This week’s guest writer Lydia Robinson discusses the long-awaited, updated Agriculture Bill that was released on 16 January 2020, complete with its plan to govern farming in England after Brexit.
Redirecting subsidies to farmers
One of the landmark changes is the proposal to scrap the current EU system of offering subsidies to farmers based on the amount of land they farm, in favour of a process that rewards farmers for using their land to provide "public goods". There are 10 listed practices that would constitute a “public good” under the draft legislation, including "protecting or improving the health or welfare of livestock", “managing land or water in a way that protects or improves the environment”, enhancing the health of soil and plants and promoting cultural or natural heritage. DEFRA has clarified that under this new system, the largest rewards would go to those farmers or land managers who provide the greatest environmental benefits.
Animal welfare within the Bill
There are other provisions relating to animal welfare within the Bill, including the creation of a new service designed to improve the collection and management of information relating to the identification, movement, and health of animals. This will monitor, amongst other things, the distances travelled by farmed animals prior to slaughter, which has been identified as a cause of stress.
The RSPCA has expressed its support for the Bill, which recognises farm animal welfare as a "public good" and rewards farmers who deliver improved standards of animal care through the publicly funded scheme. Likewise, the World Wildlife Fund has commended the Bill for providing financial support for farmers whose practices benefit the public and the environment, but do not directly bring in income. Examples of such practices include re-wilding fields for the benefit of plants and wildlife and aiding in the provision of clean air and water.
The National Office of Animal Health also praised the Bill for recognising the "importance of animal health and welfare as vital public goods", but suggested there could be more emphasis on the importance of programmes designed to tackle common diseases affecting farmed animals, such as mastitis and lameness.
The Agriculture Bill taking effect
The Agriculture Bill incentivises enhanced farm animal welfare within future farming policies and as a result, goes some way to uniting the objectives of animal activists and agricultural stakeholders. However, more detail is needed on how farmers and landowners will qualify for an animal welfare related “public goods” subsidy, including information on eligibility, assessment and the practices that will be required under the scheme. As the new scheme will begin to be phased in from 2021 and will replace the current subsidy scheme over a 7-year period, the government now has 12 months to produce guidance which will determine whether this Bill has any real substance behind it’s catchy mantra.
One criticism voiced of the Bill is that it should have insisted on imported goods meeting the same hygiene and welfare standards as the UK. This was proposed, but sadly defeated in the House of Commons by a majority of 51 votes. The Bill is due to go to the House of Lords shortly.
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