Back in September 2018, the Government introduced its Agriculture Bill into the House of Commons. The new Agriculture Bill is the first major piece of legislation mapping out post-EU policy and is an important step forward in the UK’s journey out of the European Union. The Bill is a chance to ensure that farming has a strong, viable and productive future both in our local community and nationally across the United Kingdom.
As I outlined in a column back in October, the Bill is a decisive shift away from the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy (CAP). The new system will replace CAP’s ineffective subsidy system which is skewed towards the largest landowners and is not linked to any specific public benefits.
The new system will instead reward farmers who work to enhance, protect and preserve our unique rural heritage as well as produce food sustainably. Farmers will be paid for providing public goods, such as better air and water quality, improved soil health, higher animal welfare standards, public access to the countryside and measures to reduce flooding.
A number of amendments to the Agriculture Bill have been tabled and I want to take this opportunity to explain why I am supporting amendment 49, which focuses on supporting micro-abattoirs. This amendment would enable the Secretary of State to provide financial assistance in relation to micro-abattoirs.
Short and local food supply chains have seen a return to British agriculture over the last decade, with consumers wanting greater choice and the ability to purchase meat from farm shops and other local outlets linked to farms with less mass production systems and links to the local community. Such supply chains have a number of benefits to the environment, animals and local communities due to shorter journeys, greater local employment and money going back to the local community.
Unfortunately, the number of small, local, community-focused abattoirs is declining. Between 2007 and 2017 33 (34%) of the smallest abattoirs – those slaughtering no more than 1,000 livestock unit (LSUs) annually – closed down, leaving just 63. A further 6 closed last year, taking the number to 57.
As each local additional abattoir closes, farmers have to travel further to the next nearest facility. However, there comes a point, with relatively small numbers of animals on each journey, when the cost of transporting live animal in one direction and carcases in the other becomes prohibitive, and the farmer is forced to close his or her meat business and sell to a large retail outlet instead, thereby reducing income and sometimes making the farm non-viable.
Already, several areas of the country are without local abattoirs, and these black-spots are likely to increase in size and number without some help for the existing abattoirs, and for new enterprises to replace those that have closed. If the decline is allowed to continue, the supply of fully-traceable local meat will dry up.
Small businesses, such as micro-abattoirs, are the backbone of the British economy and form the heart of many rural communities. They make up 99.3 per cent of all private sector businesses in the UK. Small and medium-sized enterprises employ 16.3 million workers across the country and produce an annual turnover of £2.2 trillion. It is vital that we provide measures to support these enterprises which provide an outstanding range of services to both our local communities and further afield.
Micro-abattoirs often provide services that enable farmers to sell their own meat at farm shops, farmers’ markets and local businesses, such as restaurants. As the Sustainable Food Trust point out, a high-quality and active local food sector attracts both local business and greater levels of tourism, ensuring a number of economic benefits. Therefore, this is why I will be supporting this amendment when the Bill comes back before the House of Commons later in the year.
Of key concern to all of us is the quality of our food, our food standards and our animal welfare standards. There were two amendments proposed recently to ensure any new trade agreement respected the maintenance of those standards on imports. The government has already confirmed clearly that it will maintain these standards -but many of us wanted it in the bill itself.
I put my name to New Clause 4, tabled by my colleague Neil Parish MP.
NC4 sought to ensure that agricultural goods may be imported into the UK only if the standards to which those goods were produced were as high as, or higher than, standards which at the time of import applied under UK law.
The alternative amendment would have required every trade bill – and there will be hundreds - to come to the floor of the House to be debated. While parliament needs to scrutinise what government does, this seemed to me overly burdensome and I did not support it. It was in any event, defeated.
I have also signed Neil Parish MP's letter to the Prime Minister on food standards, a copy of which is below:
Re: Food standards & the future of UK farming.
The UK currently has commendably high environmental and food standards, as well as an internationally recognised approach to animal welfare. I do not believe you wish to move away from this. Indeed, our Conservative Manifesto stated clearly at page 57:
“In all of our trade negotiations, we will not compromise on our high environmental protection, animal welfare and food standards”.
As we negotiate trade deals with new partners, farmers need to have legal reassurances they will not be undercut on standards. In its current form, the Agriculture Bill provides no legal safeguards to ensure equivalence of standards for the import of agricultural goods in all future trade deals. We ask that this is amended so that “agricultural goods should only be imported into the UK if the standards of production are as high, or higher, than UK standards”. Food should not be imported which is illegal to produce here.
Allowing food imports produced to lower standards will put many of our farmers at a competitive disadvantage and out of business. Not only will this export jobs in farming and food production, it will export the impact of this production, turning a blind eye to poor animal welfare standards abroad and encouraging environmental degradation there. We will be exporting control, not taking it back.
With rising world populations increasing demands on food production, and climate change disrupting that very production, now is not the time to become more reliant on volatile world markets. Just last week, leaked emails showed a senior advisor to the Treasury advocating a Britain without a domestic farming industry, like Singapore. Singapore is now dramatically trying to increase its food production because of concerns around food security.
Whether it is food security, Amazon deforestation or the import of water from countries with less rainfall than ours, we must think seriously now about the future unintended consequences of our food and farming policies.
As you will be aware from your travels across the country, farming is the backbone of the rural economy. Farmers are also the stewards of our countryside. It is a way of life and a skill passed between the generations. The farming community are already undergoing the challenge of transitioning from the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy to the new Environmental Land Management Schemes. If the dual threat of reduced financial support for farming and non-equivalence of standards comes to pass, British farming will be under extraordinary pressure. However, if we negotiate equivalence in our trade deals, farmers can be more profitable in the marketplace. We all know you are very keen to boost exports and see British agriculture have a prosperous future too.
So, to reassure the farming community and the many of us with rural, farming constituencies, we ask you to put our Manifesto commitments on standards into law - at the earliest opportunity.
As you can see by the undersigned, there is a strong body of concern in the Party over equivalent standards of agricultural goods in trade deals. We look forward to discussing this with you and to your direct action to help farmers!
My view is that this particular amendment, whilst well-intentioned, would in practice make it extremely difficult to secure any new trade deals, and would even risk imports that take place currently under agreements negotiated during our membership of the EU. The wording of the amendment could threaten imports of staples like tea, coffee and bananas into the UK, and would make it all but impossible to conclude trade agreements with some of the world’s poorest countries that are simply not in a position to match our exacting domestic production standards. Nor is this a case of compromising on current standards - these producers are not expected to meet these extremely strict requirements under any existing EU or UK agreement.
The Government has made a commitment in its manifesto not to compromise on the UK’s high standards in all trade negotiations, which I am determined to see followed through.
Once the transition period with the EU ends, all food coming into this country will be required to meet existing import requirements. This is because the EU Withdrawal Act will transfer all existing EU food safety provisions, including existing import requirements, onto the UK statute book. These import standards include a ban on using artificial growth hormones in domestic and imported products and set out that no products, other than potable water, are approved to decontaminate poultry carcasses. Any changes to existing food safety legislation would require new legislation to be brought before Parliament.