The Agriculture Bill is more necessary than ever in the current context, as it will help to address some of the vulnerabilities in our food system that the Covid-19 crisis has exposed.
The Covid-19 pandemic has forced us to make changes to our lifestyles and made us reflect on what we really value - including in our relationship with food.
We are more concerned, for instance, about the availability of high-quality food after seeing empty supermarket shelves at the start of the crisis.
The disruption to normal supply chains has even led some of us to experiment with buying some of our food directly from local farmers.
We have also become more aware of the benefits to our health from spending time outdoors in nature and the vital role our farmers play as stewards of the countryside.
Timely then is the return of the Agriculture Bill to the House of Commons. This landmark bill will reform agriculture policy in England so that farmers are rewarded for managing and improving the natural environment, alongside growing healthy and sustainable food.
The legislation is more necessary than ever in the current context, as it will help to address some of the vulnerabilities in our food system that the Covid-19 crisis has exposed.
My beautiful constituency of North Devon highlights how connected food, farming and nature are. Farming and fishing are key parts of our local economy.
With fishing boats laid up and dairy farmers losing key markets in the hospitality sector, Covid-19 has had a major impact on businesses in our part of the country.
It is right that the Government has announced emergency support for these sectors, so that they can survive this crisis and continue feeding the nation as the economy starts to reopen.
As stewards of 70% of Britain’s land, we need the help of our farmers if we want to improve air and water quality, protect wildlife, and tackle climate change.
In the same way, farmers depend on healthy natural assets, such as fertile soils, pollinators, and clean water, to produce nutritious food. Food security and environmental stewardship go hand in hand.
As the MP for one of the most picturesque parts of the country, I also know the value of the natural environment to our crucial tourism industry, which has been so badly hit by the pandemic. My constituency includes large parts of the Exmoor National Park, the North Devon AONB and the North Devon Biosphere.
Farmers play a crucial part in managing these significant landscapes, and the ‘public money for public goods’ policy at the heart of the Agriculture Bill will reward farmers in North Devon and beyond to plant more trees, create new habitats for wildlife, and manage their hedgerows and waterways in ways that benefit nature. I even expect there will be much more environmental tourism in the coming months and years, as people emerge from the lockdown with a newfound appreciation of green spaces.
There is more to the Agriculture Bill, though.
During the Covid-19 crisis, many of those farm businesses that had supplied restaurants and other food outlets have transformed themselves overnight to supply local communities, including vulnerable people who are self-isolating, finding new markets, and connecting people with food in unprecedented ways.
In many cases, what these local farmers do for nature or to tackle climate change have been at the centre of what has attracted an army of new customers.
I want to see this built on as we rebuild from Covid-19, and the Agriculture Bill contains the necessary powers to do this, enabling payments for ‘ancillary activities’ such as the processing, marketing or distribution of food that could play a huge part in expanding and cementing these new local food networks in the future.
This could be a huge boon for farmers in North Devon, making their businesses more resilient to future market shocks. It would also cut down on environmentally-harmful ‘food miles’ and guarantee fresher food to local consumers.
We will only secure these benefits, however, with a sensitive approach to signing new trade deals. In the spirit of ‘think global, act local’, I strongly believe that we have an opportunity now to promote an international trade policy that supports high environmental, animal welfare and food safety standards and action on climate change at home and abroad.
It is the job of MPs to ensure that our farmers are able to continue producing food in the way they always have and ensure that any future trade deals do not undermine our farmers’ environmentally-conscious approach.
This pandemic provides a time to reassess our priorities. We have to tackle long-standing weaknesses and embed positive new trends. We have to build back better. By passing the Agriculture Bill, we have the opportunity to create a more sustainable and resilient food system.