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The Agriculture Act: a case study for funding effective policy work

By Vicki Hird, Sustain the Alliance, 12th November 2020

Several years ago we sourced funds for an innovative project called A million good jobs in food and farming looking at how a fair transition in farming, to achieve environmental goals (including tackling nature and climate emergency), should support decent livelihoods and work. Soon after the funding was secured, we had the Brexit referendum result and everything changed. Farm policy, largely led from Europe, was about to come home. Four years on and we finally do have a shiny new Agriculture Act (11 November 2020) – the first UK one for over half a century.

Our hopes and fears

The Sustain alliance had many objectives for the Agriculture Bill and policies. Our big asks included making public goods the delivery mechanism for farm support, boosting whole farm agro-ecological approaches,  ensuring better supply chain rules to stop abuse, protect food standards and better protection for workers.

We also pressed our concerns about how the climate and nature emergency should be tackled through land use, agroforestry, soil protection, and the vital role new regulation on supply chains should play. And we wanted to avoid the death of many farms  as losing the farm diversity would have major impact on nature and landscapes, farm livelihoods, rural coherence and new entrants.

What we secured in the final Agriculture Act

A massive change will be that farm support will largely now be based on delivering public goods – supporting farmers whilst helping deliver on top priorities like nature, soil air and water protection, climate change mitigation, access, and animal welfare.  Support policies across all four nations should be better as a result, but there is much work to do on implementation and budgets.  We did work with others to get a multi-annual financing process which will hopefully ensure that public support is there for farmers.

We secured a mention in the Act for agro-ecology, soil protection and a brand new fair dealing regulation and transparency for the supply chain – as we know supply chain abuse can hurt farmers’ livelihoods and sustainability here and overseas. If properly implemented, this could be a real game changer – ensuring farmers and growers have tools to demand better deals and a regulator to enforce new contract codes of practice, designed with each sector in mind so supply chains have to play fair.

How we won

We applied many tried-and-tested tactics in the campaign and political playbook (bar dressing up as a cow) including many hours of alliance, parliamentarian and Westminster meetings, evidence sessions, consultation responses, briefings, blogs, media work, actions even some marches. We had highs (getting amendments in; the partnerships) and lows (not getting amendments in; the huge delays).

This has been a massive effort by Sustain, our member, partners, sister alliances and supporters, by farmers, Defra and so on. Some great politicians in both houses of parliament understood what was needed. We ended the four years with an almighty roar of passion from supporters with thousands of letters to MPs, plus nearly 1,000 farmers signing a ‘famous’ farmer’ letter, and a huge, broad coalition calling on parliamentarians to protect our food standards in trade deals.

The Bill itself wobbled several times – and the first version fell in December 2019, but we ourselves never wavered. This has been a great show of solidarity, and really positive working between NGOs and farmers –with the Greener UK coalition, Wildlife and Countryside Link, Land Workers Alliance, Nature Friendly Farmers Network, organic groups and many other alliances.

What we didn’t win

On agroforestry, new entrants, climate and pesticide targets we got promises but not in the Bill. We fought hard to get public health as a purpose in the Bill and better protection for farm workers but it seems these links are not obvious to farm policy makers. We won concessions and partial U-turns on imports and food standards (environment, animal welfare, food safety) to enhance parliamentary scrutiny but not to give protection for standards a legal footing – despite unprecedented public concern (2.65 million signatures; 260 MP letters) and the biggest coalition of unusual partners I have ever seen.  The Bill also lacks a strong regulatory framework so land managers know what’s expected of them in terms of environment, etc. And we never managed to penetrate the wall of ministerial indifference to democratic accountability –  the Bill should be about duties not just powers – as many of the key clauses are now in the gift of the Secretary of State.

So what’s next?

The farming sector (so the 70% of UK land they farm) faces multiple risks: an uncertain support regime ; basic payments reduced to 2027; no clear transition scheme; trade deals allowing lower standard imports; Brexit market disruptions; and climate change impacts.

So Sustain will knuckle down to work on: the still unfinished Trade Bill to protect standards; lobby to improve the design and delivery of farm support schemes; and push hard to get all farm sectors covered by statutory and enforced supply chain codes of practice under the new ‘fair dealing’ rules. Crucially, we will also be working on a big growth in the better routes to market, shorter supply chains and innovative financing and infrastructure needed for sustainable farmers. And will support climate actions in the COP26 year.

Reflections on funding

We needed our funders to be flexible and ready to accept changing priorities given the rapidly shifting political and policy environment, and to be able to respond to new opportunities and understand why we may not stick to plans. It has been an extraordinarily unpredictable four years with the personnel and policies we were aiming to influence sometimes changing overnight. Our funders’ willingness to accept changes ensured that we were able to be fleet of foot and reactive but base our actions on an already solid ground of expertise and evidence base which they’d funded.

So the funding made things happen and as HRH the Queen passes the Agriculture Act into law, I can say this has not been the longest but possibly the most intense parliamentary campaign I’ve been involved in. Let’s get on with what’s next.

Vicki Hird is Head of Sustainable Farming at Sustain the Alliance. Sign up for updates from them here and follow Vicki Hird on Twitter @vickihird.

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