This article was first published by the Farmers Weekly, you can view the original here.
Achieving more sustainable food production in the UK will require a “carrot and stick” approach, but with more emphasis on inducements than penalties, according to Sustainable Food Trust chief executive Patrick Holden.
“We can’t blame farmers for simply following what makes economic sense,” he says.
“But British agriculture needs to become more sustainable – to better respect the environment and produce food that is better for human health – and that can only be achieved if it is profitable to do so.”
Mr Holden, who runs his own organic farm in west Wales and is a former director of the Soil Association, believes current farming practices which use agro-chemicals to maximise production are causing long-term damage to the environment.
He says that with regards to climate change, we are in the ‘last-chance saloon’ and changing farming systems holds one of the keys to avoiding irreversible damage to our soils, our ecosystems and our climate.
He believes farming systems need to change so that cutting greenhouse gas emissions, conserving water supplies, improving the soil and extending biodiversity become part of the mainstream, rather than niche activities.
To persuade farmers to adjust will require a change in the economics of sustainable farming, which provide a combination of better returns from the marketplace and taxpayer support, says Mr Holden.
He also accepts that securing a market premium post Brexit will require protection from imports of cheaper food from parts of the world that do not adhere to the UK’s high standards.
This, he says, can be achieved by imposing a new system of differentiated tariffs that targets producers and countries which continue to farm in a way that damages the planet.
He also believes that the government must create an agricultural policy which helps farmers who use more sustainable techniques to achieve greater profit.
“Michael Gove has brought some brilliant fresh thinking since taking over as Defra secretary,” says Mr Holden. “We now have a golden opportunity to take the average direct payment of £80/acre and use it to reward farmers who embrace environmental improvement.”
This money should not be spent on old-style stewardship schemes, he argues, as these have merely encouraged farmers to separate their commercial food production activities from their environmental delivery, with areas allocated to both.
The Sustainable Food Trust prefers a whole-farm approach – for example, paying farmers to improve their soil fertility across the whole of their farm, or reduce chemical fertiliser and pesticide application on all their fields, rather than just targeting pockets of woodland or field margins.
As well as redirecting support, Mr Holden believes there is a strong case to increase the farm support budget from the current £3bn a year, not cut it, as many have assumed will be the case.
But as well as providing incentives, Mr Holden believes that farms using practices which cause damage to the environment or public health should be held financially accountable for that damage.
He suggests a tax could be introduced on certain pesticides, artificial fertiliser and antibiotics, to make them more expensive and so dissuade farmers from using them.
Any funds raised could be channelled into a new environmental programme, he adds.
Q&A with Patrick Holden
Q. With a population of 65 million and rising, should we not be aiming to step up food production rather than adopt practices that lower yield and self-sufficiency?
My stock answer to that stock question is that we already produce enough food, but 50% of it gets wasted – both along the supply chain and in the household.
That needs to be addressed. People also need to eat a bit less – we have an obesity crisis in this country, so producing more food may not help.
And there is also the issue of processing grain into livestock, which is wasteful due to the efficiency losses.
Q. Do you see veganism as a threat or opportunity?
The trend towards veganism has been triggered by an understandable revulsion towards industrial livestock farming.
But there is a lack of understanding of the role ruminants play in maintaining the carbon in our grasslands.
Grass-fed beef and lamb are highly nutritious and play a positive role in helping us reduce our climatic impact.
Conversely, chicken is gaining market share, despite having a far worse environmental footprint.
Chicken is only cheap because modern, chemical-based farming has enabled us to produce a surplus of feed grain.
If we revert to more sustainable cereal production, output will fall and prices will rise.
Q. There are many thousands of people in this country who rely on food banks. How can they be expected to pay for organic food?
We are sensitive to the fact that for people on low incomes, just getting food on the table is a challenge.
But that is where government can intervene. In the US, food stamps is the main form of agricultural support. We could do something similar here.
Q. How does rewilding fit in – allowing the less-productive parts of the countryside to go back to nature while focusing food production on areas more suited to the task?
That is the issue of land sharing or land sparing. Some environmentalists, such as George Monbiot, argue for land sparing – farming more intensively on the good bits and letting the uplands revert to scrub and forest.
As an upland farmer, I profoundly disagree with him – especially when he takes a blanket approach.
In any case, the land sparing approach that has been widely adopted in Germany does not deliver, as they have still seen a 70% decline in insect numbers.
Land sharing is the better approach, using all our land in a more sustainable way, with a patchwork of environmental features. If we work with nature, biodiversity and food production can co-exist.
Q. What’s the best way to help conventional farmers learn the new techniques?
We already have the Innovative Farmers programme – backed by the Duchy of Cornwall and the Soil Association, among others – which is a great way for organic and conventional farmers to carry out their own trials and share best practice.
I can see this developing into a series of “harmony hubs”, with a whole network of interconnected farms sharing information.
Q. Can genetic engineering help in terms of developing varieties of plants and animals that have a smaller environmental footprint?
I think there should be a new partnership with seed breeders to try to reconcile an obvious tension.
Most farmers want to increase yields, but I see more scope to use genetics to develop varieties from those plants and animals that already thrive on a particular farm or locality.
There is an opportunity to combine the science of epigenetic adaption, rather than genetic modification.
Patrick Holden was speaking to Farmers Weekly at a farm walk organised by the Sustainable Food Trust at HRH the Prince of Wales’ Highgrove estate in Gloucestershire.