Right now, the UK food system as a whole is bad for our health, bad for nature and the climate and, on top that, it is not even offering an economically sustainable livelihood for most farmers. The National Food Strategy, out today, sets out an integrated plan for how we can turn these problems around. Its insights on farming and land use are particularly exciting because they show how we can ‘have it all’: healthy food, as well as restored nature, carbon sinks and sustainable farm businesses.
1. More diversity in farming and land use
When thinking about how to provide more space for nature, there is often a polarised debate between proponents of two approaches: ‘land sparing’ and ‘land sharing’. Land sparing means intensifying farming to produce more food on less land and using the rest of the land to create new, wilder habitats. In contrast land sharing says we should farm in a more extensive, nature friendly way, incorporating nature into actively farmed landscapes. As the National Food Strategy points out, this is not a binary choice and the best thing to do is to pursue both. Much of wildlife is adapted to thrive in a farmed environment, so nature friendly farming is vital. But other wildlife needs more natural, wilder habitats to do well, so we do need to free up some land to create high quality, unfarmed habitat. Having such diversity in farm types will lead to more abundant and resilient nature across the UK.
2. All farm types can be regenerative
Accordingly, some farmland will still need to be managed to produce high yields. But, even this land can and should use the regenerative methods and principles taken from agroecology to restore soil health and reduce harmful inputs. Failure to do so will not only undermine nature restoration and climate change mitigation, but also our ability to produce food as it destroys the essential biology of soil that feeds our crops. Luckily, farmers are already showing how soil can be restored and pesticides and artificial fertilisers reduced while maintaining yields. The National Food Strategy highlights the work of farmer Craig Livingstone who has reduced pesticide use by 42 per cent and industrial fertiliser by 32 per cent through diversifying crops and introducing grazing livestock in rotation, growing cover crops, and using organic compost and farmyard manure. The new Environmental Land Management schemes and farm productivity funding should help more farmers to use these and other regenerative practices.
3. The UK should get ahead in developing alternative protein sources
As I argued in a blog last week, alternative protein sources are coming whether we like it or not. They can be integrated into the food system in a way that protects public health and farmers, but this will not necessarily be the case, and many people are rightfully wary about negative impacts on farm livelihoods. There is still a window in which this transition can be influenced and managed positively before market forces take over, but to take advantage of it the UK needs to position itself at the forefront of these developments. While we have excellent academic research programmes, commercialisation is largely happening in other countries. Anyone concerned about their impact on farmers, public health and the environment should get behind the National Food Strategy’s call for more public investment and the development of a manufacturing base for alternative proteins in the UK. It’s estimated this could create 10,000 manufacturing jobs and secure 6,500 farming jobs to supply inputs rather than importing them.
4. Trade policy and funding must back farmers to lead change
Farmers are under huge pressure from all sides. Many are heavily reliant on agriculture subsidies to remain in business, due to the low share of the final food price which makes it back to the farmer. The changing climate is leading to unpredictable and extreme weather which can destroy their harvests at a stroke. And the government seems intent on signing trade deals which will let in more food produced to lower standards, creating unfair competition.
Farming subsidies are being phased out and replaced by a system which pays for the environmental benefits farmers provide. This will help to reduce climate risk and reverse nature decline which are both undermining farming. But it is also an opportunity for farmers to create new income streams, selling environmental services alongside food. The current funding is only guaranteed until 2024, creating uncertainty for farmers and making it hard for them to take long term decisions about investing in more sustainable practices. Funding needs to be guaranteed at least at the current level up to 2029.
On trade, the government should urgently take up the recommendation of its own Trade and Agriculture Commission and set core standards that all food imports should meet, so farmers in this country have a level playing field on which to operate, at the same time as being asked to become world leading custodians of the environment. The National Food Strategy is a plan to transform the food system to one that works well for consumers, farmers and the environment. The sooner the government implements it, the better.