Farmers and environmentalists agree – food security is only possible if farming is environmentally sustainable
Deliberative workshop reveals farmers are on board with climate and nature goals
Over the last few weeks, it has felt like the future of farming’s role in tackling the climate and nature crises is hanging in the balance. Under Liz Truss’ short-lived leadership, wildlife charities and environmentalists believed the government had waged a ‘war on nature’. Even as the dust settles and new postholders and perspectives move in, confidence in the government’s commitment to nature-friendly farming remains shaky, and the uncertain landscape for farmers feels no less precarious.
Central to this is the lack of clarity on the environmental land management scheme (ELMS) – the proposed successor to the basic payment scheme (BPS) that will pay farmers for environmental services and benefits. Meanwhile, farmers face huge pressures, from rising costs to workforce challenges. Operating within a system that often fails to reward them with a fair price for what they produce, farmers are also suffering at the sharp end of the most immediate and direct impacts of a changing environment – flooding, drought, increased temperatures, and pests and diseases.
Around 72 per cent of land is under some kind of agricultural production. In the face of the climate and nature crises, the risks and challenges are significant, but so are the opportunities. Farming, as a sector, is a key contributor to these crises, but farmers also hold the keys to some of the most important solutions – provided they are supported to make the changes needed.
That support is not guaranteed. For example, the evidence shows that solar panels pose a minimal threat to UK food production, acting as an efficient means to use land in multiple ways, improving both food security and energy security. Moreover, the public firmly support renewable energy. Yet, during the Conservative leadership race, both Mr Sunak and Ms Truss perversely argued against solar panels on agricultural land on the grounds of food security. The future of ELMs was under question with Ranil Jayawardena as secretary of state for environment, food and rural affairs. Will Thérèse Coffey’s experience as a junior minister under Michael Gove – a key proponent – bring a different perspective?
In the context of these ongoing policy debates, IPPR has launched a major project looking at how we can deliver a fair transition for farming in England – reducing emissions and restoring nature while supporting farming communities to meet both the challenges of the transition to a green economy, and the wider economic and social challenges the sector faces.
“How can farming in England use the land to maximise decarbonisation, nature restoration, and sustainable food production in a fair way?”
Through our research we are engaging communities in the challenges facing the agricultural sector in tackling the climate and nature crises. To inform our approach, we began the project by convening a panel of farmers and farmworkers to hear their experiences, hopes, and concerns for the future. Held across two evening sessions in late August and early September this year, the panel comprised a varied group from Somerset, Kent, and Cumbria – three English counties with diverse farming contexts. The participants included landowners, farm and land managers, tenant farmers, and fruit pickers, producing a range of arable crops, horticulture, livestock, and dairy. 
The IPPR research team heard from farmers keen to do ‘the right thing’ but beleaguered by price squeezing by supermarkets, what feels at times like a hostile public, and unclear and inflexible government policy.
These farmers and farmworkers were not in opposition to environmental and climate considerations. Many had already taken various steps towards more nature-friendly farming – including installing solar panels, reducing energy usage, and planting more clover in the fields to reduce nitrogen. One participant described the polarisation between food production and environmental protections as an “unrealistic dichotomy”. Another farmer said there’s more that unites than divides the two uses for land but “that’s not how you sell papers”.
During our sessions with farmers and farmworkers, we heard about the challenges they faced. 
- Pace of change: Although there has always been change in agriculture, we heard that the current pace of change, from so many angles – from the changing climate to shifting public opinion, and the evolving policy landscape – was overwhelming farmers’ capacity to adapt: “farming is facing lots of challenges from every direction currently”.
- Impact of climate and nature breakdown. Farmers were quick to cite climate and nature impacts on agriculture – from drought and depleted reservoirs, to increased pest and disease pressures. The record breaking hot, dry summer of 2022 was fresh in participants’ minds. One farmworker said farmers were having to think about climate adaptation faster than they thought they would need to and expressed fear that nature-friendly farming might get watered down.
- Financial precarity. The farmers we spoke with were concerned about the funding landscape for farming, both now and in the future: “any business can only take on a certain level of risk at any one time. Government policy needs to help nature and climate actions to be a ‘safer bet’ to get large-scale long-term change happening now”. They wanted to ensure fair reward for the costs of investing in climate and nature-friendly practices and felt some of the funding schemes available were inflexible, hard to navigate, and didn’t sufficiently reflect true costs.
- Simplistic policy solutions to complex problems. Participants noted a trend of agricultural policies being simplistically shaped around certain environmental priorities, such as protecting the population of a certain species, without due attention to the complexities of landscape, ecosystem and agricultural needs and interactions. One farmer was concerned there would be an unwarranted removal of technology from farming, where innovation allow the same levels of food for lower inputs. Another noted “every farm is different”, and the difficulty of writing policy at a national level, when even neighbouring farms have different requirements and strengths.
- Negative public attitudes towards farming. Farmers felt UK agriculture was misunderstood by the public, and that they were expected to be all things to all people. Farmers described that dairy, in particular, was seen as ‘the baddy’. One participant mentioned a small but strong public anti-solar sentiment, describing hate mail received after installing solar panels.
- Supermarket power and public demand for cheap food. Some felt the public’s priority was getting the cheapest food possible, without regard to how or where it was produced. Others thought the public did want food to be produced in a more nature friendly way, but that they were not prepared to pay the extra cost for it. They felt the public do not value the work put in to producing food, and the system does not emphasise environmentally sustainable or healthy food. Farmers felt supermarkets had too much power in the supply chain, to set prices, and as very powerful lobbyists of government. Because they paid a ‘pittance’, they made it difficult for farmers to do anything other than the most cost-effective option.
- Increasing input costs. Many farmers and farmworkers were concerned about rapidly increasing input costs and recognised the business benefits of nature and climate-friendly farming practices. One tenant dairy farmer felt quite prepared to make changes to his farming practices as many things were already changing due to increased input and energy costs, with an increasing fertiliser bill and high energy use for milking.
- Working conditions and workforce challenges. For one farmer, the current cost squeeze made it hard to recruit and maintain a happy team. There was agreement that a labour shortage of available people to work on the land, such as for fruit picking, made things difficult, and much of the workforce had previously come from overseas as the domestic workforce was not interested in working on farms due to the long days, hard work, and low pay. Long term, this was seen as a risk to the sector as young people are not coming into farming in sufficient numbers.
The changes they want to see
We heard from farmers and farmworkers that they care about nature, relish feeling connected to the land, and are proud of and committed to their role in feeding the public. Over and over, we heard how they love their work, despite the enormous pressures they face. This was reflected in their calls for farming to be better promoted as a sector, and built up as a positive career choice, with good training routes, and for greater support for farmers and farmworkers not just in terms of pay but also housing conditions and rural transport among other things.
We also heard that farmers want to see national policy recognise the complexities of their different contexts. They want funding for nature-friendly practices that reflect the cost of action, for maintaining changes, as well as costs of transformation. Funding schemes need to be clear, flexible, accessible, with appropriate timeframes.
We heard a desire for England to be more self-sufficient in food production, reflecting a wider message about the clear need for greater resilience in the sector and our food system. They wanted a better public understanding of food and farming, and for people to be better supported to afford decent food – tackling household food insecurity through how much support people have to buy what they need, rather than lowering food costs.
Our farms and farmland are a major part of our national identity, and farmers perform the crucial role of nourishing and sustaining us. That we can tackle the climate and nature crises in a way that improves lives, wellbeing, and creates good jobs is true across all sectors of our economy and was premise of IPPR’s Environmental Justice Commission, out of which grew our Fair Transition Unit. Our research into a fair transition for farming is a key project for this new unit.
We know that farming can reduce carbon emissions, increase carbon capture, improve the quality of water resources, and reduce the use of harmful chemicals, and increase biodiversity. The transition to sustainable farming is both possible and necessary; we can and must meet environmental and climate goals while feeding the nation. Sustainable farming is both compatible with a thriving UK agricultural sector, and the only way to achieve food security. The key question that we need to go further to understand is: how should farming change to address the climate crisis and restore nature in a way that is fair to farmers, farmworkers, and the public?
Over the next two months, we will be running deliberative workshops with the public in Somerset, Kent, and Cumbria, to developer a richer understanding of possible answers to that question. By providing spaces for the public, farmers, and farmworkers to engage with these issues, we aim to develop a package of policy recommendations that will support farmers in the transition to the green economy, deliver a fairer food system, and support thriving communities.
If you would like to be involved in the wider research, please get in touch with Becca Massey-Chase ([email protected]) and Lesley Rankin ([email protected]).
 The group of 16 comprised nine women, seven men, and two participants of colour, and included six farm workers. As part of the project, a number of the farmers and farmworkers will undertake media training and be provided with support to be spokespeople for change in their industry.
 For more on the challenges facing the farming community, see https://www.ippr.org/research/publications/a-fair-transition-for-farming