What are the prospects for agroecological food and farming?

What are the prospects for agroecological food and farming?

The Soil Association's Gareth Morgan (Head of Policy for Farming and Land Use) and Rob Percival (Head of Policy for Healthy and Sustainable Diets) explore how global and domestic affairs might affect our progress towards agroecological food and farming in the UK.

How do global events and domestic political upheaval impact on our work to secure more sustainable farming and land management, and a shift to healthier and more sustainable diets?

The rather febrile political atmosphere at Westminster following the installation of a new UK government means the future direction for policy is highly uncertain. This wasn't helped by some unfortunate communications around the future of the Environmental Land Management Scheme in England, and the simultaneous launch of a Bill that requires Defra to review ALL inherited European environmental legislation next year (an estimated 500 pieces of legislation), in the hope that rolling back regulation will unlock growth.

The review of the climate change net zero plan and rumours that the Westminster government might pull back from its own anti-obesity strategy and measures to help people eat more healthily add to the impression that we need to plan for a very different policy environment, at least in the short term.

So how should the Soil Association respond to these challenges?

Firstly, our work will increasingly reflect the fact that many of the policies influencing food and farming are now determined in Holyrood, the Senedd and in Stormont. The Soil Association already has a strong policy presence in Scotland led by David McKay, working closely with Ministers and civil servants on issues such as the new Scottish Agriculture Bill. It was encouraging to hear Cabinet Secretary Mairi Gougeon citing the Soil Association’s work on agroforestry at the recent SNP Conference, and holding firm against calls to rethink the Vision for Scotland as a world leader in sustainable and regenerative agriculture. We’re also delighted that we’ll shortly have a full-time policy advocate in Wales for the first time, working alongside our friends in the Wales Organic Forum to take advantage of the opportunities presented by developments such as the new Sustainable Farming Scheme there.

Some policies still operate on a UK-wide basis and we will continue to put pressure on the Westminster government to publish its UK National Action Plan on Pesticides (5 years late) and make commitments to pesticide reduction targets for the UK. In the wake of a major public dialogue on gene editing and farmed animals – which our Policy Director Jo Lewis helped to steer - we’ll be seeking a pause and amendments to the Bill to deregulate Gene Editing which has big implications for the future direction of farming and especially for the organic sector. And although we share the frustrations of many farmers with slow progress on the development of the Environmental Land Management Scheme, we’ll challenge any efforts to dilute the scheme. We’ll be reminding the new Ministerial team of the statements from former Secretary of State George Eustice at our agroecology conference in April about the need for ELM to focus on soils and reflect the needs of the organic sector, and of the need to stick to the original vision set out for Defra by Michael Gove in Health and Harmony in 2018.

We’ll also need to keep an eye on the huge review of environmental and farming regulations. It is likely to be a monster that could devour a lot of energy and impact on such key issues as pollution (the Nitrates Directive), water quality (the Water Framework Directive), organic labelling (Organic Regulation), habitats (the Birds and Habitats Directives) and pesticides (Pesticides Residue regulations). We will be working closely with partner organisations through the Wildlife and Countryside Link and Green Alliance networks on this task in order to avoid duplication and ensure we are focussed on the issues that others might miss. With 500 simultaneous reviews of environmental legislation, the risk of “accidents” is huge. And we share the concerns of the National Trust and others that the whole premise of sweeping away “outdated and burdensome legislation” – aka hard-won public protections - is not the way to increase people’s wellbeing and prosperity.

Our thoughts also turn to the political situation after the next General Election. With politics so volatile we’ll be wanting to see commitments in all the major party manifestos to agroecological farming in general and organic in particular; and to helping the shift to healthier and more sustainable diets. So we’ve been talking to the political party manifesto groups and attending party conference events with Ministers.

As importantly, we are committed to working with ever wider networks to ensure that a huge range of voices are speaking about the issues we care about – we’re hoping to use the Oxford Farming Conferences as an opportunity to put that into practice. And as part of our renewed focus on “life beyond Westminster” we’ll be thinking about the change in where decisions are made – for example, might the challenge of transforming diets be high on the agenda of regional mayors and local government?

We can take heart that it is within our power to influence positive change, from the ground up

Finally, of course, at the Soil Association, we can take heart that our work is not all hostage to political twists and turns. Our advocacy for policy change rests on demonstrating real solutions and evidence. We continue to take heart from finding and scaling innovative solutions from the ground up, and supporting those who are driving change, whether in farming practice or in the meals served in schools.

So as the world about us is shifting, there are changes afoot in the way we seek to influence the policies which have such an impact on farming, on the food we eat, and the environment. Our core messages remain the same, but it’s right that we review who we focus on to keep up the momentum and lead the change. Uncertainty can be distracting, but it also brings opportunity.