The UK government released an updated version of its legislation for farming after Brexit last week, promising a radical overhaul of the industry.
Plans include the replacement of EU subsidies with a new system which rewards farmers for protecting the land, addressing issues such as habitat protection, soil conservation, animal welfare and climate change.
But farmers and environmentalists are both concerned that there is no promise that UK food standards will not be lowered in any trade deal with the USA.
The new draft of the bill has had a mixed reception from sector body Co-operatives UK.
Policy officer James Wright said: “The new Agriculture Bill has the same effect as the 2017-19 bill after its committee stage. This is positive. But on its own the Agriculture Bill provides for narrower competition exemptions than currently in force under EU and UK law.
“We need government to give greater clarity and certainty on its longer-term intentions for competition and co-operation.”
Writing on Co-operatives UK’s website, Mr Wright welcomed the bill’s proposal for a new system of support for farmer co-operation, via new UK-specific Producer Organisation (PO), Association of Producer Organisation (APO) and Inter-Branch Organisation (IBO) schemes, across a wide range of sectors.
“Crucially, the new Bill effectively incorporates an amendment to the 2017-19 Bill, which we secured in committee stage, so that co-operatives serving farmers in more than one sector could in principle be given PO or APO status,” he said.
The Bill also changes the UK Competition Act, added Mr Wright, so the competition exemptions for co-operating farmers will only protect arrangements registered under one of the new PO, APO or IBO schemes, where the activity involves concentrating supply.
Furthermore, reference to policy objectives such as productivity, farmer earnings and food security (CAP Objectives), are removed, he said.
“This is a narrowing of the exemptions currently in place through UK and EU law, which protect co-operation in every sector and in areas such as inputs, research and development, innovation adoption and data, as well as downstream market concentration via POs, APOs and IBOs. And crucially, the law currently provides these exemptions with reference to policy objectives such as productivity, farmer earnings and food security (CAP objectives).”
Mr Wright said this makes it “essential” that the new PO and APO schemes include a broad range of farmer co-operatives, and welcomed measures in the new bill that “allow for multi-sector co-operation in the high-level design of these schemes”.
But, he added: “We remain concerned that the bill only provides competition exemptions for co-operatives involved in concentrating supply.
“While this is obviously a sensitive activity from a competition perspective, we would also like co-operation in areas such as inputs, R&D, innovation adoption and data to be covered by the competition exemptions in this bill.”
He said farmer collabaration in areas such as R&D and innovation should enjoy competition exemptions, because “the more such collaboration occurs, and the more valuable it is, the greater the risk and the need for protections will be”.
Co-operatives UK has now written to the farming minister, asking for clarity on government’s intentions regarding the competition exemptions domesticated from EU law.
“We hope government will provide this when the Bill gets its second reading in Parliament,” said Mr Wright.
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