, that would need to be taken into account.
Jyoti Fernandes: No, I do not think it gives more protection to farmers. This is a slightly different part of the Bill, and I had prepared to talk about it later. It needs to change from powers to duties, to assure farmers that the money will come through to support farmer incomes. We greatly agree with the thrust of the Bill, but it is quite scary that even though great programmes are being rolled out, such as the environmental land management schemes, there is no assurance that that will continue and that Government will give the budget to those programmes to help supplement farmer incomes in future. That is scary and it is worrying for our food supply. It would mean a lot if the Bill’s wording was changed from “may” to “must” give money, to ensure that we will be able to rely on some income to supplement producing the food that everybody needs.
Jyoti Fernandes: Our union represents all scales of farms: we are all agroecological farms, family farms and mixed farms. As smallholder farmers, this is something we are particularly interested in. We also represent a lot of horticulturalists, who grow fruit and veg, and it is possible to grow a lot of fruit and veg on a very small acreage.
To date, we have been really disadvantaged by the payment schemes that are out there. There is a 5-hectare threshold, which cuts people off from getting payments if they have less than 5 hectares. If someone has a large landholding that is used extensively for beef, they can get quite a lot of subsidy, but if they have less than 5 hectares and use it for intensive market gardening—providing the fresh fruit and veg that we need—they get nothing. That means that 85% of our membership have never received subsidies before. That puts us at a serious disadvantage, even though we as small farms provide a huge amount of public goods—we directly provide fresh food, the sorts of fresh fruit and veg that we need for healthier diets—to communities. In the transition around climate change, we need to eat more fruit and veg and less meat. That is the sort of thing that we can be in a position to do.
There is nothing in the Bill that specifically directs towards helping smaller farms, though the focus on public goods would enable us to do that, if we get the right schemes in place. We are working with DEFRA to try to ensure that the schemes it rolls out will benefit horticulture and fruit and veg. One amendment that we suggested was about affordable access to food. We would like to see some acknowledgment that agriculture is about producing food and that everyone needs food. While food itself might be a business like any other—bought, sold and traded—access to food is not. Having good, nutritious food available to everyone is something we strongly believe in.
If that was in the Bill, a lot of our farms, which provide a social outcome directly to consumers at an affordable price—from fresh fruit and veg, to milk and pasture-fed, free-range meat—could be enabled to develop those marketing mechanisms. That would help us out quite a lot. That means community supported agriculture, direct supply chain stuff and doorstep delivery of unpasteurised, raw, wholesome milk, or whatever it may be. That would enable those small businesses that work directly for our food supply in our local communities to get support. It would also support community farms that integrate social measures. They might, for example, have green gyms, work with horticultural therapy or bring people form disadvantaged backgrounds into the countryside to learn where their food comes from and join in that process. Food has a much wider remit than just being something that farmers gain an income from. A lot of us produce food because we believe it is important to our society.
Diana Holland: Obviously, all workers deserve overall protection. Many workers have additional forms of collective bargaining or representation through different structures. Agricultural workers in some areas are an example of an extremely fragmented and isolated group of workers; in other areas, there are big concentrations for small periods of time. The work is seasonal and there is insecurity.
The issues they have experienced over many years are well-documented. I think that singles them out to require more than the basic national minimum wage, working time regulations etc., to take account of the fact that people may have accommodation tied to their role, which could be their permanent home or temporary accommodation for a seasonal role, or that transport could be provided, which, in extreme circumstances, is used to keep people on site beyond the time that they should be there or is denied to them. Those kinds of things mean that there is intense pressure.
Diana Holland: They are particularly vulnerable to abuse. Therefore, it continues to be recognised that they need to be identified within labour market protection. In Wales, Northern Ireland and Scotland, they have additional protections to those that apply in England. We think that needs to be put right.
While, of course, at the time, in 2010, a number of things identified as red tape, burdens and so on were got rid of, there was general shock throughout the sector—across the board—that it could have been done like that to the Agricultural Wages Board, with a two-week consultation period, given that it had existed all that time and had all that experience. It needs to be put right.
Diana Holland: I would say so, yes. It has been done recently; obviously, the original legislation covered England and Wales, so extricating Wales and doing that separately has been done in recent times. My answer would be yes.
Jyoti Fernandes: In many ways, because our union works with workers across Europe, we think it is important that some workers can come over to other places, as long as they are respected and get decent wages and decent labour conditions, to work on larger agricultural units. By and large, we represent people who live in the UK who want to be able to produce and to farm and work on other landholdings as well. We do feel that more encouragement and support for the sector, so there did not need to be poor working conditions, there were decent wages, and fewer pesticides and fungicides were used, would encourage British workers to work on farms. We also feel that would encourage loads of independent smallholder market gardens, which can be quite intensive and could provide really good employment —and enjoyment in that employment. We would like to see a lot more encouragement for independent horticulture and British workers.
Diana Holland: When it existed, it was not any different, and it was fine in the sense that it operated. Whether everybody got what they were entitled to is another question; perhaps you are suggesting they did not. Certainly, we have worrying evidence of individuals being paid not in money but through provision of accommodation and so on. We got evidence—it was a terrible story—that an individual woman had worked for a long time on a farm and in all that time had never received anything, apart from the odd bit of what might be considered pocket money. She was extremely worried when the employer was in danger of stepping down from his responsibilities that nothing—no rights—would exist for her. I think that is evidence of the nature of the problems that workers in the sector face. I do not think it is a reason for not trying to do something about it. I think it is important that people receive recompense for what they are doing, and that needs to take account of the nature of agriculture. The Agricultural Wages Board does that by bringing together workers’ representatives, farmers’ and employers’ representatives and independent experts in a tripartite way, to make sure that that properly reflects what is really going on. The issues you raise would be discussed at the table, alongside the pressures and issues that I am raising and the official evidence gathered by the experts.
Jyoti Fernandes: We believe in smaller units, where you do not need to bring in loads of seasonal workers. With smaller-scale market gardens and horticultural units that pay well, you can attract British workers and will not need to bring in so many people from other countries in order to pick those crops. We see a flourishing, home-grown fruit industry, where you can bring in more people to do that kind of work.
That needs investment, access to land, grants for people to get into that kind of small-scale market gardening and horticultural units and to plant fruit trees into mixed farms, and training. It needs routes to market, which means processing facilities, so that you can make apple juices and that type of thing, and so that you can store those things, add value to them and get better value back on them. It needs distribution facilities within local market economies. That might be market facilities in town, online distribution services or co-operatives that try to process those fruits and get them to market, so that you get a good price for them. It needs all those sorts of investment in our national infrastructure in fruit, fruit processing and distribution.
Diana Holland: You are definitely right to be concerned about it. The important thing is that, where decent standards are protected and reinstated, they should apply to everybody. The original seasonal agricultural workers scheme was part of an educational opportunity for students. We worked very hard and gave evidence over many years to make sure that that was what it was. It should not be about workers coming in from other countries—because the sector cannot get people in this country to work for the terms and conditions and pay that it is offering—and then treating them extremely badly when they are here. As you say, it will not provide the security, the quality needed or the stability in the sector. It is very important. We want opportunities that are properly worked out. How fantastic it would be if we could make this sector one that people want to work in and one that they look for, rather than thinking it is somewhere they will be exploited.
There is a danger that, if we do not address those labour supply issues, the industry will struggle, and we will then inevitably be back to importing food from outside again.
Diana Holland: Exactly.
Jyoti Fernandes: I was going to bring up something really important to this whole scenario, which is the impact of trade. Basically, we are never going to get the conditions here where small and family farms can survive as independent businesses, or keep decent work opportunities on larger units, if you are undercut by cheaper produce from elsewhere. It just is not a possibility. The global marketplace can source cheap labour—slave labour—from all over the planet, and really exploit places with really low conditions. It is not just the trade standards: it is also the competition from very large multinational corporations in other countries—the huge farms in California or South America, which have loads of exploited labour, much higher levels of pesticide usage and multinational advertising campaigns that will blow any of our homegrown industries out of the water, unless we can get some control over that and have something in the Bill that allows for tariffs that stop that imported stuff, and standards and rules that do not allow our homegrown industries to be undercut.
This is a very exciting Agriculture Bill. Everything about it that is moving towards environmentally friendly farming, agroecological farming and all of that is tremendously exciting. We could have one of the best homegrown food supplies in Europe, and we could really pioneer something very special and really support small and family farms, independent businesses and workers being treated decently, but not if we are undercut by cheap imports. That must be looked at very carefully, otherwise all the good work and the good will of this Bill will be undone.
If there are no more questions, I thank the witnesses on behalf of the Committee.
Examination of Witnesses
Vicki Hird, Dr Nick Palmer and James West gave evidence.
We will now hear oral evidence from Sustain and Compassion in World Farming. We have until 4.30 pm. I welcome the witnesses and would ask them to introduce themselves for the record.
Dr Palmer: I am Nick Palmer. I am the head of Compassion in World Farming UK. Compassion is the largest animal welfare charity globally, and we have developed our interests to also look at the environment surrounding animal welfare issues. In the mists of pre-history, I was the Member for Broxtowe for 13 years.
James West: I am James West, the senior policy manager at Compassion in World Farming—I work with Nick.
Vicki Hird: I am Vicki Hird, farming campaign co-ordinator at Sustain, which is an alliance of over 100 non-governmental organisations and royal societies, including Compassion and many other people you have had as witnesses.
Dr Palmer: The Bill is a good basis, but it is a missed opportunity in the sense that it provides the basis for a variety of things that the Secretary of State may do, but it does not specify what the Secretary of State will do. In the current situation in particular, after Brexit, the farmers and everyone dealing with the industry need more certainty. This would really be an opportunity to pin down what we are prepared to do and what we are not prepared to do in terms of trade, support for the farming industry and a long-term strategy to ensure that we have a viable farming industry stretching into the future.
James West: I would add that it is important that the Bill is joined-up in its thinking, in as far as protection from potentially being undercut—as I am sure you have heard lots of times—as a result of trade agreements. That is fairly critical. That is not in the Bill. Added to that would be that you are then providing farmers with subsidies and grants to help them move to higher standards of production. We should also be looking at things such as method of production labelling—as Nick said, that it is a “may” in the Bill, rather than a “must”—so that consumers know what they are purchasing. We should also look at Government procurement policy, so that in addition to protecting farmers from what is coming into the country, you are also rewarding farmers for delivering higher standards and for protecting our animal welfare standards. Just on Government procurement, McDonald’s has better animal welfare procurement policies than the UK Government, which should not be the case, and the Bill could address that.
Vicki Hird: We were very pleased to see some of the changes in the Agriculture Bill. Overall, we are very positive about the public money for public goods approach and the financial support being listed. We were very pleased to see soil being included in that. We would like to see a stronger reference to agroecological whole-farm systems, because we think that is the way to ensure that you get the in-field changes, as well as the edge of field, wildlife and other nature outcomes that you see. We need the whole of the UK farming system to go towards an agroecological approach in whatever way they can. Those steps should be available through financial support.
We would also like to see, as Nick said, a lot of these things as duties, rather than powers. It seems incredible how much effort—I know, because I have been involved—DEFRA has put into the environmental land management scheme, when it could stop it all in a couple of years and pay a smaller amount of money and not follow through. As MPs, you should have that accountability for you on delivering ELMS.
Finally, I agree with Diana on the protection for workers. We are also pleased with clause 27, which concerns fair dealing. It has been enhanced to really protect farmers. We are grateful to DEFRA for making those changes and to George Eustice, who we welcome as our new Secretary of State. We would like to see that as a duty, because it is so important. It is absolutely vital that we get the protection for farmers in the supply chain. They do have that from retailers, but most farmers do not sell direct to retailers. They need good codes of conduct developed with the industry for every sector, probably starting with dairy.
Vicki Hird: Thank you for reminding me about the public health purpose. We think it would be very easy to insert it into the Bill. There are so many ways it is already designed to help, for instance with air pollution and with reducing exposure to plant protection products, which can be harmful. We think that saying that there is a public health purpose for agriculture would recognise what an important thing farmers do in providing us with healthy, safe food. It could help by showing that having animal health and welfare measures that help farmers to manage their stock and change their stocking patterns can reduce the reliance on antibiotics, which we know is an absolute global public good, in order to protect our medicinal antibiotics.
The other area is the huge need to boost our supply of fruit and veg, so that people can have access to closer-to-home, more affordable, fresh, sustainably produced fruit and vegetables. That is absolutely central to a healthier diet for the nation. To be able to say that we were doing that would be a benefit. As James was saying about procurement, we could be saying something about procurement and investing in healthier diets for our children in schools.
Vicki Hird: I think that would be very helpful. We designed a clause for the previous version of this Bill that mentioned that, along with exposure to pesticides for consumers, workers and the community, and other aspects of public health. There therefore is a clause available, if anybody wants to table it.
Antibiotic reduction is important. I know that the industry has already gone some way. It is doing a good job, but it needs to be supported in that, through animal health and welfare financial support, and through training, advice and demonstration. The Budget should definitely be strong enough and big enough to provide farmers with that kind of support, to take things in the direction of lower antibiotic use.
James West: The question was about subsidies, and bars on subsidies. We support the use of subsidies for delivering the public goods that are in the Bill. Again, we would like that to be a requirement rather than a “may”. Essentially, public money should deliver genuinely higher standards of welfare; it should not be for meeting the regulatory baseline or going marginally beyond it. If you are looking at the top line, you might consider such things as allowing animals to express their natural behaviour, access to pasture for dairy cows, and the provision of enrichment materials for pigs. Obviously, depending on which species you look at, there will be different requirements, but broadly speaking, they will be lower stocking densities, slower-growing breeds, if we are talking about meat chickens, and access to pasture outdoors.
You might also look at things that would disqualify someone from receiving an animal welfare payment. One of the things that Compassion works on is ending the live export of animals. From our point of view, if you are involved in the live export trade, you should probably not receive the public subsidy for good animal welfare. In the area of mutilations, going back to pigs, you have enrichment. In Germany, they provide a premium for pigs at slaughter when the pig gets to the slaughterhouse with an intact tail, because that means that you have almost certainly run a very good system. The amount of space, enrichment and so on that you will have given the pigs during the rearing process will have been such that you will not have needed to tail-dock the pig, as you might in more intensive systems. We have fairly detailed documents with what may or may not qualify you for a subsidy, but broadly speaking it is natural behaviours and space.
Dr Palmer: The absence of a clear percentage commitment regarding the amount of support that will be given for animal welfare purposes means that a degree of uncertainty remains, which is bad for the whole agricultural industry. A farmer needs to know that what amount of money is potentially available, so that they can try to work for it. With respect to the new Chancellor, we are unlikely to get an infinite amount of subsidy in the Budget, so it makes sense that the available money is used to help farmers to become among the best in the world, rather than to move marginally from a fairly low base to a slightly higher one.
In the long term, the future of British farming has to be at the top of the scale. If we try to race to the bottom, we will fail. The British farming industry will not succeed on that basis, so we should consider the areas where we can help farmers to move towards higher welfare—for instance, ending the use of farrowing crates. There is a one-off cost, which it is reasonable to help them with. Once they have moved away from that, there should not be an additional cost. They will then, in association with the better labelling scheme, be able to tell consumers that British farming has produced higher welfare, higher quality meat.
However, I noticed that the Compassion in World Farming website talks about ending “the horror” of factory farming. I just wondered if you felt that there were any farms in this country that that definition would apply to. You talked about housed livestock—for example, dairy cattle that are housed in winter. Do you think that is acceptable? Where do you set the bar in describing what British farmers are doing, perfectly legally, as “horror”?
Dr Palmer: When we are talking about horrific factory farming, we are talking about the caging of egg-laying hens, which is still one third of the total in Britain; we are talking about the use of farrowing crates, which keep the sow unable even to turn round for up to five weeks.
Dr Palmer: There are very well-established alternative methods. At the moment, British farming is 50:50—roughly 50% have moved away from farrowing crates and the other half have not. That is a record that is less good than some countries’, and really we should strive to be the best.
One can always argue about the exact wording, but I think that anyone familiar with the range of systems in British farming would agree that it ranges from the very good—where we can really be proud and tell the world that we are the world leader—to areas where the farmers themselves would say that they would like to do better but cannot afford the conversion costs. This is a classic example of a public good. I think the overwhelming majority of British consumers would be pleased to know that farmers were moving up the scale. Farmers themselves would like to, but they need assistance for the one-off transition costs.
This is not an area of huge controversy between us and the National Farmers Union and others. We are all pulling in the same direction, and we should use the opportunity of Brexit to try to make sure that we actually get to that point.
Dr Palmer: Having more local abattoirs is clearly desirable. It is a marginal business for many, and you cannot force people to set up a local abattoir, but I think there would be a great deal of cross-party and cross-industry support for the idea that it should be encouraged.
The problem with overseas shipment is partly the time involved, and you can get pre-weaned calves transported for over 100 hours. That is with pauses, but it is nevertheless a grim business and is really difficult to defend, and a lot of farmers will not defend it.
Also, there is the lack of control. It is very difficult, with the best will in the world, for DEFRA to say what will happen at all stages of a journey once a vehicle moves outside the UK. I used to be Parliamentary Private Secretary to a DEFRA Minister, and this was an issue we struggled with. Live exports is a very small part of the British farming industry, and we think it is one that should come to an end.
James West: I would add that people can take the journey length to be the time it takes to take the channel tunnel from Dover to Calais, for example, but we are talking about live exports going on a boat that is not really designed for sea crossing. The crossing from Ramsgate to Calais normally takes about six hours, so by the time you have got to Ramsgate and across to the other side, you are talking about a fairly lengthy journey time, which in most cases would probably get you to an abattoir in the UK.
Vicki Hird: I think it is welcome to have that in there. There is a case for making it more frequent, given that we are facing a climate and nature emergency that will threaten our supplies and production here and overseas. We should be building that into the review, in terms of anticipating how that will affect land use both here and overseas. That is currently not in the Bill, and it would be a welcome addition to recognise the sustainability factors that will increasingly come into play before the next five years are up. We already know that flooding is more frequent, and drought is affecting many parts of Africa, which supplies us with a lot of fruit and veg.
There is a case for more frequent reporting; it is a welcome element in the Bill, but as the previous speaker mentioned, we already do much of this food security assessment already, so it is a question of building on that and making it an integral part of the sustainability of our food system. [Applause.] May I congratulate George Eustice, our new Secretary of State? I will end there, on food security.
Dr Palmer: Yes, I see the problem. As in other areas of public subsidy, we have to start from where we are. Because we have the range of quality that I mentioned in response to the previous question, there are a lot of farmers who would genuinely like to raise their standards, but need assistance in doing so. I accept that there is an element of moral hazard in that, if someone already has superb standards, they may feel a bit irritated that someone else is being given money to come up to them.
Is that how it would work? That is the other thing. It is the same as with planting trees or improving soil health; there is a danger that, in a bid to use public money to encourage other people to do that, the people who were ahead of the curve are penalised.
Dr Palmer: I believe DEFRA envisages, which I think is right, two types of support. One is to assist with specific one-off costs—I gave the farrowing crate as an example—but the other is to reward people who are meeting a higher standard. To my mind, that must be linked to a good labelling scheme, because if we are spending public money to assist farmers to reach a higher standard, we should also be able to tell consumers about it, so that they can respond, in the same way that we have seen with eggs. When there was a choice between free-range and battery eggs, people migrated overwhelmingly to free range, to the point that it is now very difficult to get the lowest standard of egg in supermarkets. You are right that, over time, we will probably develop further ideas on how to give farm animals the best possible life, and that is right—we should not stay at the same level forever—but for the time being there is a lot to be done to reinforce the farmers who are striving to be the best.
If I may, Mr Stringer, I have a small supplementary. In Compassion’s written submission, you welcomed the Secretary of State’s ability to make regulations regarding farming method in relation to labelling. Could you elaborate on that, please?
James West: We submitted details to DEFRA a while ago. Essentially it would be different labels indicating the method of production. The range of methods of production would differ according to species, but in effect you would indicate whether it had been produced, say, intensively indoors versus extensively outdoors and everything in between. That would be on the packet, so when you go to the supermarket or shop you can see how the product was produced. As Nick was saying, with eggs that moved the market towards free-range eggs and away from caged egg sales—barn egg sales in the UK are low—to the extent that roughly half the supermarkets have phased out caged egg sales and the other half plan to do so by 2025.
It goes back to the point that you need to support the farmers in the subsidy scheme we introduce, but there also needs to be an outlet for them to show that they are delivering at a level that consumers may want. It does not mean that consumers have to buy it—they can see the stuff produced to a lower standard and still choose that—but at least they are informed. At the moment, it is really hard to find meat or dairy products labelled as to method of production. Possibly the only other one is outdoor-bred and outdoor-reared for pork; other than that, it is essentially free range/organic or you are in the dark. It would cover the whole spectrum.
Dr Palmer: That is also really important when you come to trade, because if we are to sign a free trade agreement with the United States or other countries, we really need to give our negotiators a clear steer on what we collectively are willing to see. If we have an evolving labelling scheme, we have a basis for doing that. As you know, international trade negotiations usually start from the point that each side says what their red lines are and what they cannot move on and the negotiations operate around those to see what is possible. We are keen to see specifications in the Bill on minimum standards for animal welfare—Ministers have said this many times—so that our negotiators can say to their American, Brazilian or other counterparts, “I’d love to help you, but I’m afraid I can’t because it is in the legislation.” That would give farmers and consumers the reassurance that we are absolutely not going to end up with British farming being undercut by what you vulgarly call cheap and nasty imports.
Vicki Hird: I think that goes for other aspects of food standards and production standards. I totally agree with Nick. It is very important that we see something in the Bill around trade—I am sure you have heard this a lot over the last week—so that we have a way to stop agri-food imports produced to lower standards of food, animal welfare and environmental production systems. I would add labour standards as well.
One of our members is supporting the idea of an 100% grass-fed label, because there is some confusion about grass-fed labels and claims being made. There is a very good Pasture-Fed Livestock Association producing animals with really strong environmental, as well as animal welfare, benefits. It is only fair that that should be recognised through a proper labelling scheme.
Vicki Hird: There is a balance to be struck. People are still going to eat meat. It is a highly nutritious product and there are people who want to eat it. Recognising that, we should be eating much less but better meat, produced here in ways that we can recognise, enforce and celebrate, alongside the rewilding that can go along with those animals.
Vicki Hird: There is a lot of science, and people pick the science they want to use. There are a lot of differences. You can go from one meter in one field, to another meter, and it can be a different carbon reading. We have to be careful with this and not throw the baby out with the bathwater. For instance, small-scale producers will not be able measure their carbon with expensive tools, so we need to make sure we are doing right but also supporting farmers for agroforesty, for rewilding with animals and for silvopasture, which is fantastic and can have big animal welfare gains. There is a spectrum that we need to recognise.
George has a particular approach and we do have a crisis ahead. We need to recognise that, but we take a less is better approach. We can envisage the Bill supporting farmers to deliver that. It does not include factory farms, I have to say.
Dr Palmer: I am not sure I fully answered your question regarding Compassion’s submission on labelling. This is an area where the international debate is moving very rapidly. France now has a very extensive scheme, pioneered by Carrefour and Casino, two of the big supermarket chains. Germany is proposing that the European Union as a whole looks at labelling, specifically for animal welfare. There are also schemes in Italy and Denmark. It is important that we do not fall behind the curve here. People are looking at us and asking, after Brexit, are we going to be better or going to have to fall behind? This is a classic example. The Bill offers the opportunity to pin down some of the reassurance that people are looking for.
Dr Palmer: Personally, I would not go in for legislating on what people call things, unless there is a deliberate attempt to defraud. If someone goes to the vegan section in Sainsbury’s and sees a sausage, it is unlikely that they will say, “Aha! That’s a pig.” I do not feel it is worth parliamentary time. Companies are quite capable of making clear what it is they are selling.
If there are no more questions, on behalf of the Committee I thank the witnesses for their evidence this afternoon.
Examination of Witness
Sue Davies gave evidence.
We have until 5pm for evidence from the representative of Which? Welcome. Could you introduce yourself?
Sue Davies: Good afternoon. My name is Sue Davies. I am head of consumer protection and food policy at Which?.
Sue Davies: May I start by saying congratulations on your appointment, Mr Eustice?
We support the public money for public goods approach. We think it is the right way to go, but there is a real opportunity to put more about consumers—the people who will ultimately be eating the food—in the Bill. There is a range of ways in which that could be done. We have a real opportunity to redesign agriculture policy to make sure that we have a much more joined-up approach to food and farming policy in general. We welcome the commitment to the national food strategy, for example, as part of that.
The public money for the public goods that are included is really important, but we would also like to see a stronger focus on other consumer benefits, particularly in relation to food safety, public health and reducing antibiotic resistance. When talking about productivity and increasing food production, we fine that people care so much about food. We have done lots of consumer research over the years. In the last couple of years, we have particularly focused on asking people about food standards.
People expect the UK to have really high standards and that, if anything, we will build on the standards that we have at the moment. We talk about productivity, and we want it done in a way that meets consumer expectations. We would also like to see a more general commitment to upholding high food standards in the Bill.
There is a separate area that is about public health campaigns, healthy eating and food standards, but obviously measures are already in place through the Food Safety Act 1990 and the work that the NHS does to encourage healthy eating. Our view is that we do not want to duplicate work that is already present in other fields and is the responsibility of other Departments.
Sue Davies: I can see that to some extent, but there is a real opportunity to integrate public health much more in farming practices. A good example of that is the work the Food Standards Agency did a couple of years ago to try to reduce campylobacter rates in chickens. We have regulation to some extent around that to try to control the practices that are used, but it was only by incentivising action throughout the supply chain—in that case, by the Food Standards Agency doing a retail survey, where it was, in effect, naming and shaming retailers by showing how campylobacter levels compared—that that led to co-operation across the supply chain to look at what measures could be put in place. That included measures in slaughterhouses as well as a strong on-farm focus, such as looking at biosecurity measures and what happens in relation to thinning.
It is that kind of approach that we feel should be included, and certainly the opportunity to do it should not be excluded. Some things will require regulation, and we definitely think they should be regulated, but it is a mix of using regulation and wider incentives to raise best practice. For issues such as antibiotic use, there is an opportunity to try to incentivise the reduced use of antibiotics again, on top of the legislative requirements that we have.
Sue Davies: It is certainly really positive that that is in there, but if there are specific measures where the main goal is focused on human health, rather than animal health, that should be included in the Bill. Ultimately, the Bill will determine the types of food choices we have as consumers and the sorts of standards to which our food is produced. Obviously, a lot of other policies will have an impact on that, but we think this is a real opportunity to shape our food system in a positive way that works for consumers as well as farmers. We should not miss these really good opportunities to include that in the Bill at this point.
Ms Davies, I am bound to ask you the question that I have asked virtually every other witness: from a consumer’s point of view, what would be the impact of allowing imports produced to lower standards? I think I can probably guess the answer, because it has been very consistent across all our witnesses. At the end of the whole chain, particularly with ready meals and so on, do you feel that consumers know enough in the current system? Could we not do more through the Bill to lift standards, particularly on antibiotics and so on?
Sue Davies: I think your food standards question is really important and shows why we need to make sure that we have a joined-up policy. This will have a big impact on the sorts of choices that consumers can make, but if we do not address other policies, particularly trade policy, it could completely undermine all the positive things that we are trying to achieve with the Bill.
As I mentioned, we know from our consumer research that people have really high expectations on food standards. Some 93% of people said they expect that food standards will be maintained, and ideally people think they should be enhanced now that we have left the EU. People do not expect cheaper imports to come in and undercut our producers. People want to support UK producers, particularly of products such as meat and dairy, so the tariff schedule that has come out is interesting. All of that has to be joined up to make sure that we are not trading away our standards and potentially bringing in safety issues, or allowing production methods that we know consumers do not find acceptable.
We saw with the horsemeat scare that food has many different aspects. Some are about safety, and others are cultural—people just do not want to eat food that is produced in certain ways. We have been doing a lot of survey work and we know that around eight in 10 people have concerns about eating hormone-treated beef. A similar number have concerns about food produced using antibiotic growth promoters. Those practices are used in some of the countries with which we will seek to reach trade deals—hormones in the case of the US, Australia and New Zealand. We absolutely have to ensure that trade policy builds on our current standards. If anything, we are looking to improve our standards rather than allow them to deteriorate or accept lower quality imports that will make it very difficult for UK producers to produce to the standards that consumers expect.
We have also asked about labelling issues, because sometimes it is suggested that people can decide if you just label everything. People feel strongly about it and do not think that labelling is the solution. That applies to people across all socioeconomic groups; it is not just better-off customers who can make this sort of choice. We think it is really important that there is something in the Bill that makes it clear that we should maintain and build on our food standards.
We have asked people what they think about labelling, and they generally tell us that they think the labelling information is about right, but when you ask people about where improvements might be made, they talk about things such as helping people to make more sustainable choices and improved animal welfare labelling. There is scope to look at how we can improve that by building on the labelling information that we have already. One area that we know people feel strongly about is the traffic light nutritional labelling system, which we would like to be made mandatory when we have the opportunity to legislate to do so.
Sue Davies: We can put it in this Bill and in the trade Bill. This is about agriculture and how we incentivise food production, and a vision for agriculture in the UK. The approach that we take to trade will have a huge impact on how we are able to deliver that, and it will have huge implications for the support that needs to be provided to farmers and how we incentivise standards. There is a strong link between the two.
We think there should definitely be something in the Bill recognising, at a principled level, that this is what UK food production is about. It should also recognise that, on the one hand, we need to ensure that we maintain high standards that meet consumers’ expectations at a national level and, on the other hand, that we will take a strong stance to ensure we are not trading away those food standards to get the many other benefits we might get through trade deals. It should not be about losing food standards to get those benefits.
Sue Davies: I suppose that reinforces your question in a way. Ultimately, things like soil health will feed through into the quality of the food that we eat as consumers. That is why we must ensure that there is recognition that the way we produce food has huge implications for consumers, both in terms of their health and their preferences. Most people will not think about soil when you ask them about food, but it will have an indirect impact on them.
At a more principled level, when we are talking about public money for public goods, we should recognise that public health and food safety are important. There is a range of different mechanisms. Some things are obvious, such as the promotion of fruit and vegetables, but as we are looking at how food is produced and the production methods that are used, it is important that there is a clear steer that public health and food safety must also be at the heart of that.
Sue Davies: Including provisions that enable financial assistance for food safety and public health measures, such as the reduced use of antibiotics, feeds through into the things the Food Standards Agency is trying to achieve. That then allows sufficient flexibility.
I mentioned the example of campylobacter because that has been a big priority. It is the main type of food poisoning in the UK. Most of it comes from chickens. We have been struggling to reduce its level for years. We have made progress in recent years by taking the farm-to-fork approach. We need to recognise that a lot of things that manifest at the end of the food chain originate in production. Giving the flexibility to be able to provide financial assistance and incentivise those kinds of measures is really important. The Food Standards Agency will then need to work with DEFRA and others in defining what those might be and what sort of indicators you might want to include, in terms of the monitoring that is set out in the Bill.
Sue Davies: We are certainly not protectionist and we are certainly in favour of consumer choice. However, it is about enabling people to make meaningful choices and the types of choices that we want. We also base what we say and what we call for on consumer research—talking to people and understanding their perspectives. Over the last couple of decades, we have been talking to people about food a lot, but in the last three years we have had a regular tracker and have been asking a lot about food standards.
We are just in the process of doing some more research, for which we are going to do a series of public dialogues around the country, particularly focused on trade deals and what some of the opportunities of those could be, as well as some of the issues over which people might have concerns. It will look at food standards, but also at things like digital services and opportunities for a wide range of cheaper products. We know from the research we have done to date that people feel very strongly about food production methods and would have concerns if food was allowed to come in with reduced, cheaper standards that undermined the standards and choices we have at the moment.
I do not think it is about reducing people’s choice. It is about enabling people to have an informed choice, and about enabling everybody to have a choice. At the moment, we have regulation and standards that underpin everything that everybody buys, whatever their income level. If it suddenly becomes the case that only those who can afford it can have the type of standards we have at the moment, and other people have to have lower standards, that would certainly be a completely retrograde step.
We are starting from a point where we have good standards, and we are about to start negotiating trade deals, so we need to be really clear in those objectives about where food fits. We need to look at the opportunities for food and other things that we might gain in those trade deals, but also to be really clear about where we will not compromise. Things such as food safety and quality and animal welfare come out from our research as things that people do not think we should compromise on.
Sue Davies: We are really pleased that the national food strategy is being developed. In a way, it is incredible that we have not really got a clear vision for food and how it should be produced, so we think that is really valuable. The way it is being conducted, with public dialogues and citizens’ assemblies, is a really inclusive process, and will hopefully look at the breadth of issues and the many different interests involved in food policy.
As you say, ideally you would have your food policy, and you would then have your agriculture policy, your trade policy and your environment policy; they should all be complementary. Obviously things are working to different timescales, so we need to make sure that the Bill allows for the breadth of issues that agriculture can be impacted by. That is why, as part of that national food strategy, we think it is important that food delivers for consumers and that we tackle some of the challenges in the food system, whether that is climate change, dealing with obesity or food security issues.
We realise that there is limited scope within the Bill, compared with the strategy, but we should take every opportunity to make sure that we put the right incentives in the Bill to deliver on those wider things that matter to people.
Sue Davies: Obviously Which? would say this, but it is really surprising that consumers are not featured in the Bill, when ultimately the Bill will shape the types of food choices we will have, potentially for decades. It is really important to make sure that the Bill recognises that we ultimately produce food to meet the needs and expectations of consumers, and to have a market where people want to buy the products. That is why we think we should ensure that the public money for public goods area is aligned with consumer needs and benefits, particularly public health and food safety. If we are talking about productivity and producing more food, we should recognise that that has to be done in a way that meets consumers’ expectations; not by using production methods that mean people will ultimately not want to buy or eat the food. That is where having that commitment to food standards in the Bill is really important.
Sue Davies: We have done a lot of consumer research over the years and have talked to people about their attitudes to different food technologies. About three or four years ago, we did quite a big project with Sir Mark Walport and the Government Office for Science looking at food system challenges and carrying out public dialogues in different parts of the country. What comes out from those dialogues and our wider research is that people really want to have a more open discussion about what the risks and benefits are. It seems that people do not really know enough about it. They want to be convinced that, if technologies are being used, they are being looked at in the full range of possibilities and alternatives. People are more nervous about technologies like gene editing than, say, the use of precision agriculture. Often in these debates, we start from the technology and look at how it can be used, rather than looking at what the problem is, what the range of options is, and why we are deciding that that is the right approach.
The other thing that comes across really clearly is that people expect there to be strong, independent oversight. It is concerning that when we talk about the use of technologies, you often hear some people call for deregulation and less oversight, when all our experience is to the contrary: you do not want to over-regulate and have an overly burdensome system, but people want to know that things are being done in the public interest, and that there is a clear understanding of any safety issues or wider environmental risks before we go down the route of using some of these technologies.
People are open to technology, but they want to know exactly why it is being used and whether it is the best approach. The only way to do that is that to make sure that, if we are looking at using these technologies, there is proper public engagement and understanding of them. The retailers and others in the food industry are obviously key, in terms of their understanding of whether people would want to buy products produced using these methods.
Sue Davies: All the research shows that it is quite a straightforward risk-benefit analysis. If you are ill, you will take something that you think is more risky but might make you better. If it is about maintaining health, people expect there to be a higher barrier.
Sue Davies: It is not something that we have carried out any research on, to be honest. It is not something that we have particularly worked on. As I say, when we have asked people about labelling information, most of them feel that we have quite a good level of information. Certainly, the areas that come out most strongly where people would like more clarity are things like making more sustainable choices. Animal welfare issues are important. We did a report in the last issue of Which? that looked at the different assurance schemes that are available to help you make sustainable choices. They all covered different elements of sustainability, so it is difficult for a scheme to help you make a choice. There is a lot more scope in that sort of area to improve labelling. Method of slaughter is not something that we have asked about recently.
Sue Davies: I think there are still cases where the way foods are presented does not meet the actual way they are produced. When we ask people about their expectations, though, people are often surprised: they may think that welfare standards are higher than they actually are, and then when you explain, they are often quite surprised about what is the minimum—what is free range, what is organic or whatever. It is certainly an area where people want more information.
We also did a report on chicken welfare in, I think, the November issue of Which? and it was quite interesting to ask the different retailers about their stocking densities for chickens and to see the variation, even within the current legal framework, between individual retailers. That went down very well; I think people found it very useful information.
Sue Davies: It is really good that in the Bill there is, obviously, the potential for financial assistance, and animal welfare is a clear criterion for that. I think that that is right. Whether it is in the Bill or the food strategy, I think there needs to be a mechanism to look at how we improve labelling.
Sue Davies: I suppose that the Bill will also cover the marketing standards that fall under the common agricultural policy, which cover everything from breakfast products like jams to poultry. So there is an element within the Bill where that could be covered. We have had concerns that the marketing standards under the common agricultural policy have been developed very separately from other food standards and very much from a producer-only perspective, rather than by thinking about what the end consumer might want. I think that there is an opportunity, if we are reviewing any of those standards, to make sure that they are meeting consumer needs as well.
If there are no more questions, let me thank you on behalf of the Committee for the evidence that you have given this afternoon. Thank you very much.
Ordered, That further consideration be now adjourned. —(James Morris.)
Adjourned till Tuesday 25 February at twenty-five minutes past Nine o’clock.
Written evidence to be reported to the House
AB14 Arla Foods UK
AB15 Anglian Water Services Ltd
AB16 Pesticide Action Network UK (PAN UK)
AB18 Scottish Land & Estates
AB20 Myra Bennett, British Horse Society County Access Officer, Wiltshire
AB21 Public Health Policy Evaluation Unit, School of Public Health, Imperial College London
AB22 Dairy UK