Daniel Zeichner – 2023 Speech on the Agricultural Transition Plan

The speech made by Daniel Zeichner, the Shadow Minister for Food, Farming and Fisheries, in the House of Commons on 26 January 2023.

I thank the Minister for advance sight of the statement. It provides detail following announcements made not to this House, Mr Deputy Speaker, but to the Oxford farming conference some weeks ago. It will be scrutinised closely as farmers rightly try to work out what it will mean for them. With intense cost pressures on fertiliser, fuel and labour supply, many people are hurting and worrying. At the same time, the reduction in basic payments moves inexorably onwards. For people on the margins, especially in the uplands, the withdrawal of that essential support will make life harder and harder. Next year, half of it will be gone and the value of the other half will be eroded substantially by inflation.

So what is on offer today? Not nearly enough, I am afraid. There are more than 100 pages of complexity. There are lots of schemes, which are worthy in themselves, but in far too many cases, I fear they will be insufficiently attractive. There is a risk that take-up will be very low, as we have seen with the SFI so far, with just 224 paid out last year, compared with the over 80,000 receiving basic payments. I hope take-up improves—we want these schemes to work—but we have real doubts. Will the Minister tell us how much of the £1 billion already cut from farmers will go back to them this year through environmental land management schemes? How many people does he expect to take up the SFI in this calendar year? I welcome the reference to tenant farmers, but can he guarantee access to those schemes, because he will be aware of the issues highlighted in the Rock review?

There are also real questions about the environmental benefit. In the absence of a whole-farm approach, there is real risk, particularly on countryside stewardship, that the Government will pour money out to people to do pretty much what they already do and then intensify alongside that. Will the Minister tell us today what measures of environmental improvement are in place to ensure that public goods are really being secured in return for public money? Crucially, what impact does this all have on our food security? Will he tell us today whether we produce more or less food in this country this year as a consequence of these changes?

It is fully three years since we discussed the Agriculture Bill in Committee. I asked many of the same questions then and got vague answers. We will soon be halfway through the so-called transition. The Government have been good at cutting the funding to hard-pressed farmers, but frankly woeful at guaranteeing our food production here in the UK and enabling the switch to the more sustainable nature-friendly food production system we all want to see.

Mark Spencer

I honestly entered the Chamber with optimism. I thought today was the day we would get a positive Opposition able to join the people up and down the country who are being positive about this. I am sure the hon. Gentleman is disappointed we have had positive comments from non-governmental organisations and farming organisations, which seem to be welcoming the plans.

Let us get to the points the hon. Gentleman made. He said we made announcements at Oxford, but what we announced at Oxford was the lifted payments for countryside stewardship. Today we are announcing the SFI, which is the other scheme. That is on the website now. There are six extra schemes in there, some of which—the low-input grassland and improved grassland schemes, for instance—are designed to help and support exactly those upland farmers he mentioned. There is also support through countryside stewardship to assist with the maintenance of stone walls, so there are lots of things for farmers to embrace.

The hon. Gentleman asks: can we do both? Can we keep the nation fed and improve the environment? We have full confidence that we can. Looking at the data and at history, this country gets about 1% more efficient year on year in the way we produce food. That means that in 10 years’ time we can produce the same amount of food on 10% less land. I think we can do better than that. With investment in new technology, we can be more productive on the most productive land, and on the margins around those fields we can add true biodiversity and environmental output.

Let me give a practical example. If we convince farmers not to cut their hedgerows in August or September, as was traditional, but encourage them to cut them in February, that would provide a huge pantry of berries for small birds to feed on throughout the winter. Combining that with support for wildflower strips next to the hedgerows would encourage the development of lacewings and ladybirds, which eat aphids, which are the pests farmers use pesticides on to stop the damage to their crops. That would be a win-win by working with, not against, nature. That is what we want to encourage farmers to do, and that is how we will deliver food security, environmental benefits and better biodiversity.