Call to back British fresh produce in Agriculture Bill debate

By Michelle Perrett

- Last updated on GMT

The House of Lords is scrutinising the terms of the Agriculture Bill.
The House of Lords is scrutinising the terms of the Agriculture Bill.

Related tags: coronavirus

One peer called for Government support for British fresh produce amid concerns over the commercial future of farms as debate raged on over the Agriculture Bill this week in the House of Lords.

“The UK is currently only 53% self-sufficient in food and drink, and the figure is dropping year on year,” ​she said. “Nearly half our food is imported, mainly from the EU. During the pandemic, we were forced to rely on fruit and vegetable trucks continuing to make the journey across Europe.

“Those UK farmers producing fresh fruit and vegetables faced a crisis of seasonal workers, and it is still not clear whether sufficient UK workers have been recruited and retained to harvest our local produce, or whether some of the crops will have to be left to rot in the fields.”

She said there was an urgent need to drive up the percentage of locally grown food in the UK.

Issues such as the Environmental Land Management (ELMS) scheme, were top of the agenda during a debate on Tuesday (21 July).

The ELM replaces the schemes currently available under the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy (CAP).

Under the proposed scheme, farmers will be paid for work that enhances the environment, such as tree or hedge planting, river management to mitigate flooding, or creating or restoring habitats for wildlife. 

When the bill was first launched in January there was a mixed industry response​ but questions were raised about the Government's commitment to food security and the impact of future trade deals in a post-Brexit landscape.

More recently the Government voted agains​t an amendment to the UK’s Agriculture Bill that would have guaranteed high standards for food and drink entering the country post-Brexit. 

During the House of Lords debate Lord Curry of Kirkharle said that under the current plans, there would only be three years by the time the Bill becomes law to draw conclusions from the pilots and then launch the ELM scheme to the entire farming sector.

“Tens of thousands of family farmers are not prepared for the scale of the change that the Bill will introduce,”​ he said. 

It is the most fundamental change in support, and the greatest cultural change, that any farmer in Britain today has ever faced. At present, there is no way farmers can ​prepare for this change because, for obvious reasons, there is no information available on the basis of which they can begin to consider their future plans and make decisions.”

 

Impossible task

 ​Lord Cameron of Dillington said that Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs (DEFRA) has had three years to get ELM schemes in place and several years to roll them out to farmers on the ground.  

But he added that this was going to be “an almost impossible task” ​and said the “way forward is still as clear as mud”. 

“No one in the farming community has any clear idea of the future. The details of ELMS will not really emerge from the mist until nearly 2025,” ​he said. ​

“With the rug of the old world being slowly pulled out from under them, and the new rug unlikely to arrive for some time, I worry farmers will fall down the gap. As others have said, the delay is not really Defra’s fault; we had all the shenanigans around Brexit, and so with this Agriculture Bill doing the hokey-cokey—in, out, in, out—then COVID-19 causing genuine paralysis this year, it is not surprising the timetable has slipped.” 

 

Survive

Lord Greave said he did not believe the Government had explained how farms would survive commercially under the new system. 

We all know how the sheep farming system in particular works in this country: the people who rear sheep in the lowlands require the sheep to come down from the hills; it is all pretty integrated,” ​Greaves said. “If the hill farms close down and stop keeping their sheep, it will have an effect right across the industry and the country.”

“The most important thing is that the hill farmers themselves get the support they need for their own benefit and the benefit of their communities and landscapes.”

Related topics: Brexit

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