Is this really a "Green Brexit"?

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The Agriculture Bill 2018 is a significant opportunity to overhaul British farming. The government promises a move from an “arbitrary” payments system, to a system of public money for public goods. We welcome this idea.

However, when we read the draft Bill, we find that the promised principle isn’t really there. It seems the Bill is not really based on the principle of public money for public goods. Rather than giving farmers support based on the amount of benefit they provide to others – public goods – the Bill includes all sorts of “get-out” clauses that loosen the relationship between public money and public goods. This will undermine the rural communities, land managers and the natural environment that are the bedrock of farming. Significant improvements to the Bill will be needed to end the arbitrary nature of the old system.

For instance, whilst there is a list of public goods that can attract payments, there is no detail of how much of the total budget would go towards helping farmers provide public goods. In addition, ministers can also provide payments for people “starting…agricultural activity”, with no qualifications that this should be beneficial at all. There is a risk that the spirit of the public goods approach may have been drained from the Bill before its birth. Indeed, the term “public good” does not appear once in the Bill. It only appears in speeches and press releases written by Defra – the Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.

We think that if the Bill were to reward farmers, foresters, and land managers in proportion to public goods, it would encourage a transition away from animal agriculture, towards a plant-based system.

This is because:

  • UK agriculture causes 10% of our GHG emissions. Since 1990, powerful CH4 emissions have declined by 16%, mostly due to fewer cattle being farmed. The even stronger N2O emissions have decreased by 18%, also thanks in part to fewer farmed animals. [1]
  • Experts have argued that it is virtually impossible to avoid dangerous climate change without addressing the emissions from the agriculture sector.[2]
  • A move towards a plant-based agriculture system would bolster the UK’s self-sufficiency, because crop farming uses 50 percent less land than animal agriculture.[3]
  • The livestock industry is the world’s single biggest user of water.[4]
  • Plant-based agriculture would improve animal welfare.

We therefore want the Bill to give public money in proportion to public goods. This would move us away from animal agriculture and towards a more plant-based system.

What would we change?

We would want to see five key amendments to the Bill:

1. Base the Bill more firmly on the principle of public money for public goods

Clarify the meaning of public goods. Make public money sufficient to ensure that farmers, foresters and other land managers are handed the right tools to protect our rural communities, non-human animals, and the natural environment. Give explicit support to land managers transitioning to sustainable plant-based methods.

2. Encourage new entrants to come in and grow plant protein crops

Plant protein crops for the food sector is an underexplored opportunity that could attract a new generation of entrepreneurs and provide sustainable and healthy crops for the nation. Amendments must be tabled to support farmers wishing to grow plant protein crops for human consumption with access to land, training, and start-up costs.

Plant protein crops can be “win-win-win-win”, as the New Economics Foundation’s report put it: sustainable, affordable, ethical, and healthy.[5] They are low in emissions, low in resource use, beneficial for the environment, and ingredients for tasty, healthy foods. Like Canada, we should grasp the opportunity to boost this sector.

3. Support farmers to transition away from animal farming

We welcome the delinking of payments, so that farmers will be supported even if they want to retire and let others onto the land. This support should be explicitly directed at helping farmers out of animal agriculture, with access to advice and retraining.

4. The Bill’s Research and Development money should be directed towards plant protein crops

The Bill promises Research and Development money, but for areas such as “sustainable” livestock farming. This move is evidence of a lack of realism on the Government’s part. The UN has already called for sweeping reductions to meat and dairy consumption, and that means a transition toward plant protein. Furthermore, the UN’s International Panel on Climate Change has called on governments to keep temperature rises to below 1.5 degrees Celsius, rather than the often-cited 2 degree figure. This requires bolder action. It requires ‘“rapid and far-reaching” transitions in land use.[6] Agriculture is a large and overlooked emitter, and cutting the CH4 from farmed ruminant animals such as cows can make a quick, significant reduction in the global warming potential of our atmosphere. So we must bring rapid, positive change in the agricultural sector if we are to deliver for farmers, rural communities and consumers the bright future promised by the Secretary of State.

5. Expand the concept of  animal welfare as a public good

The Bill must be changed to guarantee that industrial animal farming receives no public money. Any use of animals in farming, and the killing of free-living animals, is completely incompatible with the welfare of any animal. 

With such improvements, we could begin to herald a genuinely beneficial new settlement for British agriculture. We call on politicians to improve the Bill at Second Reading. And we call on Defra to deliver the “green Brexit” they have promised to us all.

Read more about The Vegan Society’s Grow Green campaign here.

[2] Wellesley et al. (2015) ‘Changing Climate, Changing Diets: Pathways to Lower Meat Consumption’. Chatham House, e.g. p. 5.
[3] Hallström, E., Carlsson-Kanyama, A &  Börjesson, P. (2015)  ‘Environmental impact of dietary change: a systematic review’ Journal of Cleaner Production, 91, pp.1-11
[4] FAO (2006) ‘Livestock's long shadow: environmental issues and options’. Rome: Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations.
[6] IPCC PRESS RELEASE, 8 October 2018, Summary for Policymakers of IPCC Special Report on Global Warming of 1.5ºC approved by governments.

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