Opinion: Agriculture Bill ignores the views of those it is meant to serve

Like 44,000 other individuals who responded to the Health and Harmony consultation earlier this year, I recently received an email from Defra.

It said the department was delighted to announce the “landmark” Agriculture Bill and claimed it set out how farmers and land managers would be supported as we leave the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy.

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The email went on to assure me that “my voice was heard” in the development of the new policy and legislation, and concluded that the department looked forward to our conversation continuing.

Sometime later I read through the document itself. It told how public money will in future be paid for public goods – although it did not enlighten me, any more than Health and Harmony did, as to what that phrase really means or how it will be measured, except that it will be for things “from which we all benefit”.

Beyond that it said the new legislation will devote money to enriching wildlife habitats, preventing flooding, improving air quality, raising standards of animal welfare, planting trees and so on.

The production of food was mentioned in passing but almost, it seemed to me, as an afterthought. Productivity was certainly a long way down the list of priorities.

Now, as one of those who started Leaf (Linking Environment and Farming), it might be assumed I would be pleased at the bill’s concentration on environmental matters. But I confess it hardly mentioned any of the opinions I expressed during the consultation.

Yes, I advocated care for the environment and some of the other matters included. But I also stressed strongly that such things could and should be achieved alongside optimum food production.

So much for consultation. For I am confident that most farmers who participated will have made similar points to mine. The NFU certainly did.

Our views have either been ignored or, more likely, outvoted by members of single-issue pressure groups whose opinions were given equal or greater weight than ours, despite the fact that most don’t produce a thing.

A history of getting it wrong

Governments and the EU have a history of getting agricultural policy wrong. They clung to the intervention system for too long and ended up with grain mountains and milk lakes.

They reacted by introducing set-aside and public criticism grew even stronger as consumers decided farmers were getting paid for doing nothing. Then followed area payments that paid most to the biggest. And once again farmers were criticised because governments had got it wrong.

Meanwhile, here in Britain our self-sufficiency for food declined from 80% to 60%, sucking in more imports every year.

Indeed, it is difficult to believe under such circumstances that Defra, led by a keen Brexiteer, is now preparing to embark on a policy that will almost certainly increase our food deficit still further by concentrating on the environment almost to the exclusion of encouraging the production of food.

Is it beyond the wit of government ministers or their civil servants to create viable policies for agriculture that balance the production of the food the nation needs with caring for the environment in which they do it, as farmers instinctively want to do? Or are they so influenced by lobby groups and political correctness that they can’t recognise common sense when they see it?

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