The new Agriculture Act 2020 is the first domestic legislation covering agriculture for over 70 years and was passed into law on 11 November 2020. It is widely considered to provide a boost to the farming industry after years of, what was often times criticised as, overly bureaucratic policy. The Act empowers farmers by assisting business to remain competitive, increasing productivity, investing in new technology and seeking a fair return from the marketplace. The key takeaways from the new Act are explored below:
Food Production and Food Security
Food production lies at the heart of agriculture and food security has been reported to be diminishing year on year for the UK. Therefore, the government will now be required to report on the state of the nation’s food security every three years. The first report will be published at the end of next year and will include analysis of the impacts of the coronavirus pandemic on food supply, as well as more general themes including global availability of food, food safety and consumer confidence. The government will also be obliged to invest in the foundations of food production, such as clean air, soils and water, to further safeguard the UK’s food security.
Trade Agreements and Food Standards
There are understandable concerns regarding food imports from countries where production has lower animal welfare, public health and environmental standards than those in the UK. Although, the new Act does not guarantee that any future trade agreements include an obligation to meet existing UK plant and animal health and welfare standards and/or environmental standards the Act does require that the Trade and Agriculture Commission, made up of independent food, farming and environmental experts from across the UK, advise the government on the impact of any future trade deals in a report that will be laid before parliament before any trade deal is ratified.
Public Goods and shift in payments
The new Act marks the departure from the Basic Payment Scheme, which paid farmers for the total amount of land farmed and was, at times criticised for skewed payments towards the largest landowners. A new Environmental Land Management Scheme to reward farmers with payments for producing ‘public goods’, such as better air and water quality, higher animal welfare standards, improved access to the countryside and measures to reduce flooding, will be introduced. We are told that the aim is to give farmers and land managers an incentive to work towards the UK’s environmental goals via sustainable farming processes.
The above changes in payments won’t be immediate. To allow farming businesses to adjust to a new agricultural system, the Act has introduced a seven-year transition period during which direct payments will be phased out, starting from 2021 and continuing through to the end of 2027. During this period, farmers and land managers will be able to apply for alternative support. Productivity grants will be available next year and Countryside Stewardship schemes will remain open to new applications in the first few years of the transition period