Proposals to radically transform government support for UK agriculture passed their second reading in the House of Commons on Tuesday (3 February).
The government’s Agriculture Bill paves the way for direct payments to be phased out and replaced by a new system largely based on environmental support.
Under the proposals, direct payments will be phased out over seven years from 2021, with farmers paid instead to undertake a range of environmental activities.
These include measures such as improving air and water quality, encouraging public access to the countryside and offsetting greenhouse gas emissions.
Defra secretary Theresa Villiers described it as a opportunity for farmers to play a fundamental role in protecting nature and tackling catastrophic climate change.
But opposition politicians and industry leaders have voiced concern that British farmers could see their efforts undermined by food imports produced using methods illegal in the UK.
Green Party MP Caroline Lucas asked Mrs Villiers for a legal commitment that food coming into the country would be produced to the same standards as those met by British farmers.
“The secretary of state talks about looking after our farmers and higher standards,” said Ms Lucas, who is MP for Brighton Pavillion.
“But will she guarantee that those higher standards will not be undercut by cheaper imports that do not meet those standards?
“If they are, we will not be doing our farmers any favours at all.”
Mrs Villiers replied: “We will maintain our high standards of animal welfare, food safety and environmental protection.
“It is there in our manifesto, and we will defend that line in our trade negotiations.”
But that wasn’t enough to satisfy other MPs who had similar questions.
Too much uncertainty
Shadow Defra secretary Luke Pollard said the Bill failed to provide controls on imported agricultural goods, such as chlorinated chicken or hormone-treated beef.
Neither did it guarantee the environmental, animal welfare and food safety standards that would apply to food imports, he added.
Mr Pollard said: “I have looked in ministerial statements for certainty and found plenty of words, but no answers – at least none that I genuinely believe.”
Tory MP Neil Parish (Tiverton & Honiton) called on the government to ensure its planned environmental scheme was properly tested before being fully rolled out.
“The point has been made across the House that we produce some of the best – if not the best – food in the world to high environmental and animal welfare standards,” he said.
“We cannot allow in food that does not meet those high standards, so I look forward to things coming forward in Committee and on Report.
“As we design our new policy for enhancing our environment – planting trees, stopping flooding, and so on – we must also seek to enhance the way we grow our food.”
Conservative MP Anthony Brown (South Cambridgeshire) said British farmers faced challenges, and it was essential that they were able to export with a level playing field.
And he added: “They must not be undermined by competitors who cut costs by cutting environmental or animal welfare standards.
Liberal Democrat MP Tim Farron (Westmorland & Lonsdale) said the Bill failed to address the need for a coherent food production strategy.
“Food production is the central motivation for most farmers, and food security is a real challenge for our farmers,” he said.
With some 50% of the food consumed in the UK coming from abroad, the country was in a precarious position,” suggested Mr Farron.
“How stupid would we be to put our farmers in a similarly precarious position?”
Closing the debate, Defra minister George Eustice underlined the government’s manifesto pledge to maintain high standards of animal welfare, food safety and environmental protection.
A prohibition on the sale of chlorine-washed chicken or hormone-treated beef was already on the statute book as retained EU law, said Mr Eustice.
Trial plots for the government’s new environmental scheme were in place and a full pilot scheme would be deployed in 2021, he added.