Soil quality at heart of Agriculture Bill

The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) has reintroduced the Agriculture Bill to Parliament, with soil quality at the heart of a new land management system that rewards farmers for environmental protection.

Announced in the Queen’s Speech, the Bill was given its first reading in the House of Commons yesterday (16 January) after the previous Bill fell before the dissolution of Parliament for the general election – the same fate met by the Environment Bill.

Soil quality at heart of Agriculture BillThe new legislation lays out how the financial support given to farmers by the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) will be replaced by an Environment Land Management (ELM) system of funding that rewards farmers for managing their land in the service of ‘public goods’, such as better water, soil and air quality, higher animal welfare standards, flooding prevention measures and improved soil quality.

Rather than providing subsidies based on the total amount of land farmed, which favours large landowners, funding, which the government has committed will remain at current levels over the course of this Parliament, will maximise the potential of land for food production and the delivery of public goods.

The Direct Payments system will be phased out over seven years from 2021, with transition delinking payments from the requirement to farm land, allowing farmers to diversify their business and help new entrants into the sector.

Commenting on the Bill, Environment Secretary Theresa Villiers said: “Our landmark Agriculture Bill will transform British farming, enabling a balance between food production and the environment which will safeguard our countryside and farming communities for the future.

“This is one of the most important environmental reforms for many years, rewarding farmers for the work they do to safeguard our environment and helping us meet crucial goals on climate change and protecting nature and biodiversity.

“We will move away from the EU’s bureaucratic Common Agricultural Policy and towards a fairer system which rewards our hard-working farmers for delivering public goods, celebrating their world-leading environmental work and innovative, modern approach to food production.

“We will continue to champion British produce and support farmers to adapt to our new pioneering approach to agriculture through a seven-year transition period in England, ensuring we unleash the potential of our farmers for the future.”

‘Protecting or improving the quality of soil’ is viewed as one of the ‘foundations of food production’ in the Bill, with the benefit to soil a key consideration of policies included in the Bill, while the role of fertilisers is made a key focus of the Bill.

Commenting on the Bill, Charlotte Morton, Chief Executive of the Anaerobic Digestion and Bioresources Association (ADBA), which represents anaerobic digestion (AD) operators producing biogas and nutrient-rich digestate from organic waste, said: “The Agriculture Bill now going through Parliament sheds a welcome focus on fertilisers. The nutrient-rich digestate produced through anaerobic digestion (AD) offers a low-carbon alternative to chemical- and fossil-based fertilisers to replenish soils and improve crop yields. 

“Not only that, the residue from the crop yields will in turn provide feedstock for the new AD treatment cycle – with the resulting digestate then used to grow more crops – creating a perfect sustainable circular economy model in agriculture. Additionally, farmers can use the biogas generated through AD for their machinery and other energy needs. On-farm AD is therefore an ideal solution to decarbonise agriculture and protect the soil, and we hope that Parliament will recognise and incentivise its deployment through this Bill.”

Amy MacConnachie, Head of External Affairs at the Renewable Energy Association, added: “The Environment Bill refocuses support for land owners who provide important environmental services, helping to address climate change and protect biodiversity. The addition of measures and targets to improve the health of UK soils, addressing declining soil fertility rates, is particularly welcome. This must be a continued focus for the government, recognising that crop production goes hand-in-hand with protecting the environment. The Bill will also actively contribute to helping the UK to decarbonise through support for the sustainable growth of bioenergy feedstocks and applications.

"However, as ever, it will be the details around how these payments are designed and implemented, once the Bill has passed, that will be crucial to ensuring it has a positive impact on the agricultural sector and environment alike.”

The date for the Second Reading of the Bill has yet to be announced.

You can view the Bill in its current form on the Parliament website.

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