Farming post-Brexit: replacing direct payments

The Agriculture Bill was included in the December 2019 Queen’s Speech. It was introduced in the House of Commons in January 2020 and received royal assent in November 2020. The Agriculture Act 2020 provides for a 7-year agricultural transition period from 2021 until 2027. During this period, direct payments—established as part of the EU common agricultural policy—will be phased out.

The Government has committed to the gradual introduction of new forms of financial assistance from 2024 onwards. The transition from direct payments to these new forms of payments were set out in the Government’s agricultural transition plan, published on 30 November 2020. The Government has said the new system of farm payments will “improve the environment, improve animal health and welfare, and reduce carbon emissions”.

The main form of financial support will be through new environmental land management schemes. The environmental land management schemes will include:

  • Sustainable farming incentive: providing payments to farmers who manage their land in an environmentally sustainable way.
  • Local nature recovery: encouraging collaboration between farmers to support local nature recovery and environmental protection measures.
  • Landscape recovery: support projects that make long-term changes to land use that improve the ecosystem.

The most recent changes to farm subsidies for the 2021 claim year were debated in the House of Lords in March 2021. During the debate members including Lord Rooker (Labour) and the Earl of Caithness (Conservative) argued the Government needed to publish more information about how the new system of farm payments would work in practice. In his response, the Parliamentary Under Secretary at the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, Lord Gardiner of Kimble, said the Government would publish the criteria used to apply for funding under each scheme once that scheme had been launched. The Government has confirmed that environmental land management scheme pilots would be open for applicants in spring 2021. The first scheme set to be piloted will be the sustainable farming incentive. This pilot is scheduled to begin in October 2021. The Government has said the scheme will be launched following these pilots in 2024.

In his oral evidence session with the House of Commons Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee on 8 December 2020, George Eustice, the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, said his department was working to ensure that applying for funding from these schemes would be less complex than the existing direct payments system. He also said his department was working on getting ‘buy-in’ from farmers for the new scheme.

Animal welfare

The Conservative Party’s manifesto for the 2019 general election included several commitments concerning animal welfare. This included introducing stronger sentences for those found guilty of animal cruelty offences. This commitment had also been made by previous Conservative governments. The government briefing on the 2019 Queen’s Speech included an ‘Animal Welfare Bill’ on its list of bills to be introduced in the new parliament. However, the Government did not introduce its own legislation. Instead, Chris Loder (Conservative MP for West Dorset) introduced the Animal Welfare (Sentencing) Bill as a private member’s bill, which the Government supported. This bill included measures outlined in the 2019 Queen’s Speech briefing on longer sentences for those found guilty of animal cruelty offences. It was also identical to the legislation previously introduced in the 2017–19 and the October–November 2019 parliamentary sessions by the then Government. The bill received the Government’s support and was given royal assent on 29 April 2021.

Animal sentience        

The Conservative Party’s 2019 manifesto included a commitment to introduce new laws on the recognition of animal sentience. In its briefing on the 2019 Queen’s Speech, the Government said that animal sentience provisions would be included in its Animal Welfare Bill. Specifically, this bill would require the Government to take account of animal sentience in its policy decisions and the implementation of policy. The Animal Welfare (Sentencing) Bill the Government supported did not include these measures. The Government has stated new laws on animal sentience would be introduced as soon as parliamentary time allows.

Live animal exports

The Conservative Party’s 2019 manifesto committed to ending excessively long journeys for live animals to slaughter and fattening. In December 2020, the Government opened a consultation on proposals to ban the export of live animals for rearing and slaughter from England and Wales. During the same month, in his evidence session with the House of Commons Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee, George Eustice said he anticipated bringing forward legislation by the end of 2021. The Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee is currently conducting an ongoing inquiry on moving animals across borders.

Gene editing in agriculture

The Financial Times has reported that the 2021 Queen’s speech is expected to include a bill to liberalise the rules on gene editing in agriculture. Gene editing (also known as genome editing) is the process by which parts of a genome are precisely replaced or removed from DNA. In July 2018, the European Court of Justice (ECJ) issued a ruling that organisms produced through genome editing should be regulated in the same way as genetically modified organisms (GMO). At the time of the ruling, Michael Gove, the then Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, said gene editing had the potential to improve the productivity and sustainability of farming. He said the then Government was concerned that the ECJ ruling created a “unjustified barrier” to the development of gene editing.

In March 2020, Lord Gardiner of Kimble told the House of Lords the Government believed genome-edited organisms should not be subject to the same regulations as GMO if the DNA changes could have occurred either naturally or through traditional breeding methods. In a speech to the Oxford Farming Conference on 7 January 2021, George Eustice announced the launch of a consultation on reforming the law to support the development of gene-editing technology in England. He said during his speech:

Now that we have left the EU, we are free to make coherent policy decisions based on science and evidence and it starts today with a new consultation on proposed changes to English law that will enable gene editing to take place, so that we can achieve a simpler, scientifically credible regulatory framework to govern important new technologies.

The consultation included a proposal to amend the definition of GMO in the Environmental Protection Act 1990. Organisms produced by gene editing and other genetic technologies would be excepted from this definition if they could have been developed using traditional breeding methods. The consultation closed on 17 March 2021. The Government has yet to publish its response to the consultation. However, Victoria Prentis, the Parliamentary Under Secretary of State for Farming, Fisheries and Food, has said the Government’s response will be published within three months of the close of the consultation.

The proposals in the consultation have been welcomed by the National Farmers’ Union (NFU). It has argued gene-editing had the potential to improve farming and the environment. However, the Soil Association has criticised the proposals. It has argued that gene editing may be used as a “sticking plaster” to deal with problems—such as diseases in livestock and poor-quality soil—arising from intensive farming techniques.

National Food Strategy and food white paper

In 2019, the Government appointed the businessman and co-founder of the Sustainable Restaurant Association, Henry Dimbleby, to conduct a review of UK food production and consumption. The first part of his review, entitled the National Food Strategy, was published in June 2020. It recommended measures to improve the nutrition of children’s food and expand free school meals. It also recommended the Government ensure that the quality and safety of UK food was not reduced as a result of any future trade deals following the UK’s departure from the EU. The second part of the food strategy is scheduled for publication in 2021. The first part of the National Food Strategy was welcomed by the NFU. Specifically, it said the farming industry could support improving the nutrition of the UK’s diet by increasing the number of fruit and vegetables grown in the UK.

The Government has committed to publishing a white paper in response to the national food strategy within six months of the publication of part 2. The Government has also committed to laying a report on UK food security before the last sitting day of 2021 calendar year. In April 2021, the House of Commons Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee recommended in its report, Covid-19 and the issues of security in food supply, that the Government should consult on creating a legal ‘right to food’ to prevent food poverty. It also said the Government should address food poverty in its white paper responding to the National Food Strategy.

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Cover image by Gozha Net from Unsplash.