The introduction of the Agriculture Bill on 16 January, signals a new approach to farming in England – one that focuses on paying farmers for ‘public goods’; but what exactly does this mean and how will our natural environment benefit?

The new approach replaces the former grants and subsidies issued under the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP), whereby payments – approximately £3-billion a year – were made to farmers in accordance with the amount of agricultural land that they managed. This feature of the CAP led to, among other things, unproductive land being farmed that could have been managed to benefit wildlife. The new approach is to be phased in over the next seven years, beginning in 2021.

The term ‘public goods’ refers to benefits of land management that do not directly produce financial gain, for example, improved soil and water quality, and biodiversity benefits. Environmental Land Management schemes (ELMs) will be introduced as part of the Bill and are based on a natural-capital valuation approach. Therefore, a strong focus on addressing nature recovery underpins the new Bill. The Agriculture Bill also sets out to support the government’s 25 Year Environment Plan.

The new Environment Bill – intended to provide a mechanism to ensure that when we leave the EU, environmental protections are upheld and maintained – is set to sit alongside the Agriculture Bill.

The new approach to farming will mean increased collaboration between farmers and other land managers in order to achieve prescribed benefits and effective implementation.

There are a number of concerns aired by different organisations in relation to the Bill that are primarily centred around the strength of its commitments to nature recovery and how these in reality are to be funded, enforced and implemented – the Bill is currently going through the parliamentary process, therefore, could be subject to amendment. There has also been criticism that the Bill doesn’t go far enough in its commitment to nature recovery and the climate crisis.

There are concerns about the proposed support given to farmers to help them implement changes – such as moving away from using artificial fertilisers and pesticides – and understand the ecological baseline of their landholdings from which to determine improvements and ongoing management.

In addition, the matter of how to robustly value natural-capital is of some concern in terms of the methodology used.

Environmental and farming experts have defined three key ‘asks’ of the government in relation to the Agriculture Bill:

● progress the Bill through Parliament with public goods, such as those related to the environment, remaining a central focus, and begin the transition to this new system
● guarantee funding of at least £3bn p.a. for ten years for public-goods based land management
● ensure that future trade deals and legislation maintain or improve environmental requirements.

It is clear that much still needs to be ironed out in terms of the Bill and its implementation; however, it does provide many exciting opportunities for wildlife and nature recovery.