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A Letter From America

What will new diplomatic relationships between the UK, USA and EU mean for food and farming policy?

We live in tumultuous times. Long-held alliances have been tested and some severed, but a renewal of diplomacy and partnership between the US and EU is as inevitable as the coming spring after this darkest of winters.

While climate change has received the most attention and ink, some of the most consequential Biden Administration actions impacting the food and agricultural arena will occur under the radar.

Already, President Biden has started the process leading to the US joining the Paris Climate accord. He has directed his Secretary of Agriculture to “go big” in investing in Climate Smart Farming. Despite agreement on its definition, soil health has progressed from a murky, fringe concept to a foundational attribute of sustainable farming that all stakeholders embrace.

Agricultural policy in the UK

In the UK, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs has issued a report titled ‘The Path to Sustainable Farming’ which lays out an ‘Agricultural Transition Plan 2021 to 2024’. The report asserts: ‘By 2028, our aim is that all farmers will be running sustainable businesses that do not need to rely on public subsidy’ and pledges to ‘make things as clear and simple as possible” and ‘fair and reasonable.’ for farmers. Such a pledge is reminiscent of many made by a former US political leader who has so ungraciously, but thankfully, ridden into the sunset.

Hopefully, EU commissioners and farm leaders paid little attention to the former US Secretary of Agriculture when he predicted doom and deprivation for EU citizens and farmers if the continent rejects ‘modern agriculture’ technology.

I laughed out loud when I read about Secretary Purdue’s assertion that European farmers will fall behind in the race to feed the world if they do not adopt US-style GMO seeds and the associated pesticide-intensive cropping systems. These are the very farming systems that are eroding the economic and environmental sustainability of US commodity farms. The list of damage done includes driving up farmer costs, eroding soil health, and degrading food nutritional quality and food safety.

Soil in hand

Change on the way

The priority for the Biden Administration is dealing with the pandemic followed by getting the US back into the Paris Accords, and restoring US leadership on global efforts to stabilize the climate. A priority in the food and agriculture space will be dealing with unsustainable levels of federal subsidies for US farmers that are propping up many failing farming systems and technology. Another will be addressing acute, systemic social and environmental-justice issues all along the food value chain.

Agricultural and food policy reform in the US, UK, and EU is bound to be fraught with budgetary, measurement, and political challenges. Fortunately, there is widespread agreement over many important first steps. These include investing in soil health by increasing soil organic matter, reducing reliance on large feedlots, and expanding support for grazing and grass-based rations for beef, dairy cows, and lamb.

Diversity for climate and nature 

On the ag-climate change front, priority needs to be given to diversifying cropping patterns along with the planting of cover crops, to more fully capture the annual solar energy falling on given farm field. Progress toward these goals will also help reduce excessive and wasteful applications of pesticides, fertilizers, and animal manure. Problems stemming from pesticide use triggering unsustainable reliance on chemistry will subside.

Like in the US, UK and EU taxpayers will increasingly demand that public money is spent in ways that directly support the adoption of farming systems that produce healthier and safer food, and tangible environmental benefits, aka in Europe 'ecosystem services'. Over the last four years, political chaos snuffed out any chance for meaningful policy reform. The next four years need to make up for lost time.

Needed changes on the farm will require serious policy reforms, patience, and re-alignment of market forces. What new ideas or new coalition will break the policy deadlock? Where will the wisdom come from to guide change without tearing out the roots needed to sustain it?

A guest blog from Dr. Charles Benbrook, ED, Heartland Health Research Alliance

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The Soil Association are calling for a ten-year transition to agroecological systems like organic for the benefit of climate, nature and health. Find out more about what that means and how the UK Government can help support it.