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What does the Retained EU Law Bill mean for the future of food and farming?

What does the Retained EU Law Bill mean for the future of food and farming?

Whilst Rishi Sunak was settling into his new role in Downing Street, the Retained EU Law (or ‘REUL’) Bill had its Second Reading in the House of Commons. But what exactly is the REUL Bill, and what does it mean for the future of food and farming?

The REUL Bill is the legislation which sets a ‘sunset’ date for a vast section of retained EU law – the body of law that applied to the UK while we were part of the EU, and which was consolidated into domestic law.

If the REUL Bill is approved, over 2400 laws are set to expire by the end of 2023, unless they are specifically extended, amended or reinstated by Government Ministers. Due to the limited timeframe established by the Bill, the scrutiny under which each law will be reviewed will be severely limited. It has taken decades for some of these laws to become adopted. Yet they are now at risk of expiring by the end of next year, leaving behind significant gaps in our legislation. This has raised serious concern among environmental groups, lawyers, and MPs – particularly across Scotland and Wales.

The Bill emerged after Brexit as part of the UK Government’s wider plan to boost growth through deregulation – cutting the ‘red tape’ on what is seen as unnecessary bureaucracy. But a fundamental flaw in this agenda is the failure to recognise the crucial role regulation plays in ensuring long-term economic stability.

The Government itself has expressed the importance a healthy environment plays in supporting a healthy economy. Yet, of the hundreds of pieces of retained EU law that are at risk of being scrapped, over 570 sit within the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra). Currently, these laws ensure vital safety nets for environmental protection, as well as for animal welfare, public health, biodiversity and much more. If removed, or even watered down, the result could have devastating impacts on the very same resources upon which a healthy economy relies.

What type of laws are at stake?

Since the Bill was announced, many environmental NGOs have drawn attention to the laws which are of highest significance to our ecosystems. The Wildlife Trusts, for example, have outlined five pieces of EU-derived legislation which, if scrapped, would pose a real threat to nature – the main one being the Conservation of Habitats and Species Regulations 2017, known as the ‘Habitats Regulations’. They argue that the dismantling of this law would lead to the loss of protections for a list of 50 native species which it currently protects – including the common otter, dormice, dolphins, fen orchids and shore dock.

From the perspective of food and farming systems, there are other key areas to which the REUL Bill also poses a serious risk. Among those are:

  • Pesticides

Many of our most fundamental laws on pesticides are derived from the EU. Regulations on Maximum Residue Levels (MRLs), for instance, establish the maximum concentration of a pesticide residue permitted on food, both for animal and human consumption, and are vital to ensure food safety.

Similarly, the Plant Protection Products (Sustainable Use) Regulations 2012 set out the requirements for safe use, storage and handling of pesticides, and the Plant Protection Products Regulation 1107/2009 outlines the rules for the authorisation of pesticides to be sold, used and controlled withing any given community. Together, these regulations allow a basic level of human and environmental protection against pesticides, as well as a legal baseline to hold the Government accountable to.

  • Animal welfare

We currently rely on retained EU law for around 80% of all major animal welfare legislation. Most importantly, the Welfare of Farmed Animals (England) Regulations 2007 provide the legal framework for animal welfare standards in England, outlining the conditions under which all farmed animals in the country must be kept – from the minimum space allowed for caged hens to minimum weaning age for piglets. The loss of this legislation would leave an overwhelming gap in animal welfare regulation for England, putting even our most basic animal welfare standards at risk.

  • Water pollution

Finally, the REUL Bill threatens a whole series of laws aimed at protecting our wider ecosystems from agricultural pollution. The Reduction and Prevention of Agricultural Diffuse Pollution (England) Regulations 2018; The Nitrate Pollution Prevention Regulations 2015; and the Water Resources (Control of Pollution) (Silage, Slurry and Agricultural Fuel Oil) (England) Regulations 2010 are all examples of legislation aimed at reducing the agricultural pollution of our waterways. And with only 14% of our rivers in good ecological health, now is not the time to be weakening the laws that protect them.

Instead, we need stronger regulations in place to restore these vital habitats, including bolder action on nitrogen and pesticides reduction. We therefore urge the Government to withdraw the REUL Bill, and to improve support for a transition to agroecological farming and land use.