What does Covid-19 mean for food, farming and nature?

A small harvest mouse climbing up shoots of grass looking forwarThis post is by Tom Lancaster, head of land, seas and climate at the RSPB, and Ellie Brodie, head of land management at The Wildlife Trusts, on behalf of Greener UK and Wildlife and Countryside Link, in consultation with Sustain and the Soil Association. 

As we contemplate week six of lockdown, Covid-19 continues to shine an unforgiving light on the inequity of the global food system and its consequences for nature and people.

The shocking impact of this crisis has made us all think about the fragility of our daily existence. It has brought about a renewed focus on our essential needs and, in doing so, prompted debate about the interconnectedness and resilience of our food system and supply chains. With many of us seeking solace in wildlife and the green spaces around us, it has also highlighted the importance of nature, and improved access to it for people’s physical and mental health.

The need for agricultural reform is still urgent
In many respects, the impact of Covid-19 foreshadows some of the longer term impacts that the climate and environment emergencies were already having, and are projected to have, on food and farming.

Droughts and floods are likely to bring greater supply chain disruption in the future and the loss of natural capital, such as healthy soils, clean water and beneficial insects, is already making farming across the world more precarious than it needs to be. This crisis should, therefore, accelerate the debate about how to build a food and farming system that is resilient, healthy and regenerative, for people and nature. With a recent poll showing that two thirds of the public in the UK believe that climate change is as serious as coronavirus, action to address these long term environmental challenges is essential when responding to and rebuilding after the current crisis.

In England, the proposed move towards ‘public money for public goods’ and the new Agriculture Bill will be a vital first step. This shift will enable farmers to restore the natural environment, alongside and through the production of healthy, sustainable and nutritious food. It also brings in important new measures that could ensure supply chain fairness so the market helps rather than hinders farmers in this effort. Whole farm agroecological practices that improve soil health, rebuild populations of beneficial insects and lock up carbon, will secure the natural resources we need to underpin our ability to produce enough healthy, nutritious food into the future.

The partners at Greener UK and Wildlife and Countryside Link have spent decades making the case for this policy reform and legislation. Shortly after the EU referendum in 2016, we zeroed in on the need to replace the Common Agricultural Policy and payments to farmers. A detailed prospectus published in September 2017 set out the bones of a new contract between farmers and society.

The drivers for this reform – the inequity of the current payment regime, the need to support farmers to tackle the climate and environment emergency, and to demonstrate better value for public money – all remain and will be important with even greater scrutiny of public spending likely in the months and years ahead. We have worked with a broad range of allies on this, including Sustain and at times industry partners such as the NFU and CLA, making the case for progressive reform, high standards in future trade deals and ambitious nature restoration and net zero climate targets.

Looking ahead to the long term challenges faced by farming in the context of a climate and environment emergency, public money for public goods remains a crucial concept, and the government should bring back the Agriculture Bill as soon as possible to enable parliament to scrutinise and pass the legislation. Building back from this crisis cannot be done at the expense of nature. If it is, we will store up more crises in the years and decades to come.

We need to bank progress and go further
A new model for farm payments though, whilst an essential part of the solution, is not enough on its own. The Agriculture Bill is not and should not be the only public policy on food and farming.

Indeed, the bill itself could be improved, with stronger commitments needed on long term funding, domestic environmental and animal welfare standards, and safeguards on import standards. With these improvements to the bill, what we are faced with now is an urgent need to build out from this initial policy foundation. We need to articulate a much broader and more ambitious conception of the role that public policy and market reform can play in achieving a more just, healthy and sustainable food and farming system. You could describe this as a ‘Yes, and…’ approach to where we go from here.

And this broadening out should bring food to the fore. As citizens, questions about food are now at the front of all our minds. Is it healthy and safe? Is there enough for everyone, and can everyone access it? If not, what does that say about society when so much food is also going to waste? What is the human, animal and environmental cost of the way we produce, trade and consume food?

These – and many others – are all urgent questions. Civil society organisations are reflecting in the wake of this crisis about what we can learn, how we need to adapt and what we think needs to happen now.

A just transition to a new food and farming system
What is clear is that Defra needs to take a more coherent, holistic view of food and farming policy beyond reform to farm payments in future. We will continue to reject knee-jerk suggestions that we should stick with the status quo, or go back to the environmentally damaging policies of the past that directly incentivised food production regardless of demand. Reform to farm payments is essential if we are to build a more resilient and regenerative food system, which enhances rather than damages soil, water and nature.

But we also need more. It is now more important than ever that the National Food Strategy for England forms the basis of wider reforms to create a more just, healthy and sustainable food and farming system. We need stronger assurances that future trade policies will be built on high environmental, food and animal welfare standards. The government should be clearer about how to ensure a just transition for farmers to a new agriculture policy that is a big change from the status quo. And farming should be part of a green stimulus package to build back better from this crisis.

When the road ahead is uncertain, the urge might understandably be to ‘get back to normal’. For food, farming and nature, there is no longer such a thing: this crisis brings into sharp relief the sorts of shocks that many had already predicted as consequences of climate change and ecological breakdown.

As we respond to the impact of Covid-19, we need to be bolder and more radical, not just to be able to feed ourselves in the months and years ahead, but to do so in a way that restores nature, improves public health and tackles climate change.

A version of this post has also been published by Wildlife and Countryside Link on their blog.

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