Introduction of the Agriculture Act

13.11.2020
Chris Solt
Agriculture

The passing of the Agriculture Act, the first piece of domestic legislation covering farming for more than seven decades, sets out how Britain will farm for generations to come – and importantly it includes food standards protections.

It has taken over two years from initial publication of the bill to the Act becoming law, and much of it has evolved over that period, with sustained and effective lobbying from the NFU, other farming organisations and individual farmers all helping to shape the most important piece of legislation relating to rural Britain in our lifetime. 

Much of the argument has been centred around hopes and fears for what happens after Brexit, with concerns about British farmers being undercut by subsidised imports and food produced to inferior safety standards driving much of the political debate surrounding the Act.  

The creation of a Trade and Agriculture Commission, a dedicated group of agri-food and international trade experts who will provide expert advice to government, was a key win for the sector.  Now on a statutory footing, the government will have to listen to the Commission’s advice when it comes to considering the impacts of any post-Brexit trade deals on animal welfare, food productions and safety standards, and the wider UK farming industry. 

The other area of the Act which was beefed up during its sometimes stormy passage through Parliament was food security.  Given that the UK relies on imports for over half its food – and that much of that comes from the EU – a focus on ensuring that the nation is able to feed itself shouldn’t really be in question.  The Act requires the government to report every three years on the state of the UK’s food security, with the first report due by the end of 2021.

The NFU lists a number of other areas where the Act will benefit British Farming:

  • Rewarding farmers and producers: the Act empowers government to provide financial assistance for a wide set of purposes including improving soil quality, and supporting ‘selling, marketing, packaging or processing of products derived from an agricultural or horticultural activity’.
  • Protecting the rights of farmers: this is essentially about curtailing the government’s right to demand legally-privileged data about anyone involved in an agri-food supply chain (a significant reigning in of the powers initially proposed).
  • Fairer dealings for farmers: the Act empowers the government to introduce regulations imposing obligations on all actors in the food supply chain, rather than just ‘first purchasers’.
  • Reforming tenancy matters: the Act modernises many aspects of tenancy law to give tenants greater flexibility and remove some barriers to productivity.
  • Livestock Information Programme: the Act includes powers for the government to set up a body to deliver the Livestock Information Programme, which will deliver a multi-species livestock traceability service to help reduce endemic diseases, improve risk-based trading, and help improve farms to demonstrate food provenance.

The Act passes into law just as farmers face an uncertain period of transition.  Brexit sees the end of the Basic Payment Scheme and the gradual introduction of its ‘replacement’, the Environmental Land Management Scheme (ELMS).  At least the framework within which farming will work during this potentially turbulent period has been established, and in a way which seemed unlikely just two years ago.

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