Farmers could be paid for increasing the number of worms in their soil under new legislation that will shape British farming after Brexit.
The Agriculture bill will see farmers paid for making positive contributions to the environment in a scheme that replaces the £3bn of subsidies under the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy.
The landmark legislation, which was introduced to parliament on Thursday, will bring in the most significant changes to British farming in decades.
Farmers could be rewarded for things like improving air quality, natural flood defences and providing public access to the countryside. The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs is in the initial testing phase of the scheme ahead of a national pilot that will run from 2021 to 2024.
The bill contains several new provisions since the original legislation was dropped last year when the general election was called.
The new version specifically highlights the importance of soil, which is central to improving crop quality and can act as a carbon sink, soaking up planet-warming greenhouse gases.
Farmers will receive money for protecting or improving the quality of their soil, which could be evidenced by the presence of earthworms.
Environment Secretary Theresa Villiers said: “This is one of the most important environmental reforms for many years, rewarding farmers for the work they do to safeguard our environment and helping us meet crucial goals on climate change and protecting nature and biodiversity.”
The EU’s subsidy system has come under criticism by environmentalists, who say it has encouraged industrial farming by rewarding farmers for the amount of land owned, with no consideration of environmental impact.
Direct subsidy payments will be phased out over the next 7 years, starting with those farmowners who hold the largest amount of land.
The government has committed to maintaining funding levels at £3.4bn to match the CAP subsidies, but only until the end of this parliament.
The government is under pressure to balance environmental concerns with calls from farmers to protect British farming from new trade deals which they fear could lead to imports of cheaper food.
The new bill includes a provision that the Government must regularly report to parliament on the country’s food security after we leave the European Union. The UK imports 28 per cent of its food from the EU. Government will be required to report on food safety, household food expenditure and the resilience of the supply chain, among other factors.
But it does not include a provision for parliamentary scrutiny of trade deals, which the National Farmers Union had been calling for.
“I’m pleased that the government has clearly listened to many of the concerns we raised with the Bill in the last Parliament,” NFU President Minette Batters said. “However, farmers across the country will still want to see legislation underpinning the government’s assurances that they will not allow the imports of food produced to standards that would be illegal here through future trade deals.”
Green campaigners, who are concerned that post-Brexit trade deals could lead to imports of food produced to lower environmental standards, also cautiously welcomed the bill.
"The reform of farming subsidies must be an opportunity to kickstart the transformation of the food sector that we need so we can feed ourselves without starving nature - the life support system we all depend on,” said Anna Jones, a senior campaigner at Greenpeace UK.