Last week, at the National Farmers’ Union conference, NFU President Minette Batters said: “British farmers need to be recognised and valued, first and foremost, as food producers… we should never take our food security for granted.” The farming minister, Mark Spencer, told the conference, “your primary job is to feed the nation”.
Therese Coffey, the secretary of state, said: “Keeping the country fed is what farming is for. Farmers’ primary purpose is to produce the fine food we enjoy.” Keir Starmer said, “food security is national security”. The prime minister reasserted his commitment to food security and thanked the assembled farmers for pork pies.
There is nothing wrong with any of this. Food production is the primary role of most farmers. It would be a brave speaker who queried this at the (slightly terrifying) NFU conference, and a cloth-eared politician who did so in the face of rising food prices and empty supermarket shelves.
Not all food production is equal
Climate change and war are disrupting production and supply across the world. It is arguable, in Professor Tim Lang’s words, that “for a country blessed with a relatively benign climate not to maximise its own sustainable food produce is immoral and could come back to haunt us”.
But not all food or food production is equal. We need a more sophisticated debate.
Forty per cent of the UK’s arable land area is used to grow cereals to feed animals, including half our wheat harvest. Twenty per cent of farmed land in England produces just three per cent of the calories we grow (some parts of the country are more suited to producing food than others). Farmland is used for non-food crops (it always has been) such as biofuels, or for luxuries such as whisky. We also export food; indeed, the NFU wants to increase exports by 30 per cent.
As well as producing food, farmland contributes to climate change. It is also an essential part of the solution. If we are to achieve net zero, we need to reduce emissions from farming and use more land to store carbon. That means rejecting the simplistic line that all food growing is good and that anything that limits production anywhere must be bad.
Farming has driven the loss of biodiversity in the UK. If we want to restore nature, we must change the way we farm. As farming needs pollinators and healthy soils, this will also help to safeguard the long term future of UK agriculture.
Tackling climate change (both mitigation and adaptation) and restoring nature will mean planting trees, restoring peatlands and even wilding some areas of farmland. We can do this without harming food security.
Farming also pollutes our waterways: there is understandable anger about human sewage being discharged into rivers and the sea, but agricultural run off is at least as big a problem, as anyone who loves the River Wye will tell you. Cleaning our rivers requires changed farming practices – buffer strips by rivers, fewer and better targeted inputs, lower stocking levels in some places – and some diet change.
Many farmers embrace the changes
All the changes we need must be done with farmers. Since the second world war, they have done what they have been asked to do and been rewarded for it. But the system in which they have been caught has been largely about food production, with too little thought for what food is produced or how. Now farming is changing and many farmers are embracing it. They will still grow food, of course, but they also have a big job to do in tackling climate change and improving the environment. They should be rewarded properly for that.
All this matters, because if we think the challenge is simply to grow more food – any food, regardless of where or what or how – we will fail to sequester carbon, generate renewable energy, adapt to the climate change that is already happening (and affecting farming), restore nature, clean our rivers or improve diets. Farmers should be valued for feeding the nation, but producing food is not their only job. Farmers can feed the nation and restore nature, tackle climate change and so on. It is not one or the other.