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Flooding, food standards and environmental land management – Defra Minister George Eustice addresses the UK’s NFU Conference

27 February 2020

The NFU Conference political session, held on 26 February, gave recently appointed Defra Minister George Eustice an opportunity to share his vision for the future of UK farming.

“Don’t cling to the sinking ship that is the CAP,” Eustice said while addressing farmers at the 2020 NFU Conference. Though opportunities for growth and innovation exist outside the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy, the UK government hasn’t been clear on the details of the new policies and systems they are pursuing for the UK.

The current outlook for UK farming is uncertain. In Eustice’s first weeks on the job, he has had to address unprecedented flooding across the UK due to storms Ciara and Dennis. In addition, the agency he leads is overseeing a generational shift in UK farming. After leaving the CAP in 2021, the UK will be free to make its own priorities and subsidy regimes. It will also be free to pursue its own bilateral trade policy – presenting both an opportunity and a threat to existing farm standards.

Eustice feels well prepared to take up the mantle: he comes from a farming background and has been involved with Defra since 2013. But as with any transition, the devil is in the details.

Environmental opportunities

When Eustice was describing his priorities, he wanted to change the BPS payment, reducing it by five percent from 2021, with large landowners taking the biggest hit. He also stated that Environmental Land Management schemes (ELMs) will be available to farmers from 2024 – signalling a full departure from EU policy.

By the end of 2024, Eustice wants to develop an environmental policy that’s new and open to all. When explaining his vision to conference attendees, he imagines a three-tiered policy that focuses on sustainability and restoration.

Tier one would focus on incentivising environmentally sustainable farming and forestry. This could include farm-level solutions like planting cover crops and maintaining hedgerows. Tier two would support local environment management schemes that deliver targeted outcomes. He suggested tree planting and initiatives that improve biodiversity. Eustice believes that this would encourage collaboration between stakeholders and allow the UK to achieve its goals of climate-friendly farming. Tier three focuses on landscape restoration and land-use change projects. As an example, he cited opportunities for blanket bog restoration and restoring upland areas.

Eustice also wants to alleviate some of the administrative burden farmers face. In his view, these extra steps make it difficult for new entrants in the farming sector and frustrates the good work UK farmers do.

Sustained flooding

A large portion of Eustice’s address focused on the flooding challenges resulting from heavy rainfall this winter. Though he’s been the minister for less than a month, the storms and floods of the past month have given him a busy start to his tenure. According to reporting from the NFU, the secretary said that he’d had daily phone calls about the topic and that Storm Dennis was the first thing Prime Minister Boris Johnson wanted Mr Eustice to lead on.

Mr Eustice said: “We’ve got a clear manifesto commitment to increase flood funding.”

As it stands now, the Flood Recovery Fund can only be used for permanent damage, and the Minister said that it was difficult to ascertain the permanent damage at the time of the conference because floodwaters hadn’t receded in many parts of the country. However, he explained that any of that fund would be “top sliced” out of Pillar 2 budget. He said: “We will be setting aside record amounts of money for flooding strategies in the next few years”

Over the next five years, the £4 billion is likely to include nature-based solutions to flooding like using natural flood plains, holding water up-stream and planting trees. According to the NFU, their presence at Flood-Ex in the same week of Conference will lay out the NFU’s plans to launch a new water management strategy.

The policy roadmap

Eustice plans to re-introduce the Agriculture Bill and include many of the proposed amendments suggested by the NFU. Eustice has added provisions for an assessment of the UK’s food security every five years and budget guarantees in the short and medium term. He also wants to promote soil health and protect native breeds with the proposed amendments.

Eustice has planned for a seven-year transition to the new policy. This period will hopefully make the switch from EU oversight an orderly one and incorporate all four regions of the UK in the transition.
When the question of food standards and free trade agreements emerged during the Q&A session, Eustice felt that the concerns over lowering standards was somewhat misplaced. He did, however, say that there was, “room for discussion”, on standards. When explaining his views on maintaining standards, he felt that the discussion should contribute to consensus building. He also stated that the Conservative Party Manifesto commits to high food standards and the farm-to-fork approach for agriculture.

Though this sounds reassuring, a manifesto isn’t binding. The fact that Downing Street wants trade agreements with huge economic blocs like the EU, United States and Australia before 2022 makes the issue more pressing. When asked by NFU President Minette Batters if these standards could be included in the re-introduced Agriculture Bill, Eustice didn’t give a clear answer. The UK’s agriculture sector could be subjected to multiple shocks before the transition period concludes.

Watch the live stream of day two of the conference here.

 



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