The Agriculture Bill 2019-21 is finally about to go through its Committee Stage in the House of Lords. Introduced to replace the Common Agricultural Policy as part of the UK’s departure from the EU, this Bill, when it passes into Law, will introduce a fundamentally new approach to the way in which farmers are supported.
Fundamental change to financial support for farmers
The new approach involves phasing out the Basic Payment Scheme and replacing it with one based on the concept of ‘Public Money for Public Goods’. That means, potentially farmers would be encouraged to manage their land to achieve a wider range of benefits and could receive financial support for doing so.
A public good is something that has a benefit so broad that it could benefit an entire community or even people throughout the country (think of cleaner air), but which has little or no financial benefit for the farmer on a commercial level. A scheme based on Public Money for Public Goods would make up for the lack of commercial benefit to the farmer by providing financial support from the public purse.
Despite various subsidies, the Common Agricultural Policy has proved incapable of providing financial support on such a broad basis. It was not designed to do so. It was designed to encourage food production. Public Payment for Public Goods gives farmers more of a role as managers of the land overall, including food production, rather than as food producers alone.
Of course, it is important that the Bill promotes good commercial practice, for example that it does not place UK farmers at a competitive disadvantage versus food imports. However, if properly implemented, it could relieve some of the pressure on farmers to make a living from food production whilst also doing their bit for the environment. The new policy could provide funding that would make the latter a viable business option: Public Money for Public Goods.
More collaboration between farmers and conservation groups?
There have been many disputes between the farming industry and organisations involved in conservation but on the whole, relations between the two have been surprisingly good. The new agriculture policy may change that relationship – for the better.
In future, farmers and conservation groups may find themselves working in a much more collaborative way towards a common goal: demonstrating a Public Good and securing public money that allows farmers to maximise the benefits to the public without putting their living in jeopardy. The success of a case for funding will depend on such agreement – better to demonstrate it at the outset than to try to achieve it during an application process.
The Department for Food, Agriculture and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) is running a series of pilots around the country to assess how best to implement the new policy. There are concerns from both sides: maintaining competitiveness versus imports and bureaucracy are some of the worries farmers have. For conservation groups, they include how public goods are going to be defined and dealt with in a myriad of different local cases across the country and to ensure that the new policy is able to cover the breadth of different types of public good (natural conservation, cultural preservation etc.)
Legislation must have no gaps
There are also concerns to ensure that gaps are not left, as they were between different subsidies in the Common Agricultural Policy. The preservation of semi-wild species is such a case. There have been concerns for many years that the true genetic breed of Dartmoor Hill Pony is under threat. These ponies spend most of their lives as wild animals on Dartmoor, but the herds are owned by farmers and, to a certain degree, they are farmed.
Subsidies introduced in the Common Agricultural Policy made it more profitable for farmers to keep other grazing animals. Whilst the ponies are still herded in the late summer and some foals are taken to market, the price they fetch often does not cover the cost of transporting them and many remain unsold and are slaughtered for animal food. They are an inherent part of Dartmoor’s ecosystem and cultural heritage but the farmers who struggle to keep them, generally end up footing the bill.
Is this a clear case for Public Money for Public Goods? You would think that this epitomises the entire concept, but it will all depend on how the new policy is implemented. The characteristics of what will constitute a public good in terms of agriculture remain to be fully defined in detail and this can only be done through secondary legislation after the Bill has passed into Law.
Environmental Land Management Scheme being formed
At present the body that will be responsible for actually making decisions on applications for public funding has not been announced. Nor do we know much about the type of process that will be followed, for example will it have an independent appeal process? How transparent and inclusive will it be to the public, given that its purpose is to encourage Public Goods?
The Environmental Land Management Scheme (ELMS) is the system that will be used to bring to life the new policy and apply Public Money for Public Goods. It will replace the Basic Payment Scheme, the Countryside Stewardship and several other schemes. This is the subject of the local DEFRA pilots currently underway.
In addition to promoting food production, ELMS concentrates on six main areas to support the 25 Year Environmental Plan. These are:
- clean air and plentiful water
- clean air
- protection from and mitigation of environmental hazards, such as flooding & drought
- mitigation & adaptation to climate change
- thriving plants & wildlife
- beauty, heritage and engagement with the natural environment
It is planned to have three tiers ranging from essentially sustainable farming methods up to complicated changes in land use.
Public consultation still on
However, none of this is set in stone. The ELMS is subject of an ongoing public consultation process that closes at the end of July. Written responses to the policy discussion document are invited and DEFRA is also running a series of seminars for farmers, foresters and land managers in England.
The new Agriculture Act, as it will become, will bring substantial change; not only for farmers, but also for conservation groups. It is likely to be many years before farming and the environment see such a fundamental review and revision of policy again.
Details of the consultation are available on the DEFRA website: https://consult.defra.gov.uk/elm/elmpolicyconsultation/
The policy discussion document can be downloaded from this link:
Written July 2020