The UK agricultural sector: less but better
From #BuildBackBetter to Net Zero to Black Lives Matter – 2020 has been characterised by calls for a better and more sustainable future. Transition narratives have dominated much of the public conversation, with Covid-19 shifting our thinking on what a good, dignified, decent life is.
Calls for transitions also uncover cultural, social, and political decision-making patterns and biases – with our political imagination often hampered by what can be known and the inherent biases in our political economies. They are ‘make or break it’ moments – points in time where societies, more than ever, are dependent on clear, strategic, and compassionate leadership with a vision for the future.
This blog is part of a series documenting the findings from a number of events hosted in partnership between IPPR and Agulhas, for IPPR’s Environmental Justice Commission. The events explored how we can better design public policy to support a rapid and fair transition to net zero and the restoration of nature. The events sought to explore the lessons and insights from previous transitions in different countries, sectors and industries, sharing what worked and what did not in their stories of transition.
Context and challenges
Agriculture in the UK represents around 9 per cent of greenhouse gas emissions, including just under half of all methane emissions. At the same time, many current farming trends, such as increasing fertiliser-use, is thought to be contributing to severe environmental damage including soil degradation and biodiversity loss. These challenges put agriculture front and centre of policies aimed at tackling the climate and nature crisis.
A just transition for the workers in farming is also a massive opportunity to address underlying inequalities within the sector at the same time. As it stands, agriculture in the UK is one of the most important, but paradoxically least valued industries. Based on current practices and policies, everyone is losing out: the farmer, the consumer, the community and the environment.
The first major challenge is that supermarkets, and by extension farmers, are under pressure to keep food prices cheap and affordable for all. While this may benefit the consumer, farmers’ profit margins are squeezed and focused on short-term profitability over environmentally sustainable practices. The pressure to keep food prices cheap also means that subsidies from the Common Agricultural Policy framework are disproportionately skewed towards mega-farms that can achieve economies of scale. Additionally, the quality of the food for the consumer is negatively affected as more organic products are often mistakenly viewed as a luxury item, rather than essential to a more healthy environment and health living.
The second major issue that exacerbates this short-termism is that landowners who lease land to farmers frequently do so at high rents and with short-term contracts. This works for the landowner because while the land is a farm, it is also a potential development site, and therefore accrues value over time. It has also been suggested that subsidies further push up land value, meaning that short-term contracts expose farmers to increasing rents.
These pressures drive farmers towards intensive agriculture that focuses on productivity and heavy fertiliser use to try and maximise yields. Not only does this damage the environment around them, it also risks creating a vicious cycle whereby intensive farming decreasing soil quality, which affects yields, which in turn prompts even greater fertiliser use to maintain profitability and pay rents.
In essence, through intense supermarket competition and high rents, farmers are being squeezed at both ends and inadvertently damaging the environment in the process.
The third major issue is that the environmental benefits of good farm management have previously not been sufficiently valued - despite the numerous benefits they have. Good quality soil can store a huge amount of carbon and diverse pastureland can increase wildlife richness. In the case of farms bordering water bodies, planting of trees can act as natural barriers for flooding. Yet these things are not valued by the UK government and farmers receive no income streams for their preservation.
What action was taken
The UK government is currently considering the introduction of an Agriculture Bill that would move away from the Common Agricultural Policy and replace it with an Environmental Land Management Scheme (ELMs) that rewards farmers both for food production and for preserving wildlife and the environment around farms.
While this is a very welcome policy move, it does not address every issue mentioned above. By contrast, many farmers are already taking actions that do tackle these issues and could provide useful instruction to UK policymakers. Below we discuss three brief case studies of positive actions and how they could inform future UK policy.
The first is the work of the Nature Friendly Farming Network. Farmers in this network implement agroecological system thinking that sees restorative land management and agriculture as mutually beneficial. Their practices implement a “less but better” model that challenges the assumption that decreasing chemical inputs, livestock densities and overall production can harm farmers’ profitability. Through a combination of improved crop and soil management, shifting to lower livestock densities and pastures rather than feed, technological advances such as GPS tracking of soil nutrients and reduced fertiliser use, they are demonstrating that profitability can be maintained or increased while nature is restored.
Fordhall Farm is also an excellent example both of the soil and wildlife benefits of introducing biodiverse pastureland, but also of how to tackle the problem of land ownership. After many years of legal battles, Fordhall Farm became a community owned farm. Tellingly, the removal of the prospect of further development of this land meant that its value effectively halved overnight. However, from a community perspective, the farm was arguably worth far more due to the increased relationship between the farmers themselves and the local community buying their produce. From the farm’s perspective, it was able to sell to the community directly too, rather than having to reduce prices and sell to large food distributors and supermarkets.
The final example demonstrates how, despite positive individual actions, concerted government policy is necessary for transformative change. In Denmark, the vast majority of fruit and vegetables are now organic as standard. But this only came about due to substantial investment and regulations that made this the new normal for farmers. While the examples mentioned above are very positive and show farmers leading the change to nature friendly farming, coordinated government policies are crucial to taking them on board and scaling them up across the sector.
Winners and losers
Many of the examples shown above came as a result of greater awareness of alternative methods to the norm. However, in both UK examples there was and has continued to be resistance from other farmers, who are either unaware of more sustainable methods and ownership models or lack the capacity and resources to implement them. Consequently, simply calling for farmers to change their ways, or even introducing new payments schemes to monetise environmental goods, likely won’t be enough on its own. To avoid farmers being left behind, awareness raising of what is expected of farmers and, crucially, how they can benefit from transitioning to more sustainable farming, will be essential to any policy programme.
More fundamentally, a national conversation is needed about the price of food and changing demand. While affording food is undoubtedly important, it is frequently a small proportion of essential household spending compared to other payments, such as mortgages or rents and utility bills. Conversations about food prices must be also be coupled with a review of living costs as a whole to avoid penalising the poorest in society.
One option where higher food prices may be more acceptable to local communities is to promote more community-owned farms where farmers can sell directly to the local community where the greater costs are seen to be more worthwhile because of the relationship with the farm and the knowledge their support is having a positive change in the community. At a more systemic level, the government will also need policies that implement a “less but better” approach to ensure that food waste and food supply chains are transparent for consumers.
Lastly, the government will need to make sure that it rewards forward-looking farmers who are acting now in anticipation of specifications over what does and does not constitute environmentally sustainable land management. A certain degree of flexibility over initial specifications will be key here so that farmers acting now are not penalised for doing so.
We have already touched on some lessons that can be learned above, but they are worth reiterating here. A clear message from the Fordhall Farm case study was that community ownership can build relationships back into the food system. If the food supply chain is to become more environmentally sustainable – and possibly more expensive – consumers will have to see the changes in front of them, rather than being left unaware of the mass production that goes on behind the scenes of the supermarket aisles.
These relationships must also be nurtured by using the right language to communicate policy initiatives. Food has a huge cultural resonance, but the connection people may have to the places where it is grown and reared can be cheapened by conversations over affordability. While this will always be important, we should instead be talking about the value of food. When that happens, cost is just one factor in the conversation, into which health, quality and environmental benefits also become major deciding components of ‘valuable food’.
Finally, and inevitably, individual case studies can provide useful insights for policymaking, but the policymaking must respond in kind. Individualising the response to the climate and nature crisis, or indeed products which would see farmers receive greater shares of sales, requires consumers in a supermarket to make complex choices over food supply chains, about which they may have limited knowledge and little time to decide.
A more systemic response from government that specifies the environmentally beneficial pathway that farmers should pursue and provides them with the appropriate support to do so is therefore essential to a just transition that benefits farmers, communities and individual consumers alike.
Josh Emden is a research fellow in the energy, climate, housing and infrastructure team at IPPR. IPPR and Agulhas are grateful for the support of the TUC and FES in partnering on the events in this series as part of the work of IPPR’s Environmental Justice Commission.