Thu 16 Jan 2020

Oxford Farming Conference January 2020: highlighting issues affecting the farming sector.

The Conference, held between 7 and 9 January 2020 against the backdrop of Brexit, with Britain now poised to leave the European Union, included several keynote speeches which inform the sector. 

Michael Gove opined that the world is now entering a fourth agricultural revolution.

The first was the move from hunting and gathering to settlement and cultivation: the second from the 17th to 19th century and pioneered in Britain, saw the development of crop rotation, mixed farming methods and the beginning of effective machinery. The third gave rise to pioneering scientific work which, by the introduction of new seed varieties, fertilisers and pest controls, transformed the scale of food production worldwide: and we are now in the fourth agricultural revolution.

Changes are rapidly coming into play. We see it weekly if not daily with, for example: new apps operating to mitigate crop spray drift; and drones capturing images of the growing crops which can, amongst other things, show farmers the incidence of weeds in their fields and are accurate enough to show damage caused by insects on single leaves. It is not just the farmers on the front line of change; solicitors and other professional advisers are also having to deal with new concepts as they strive to advise clients engaged in transactions which involve cutting-edge scientific research and gene editing in the field of agriculture, for example, considering whether this falls within the legal ambit of commercial or agricultural activity.

Operating during the fourth revolution will mean farmers have to deal with a whole host of new issues, ranging from the reduction in the need for farm labour, through being able to minimise the imprint of vehicles on the soil, to learning about  new cultivation techniques and how to minimise the use of natural resources.  Climate change, food security, the environment, bio-diversity, animal welfare, soil fertility and a healthy sustainable diet for the population are all issues that have to be factored in and considered by the sector. All these matters are inter-related.

And all of this is occurring when in the UK farmers are also dealing with the impact of Brexit, the sweeping away of CAP and, in Scotland, Indy Ref 2 potentially looming and the very real possibility of more economic uncertainty.

Teresa Villiers confirmed at the Conference that the Government's landmark Agriculture Bill will be introduced later this month, and that it is hoped that it will become law by the end of May 2020. That Bill will apparently include policies to meet all the issues mentioned above and will also introduce policies to cover increased productivity and profitability for farm businesses with a view to ensuring the UK can strike new international trade deals. She also mentioned the phasing out of direct payments to farmers which is to happen over a seven-year agricultural transition period, and which in England are to be replaced by an Environmental Land Management Scheme.

Of course there is a policy divergence between the UK home nations. Trade policy  is reserved to Westminster, whilst agricultural policy is devolved.   Ms. Villiers commented that there would be "big constitutional implications in attaching strings to devolved farming support".

With so much change in the agricultural sector and at such speed, farmers and agri-businesses and their advisers need to keep abreast of all changes and be ready to act and advise accordingly. Clients of Morton Fraser can be sure that we are watching change very carefully and stand ready to advise our clients on all developments in the sector.

There is and will be a lot to think about in 2020, that is without even mentioning border controls and tariffs which are looming. We have already seen on the international front that turbulence is never far away, and I think it will be a turbulent year in the sector but we will take it one day at a time and hope that when the going gets tough the tough get going.

In the meantime, if you need any advice on rural or agricultural matters or other matters affecting your rural business, please get in touch. 

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