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Agriculture Bill vote leaves Green Brexit in the balance

Agriculture Bill vote leaves Green Brexit in the balance

A ‘Green Brexit’ for food and farming? After yesterday’s vote, it’s hanging in the balance.

Yesterday’s parliamentary vote on the Agriculture Bill was an opportunity to deliver a ‘Green Brexit’. But with a vote against amendments to support a move to agroecology, and to prohibit imports of low welfare and environmentally damaging produce, there is more work to be done.

In 2016, farming minister George Eustice outlined the government’s ambitions for a ‘Green Brexit’ for food and farming. He said,

“EU regulations make life hard for the UK’s farmers. If we have the courage to Vote Leave and take back control, we would be free to think again and could achieve so much more for farmers and our environment.”

Yesterday’s reading of the Agriculture Bill provided an opportunity to deliver this vision.

Public money for public goods

On the upside, the bill proposes financial support to farmers who are delivering environmental outcomes alongside food production, ‘public money for public goods’ which we strongly support. On the downside the Bill contains crucial gaps.  Two amendments laid before Parliament would have strengthened the bill by supporting farmers to adopt agroecological and organic farming.

Speaking to the House yesterday, Kerry McCarthy MP said,

“Agroecology is a cause whose time has come.

“This pandemic has brought home to many people how dysfunctional our relationship with the natural world has become, with overconsumption, unsustainable exploitation of natural resources, a food system that is broken, and birds and wildlife disappearing from our countryside and gardens.”

Caroline Lucas MP echoed these sentiments, highlighting that if the UK Government is to deliver on its promise of a ‘Green Brexit’, then the UK must go beyond best practice in Europe. Lucas said,

“This week, a leaked copy of the EU 2030 biodiversity strategy revealed proposals for at least 25% of farmland to be organic, alongside a wider uptake of agroecological practices, a 50% reduction in pesticide use and cuts to mineral fertiliser use.

“On Second Reading, the then Secretary of State claimed that leaving the EU meant a greener future for British farming, where the UK would apparently do so much better for wildlife and the landscape. If that is to be reality and not just rhetoric, we need an Agriculture Bill that matches or goes further than the EU proposals on pesticides, agroecology and organic farming.”

Amendments for agroecology not incorporated

The amendments for agroecology were not incorporated into the bill, and neither was a crucial amendment from Conservative Neil Parish MP, which would have ensured that food and farming standards are not undercut by a future trade deal.

Earlier this week, the Soil Association was signatory of a letter to George Eustace, now Secretary of State, saying,

“The Bill should ensure that agri-food imports are produced to at least equivalent environmental, animal welfare, and food safety standards as those required of producers in the UK.”

Imports of low welfare and environmentally damaging produce will undermine UK’s food and farming standards

As trade negotiations with the US proceed, there are concerns that the UK will allow imports of low welfare and environmentally damaging produce (including the famous ‘chlorinated chicken’), undermining the UK’s food and farming standards.

Our Associate Director of Food and Farming, Liz Bowles, said, 

"As a farmer, and a member of society, I was disappointed in yesterday's outcome."

We know that there is no public appetite for a decline in food standards. People care about food and the environment more than ever before, with a recent poll from the Food, Farming and Countryside Commission finding that 51% of people say they have noticed cleaner air, and 27% more wildlife, since the lockdown began. 42% say the coronavirus outbreak has made them value food more.

This is the time to be raising, not undermining our standards.

But yesterday, MPs voted against an amendment that would prohibit low quality imports, and they were encouraged to do so by the government. Far from ‘taking back control’ and ‘achieving so much more for farmers and our environment’, the rejection of this amendment could undermine any hope of a ‘Green Brexit’ or a healthier and more sustainable farming sector.

But there is still everything to play for.

The Agriculture Bill will soon pass into the Lords, where there will be another opportunity to push for amendments on both agroecology and trade. The new Environmental Land Management scheme is still in development, and the long-promised National Food Strategy will soon be re-animated, after a short hiatus.

A truly ‘Green Brexit’ will be one with agroecology and organic at its heart, where trade policy ensures high environmental and animal welfare standards, and where food and farming policy enhance public health.

This future is by no means guaranteed. In the weeks ahead, we’ll be pushing to make it a reality.

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