Time for a new approach to Food and Farming
Farm groups and environment NGOs unite with consensus on future food and farming
The two Oxford farming conferences held at the beginning of the year always provide a great opportunity to hear different perspectives on the future of farming and food production.
How can we produce food to meet the needs of the public and do so whilst regenerating soil health, boosting nature, and tackling excess emissions? And if we can agree that, how will farmers and land managers be financially supported for the public goods they are delivering?
One argument, from some in the sector is that we should largely forget about the wider countryside and instead focus just on protected nature reserves. But this proposal has left many nature-friendly farmers asking – where does that leave us?
So this felt like a great opportunity to rally key environmental NGOs and farming voices to start working towards a consensus on the future of food and farming, making clear that we see a continuing vital role for farming with flourishing nature at its heart. Can we identify the characteristics of a future food and farming system that works for people and the planet, along with the sort of support farmers will need to enable them to produce healthy food and manage land in an environmentally friendly way?
The group includes some big-hitting environmental groups such as the RSPB and the National Trust, working alongside farmers, many associated with groups such as the Nature Friendly Farming Network and Pasture for Life, and us, the Soil Association. We all agree that the current framework for food and farming has not worked effectively for farmers OR the environment; and that the way much food and drink is produced, processed, and marketed is making both people, and the planet, unhealthy.
Working towards a consensus on the food system has reaffirmed how vital it is that British farmers are enabled to produce enough healthy food to nourish and keep citizens healthy, at the same time as operating within the environmental boundaries set by the planet. There is also agreement that this requires that they receive a fair market return for the food they produce and recompense for the public goods they provide. Few, of course, would disagree with this vision. The challenge is a consensus on how we get there.
What does the group think will characterise the farming and food systems of the future?
Firstly that nature and ecological processes must be central to farming, and that this will require regenerative approaches to soil management whilst working to end the current dependency on agrochemicals. At the Soil Association we champion organic food and farming as a clearly defined exemplar of this approach, whilst recognising the validity of other agroecological approaches. Moving in this direction will require a renewed focus on responsible innovation in food and farming from those driving and funding research, building on the expertise of farmers and others at the grassroots. It also needs a long term policy framework that provides government funds for the public goods provided by farming, alongside a well-regulated system to enable additional private investment to be stacked within diverse and resilient farm businesses. Running alongside this there needs to be a trade policy based on respecting high environmental and animal welfare standards, and a fair, level playing field of regulation, along with a more strategic approach to optimise the use of land.
There is also agreement that a transformation in farming needs to be accompanied by a change in mindset about how we eat – namely that everyone should have access to a healthy diet that is produced in ways which don’t exceed the capacity of nature. Governments should take a central role in enabling everyone to eat healthily, affordably, and sustainably while helping to tackle food waste. This will require a whole host of measures including public procurement, shorter and more transparent supply chains, clearer labelling, reducing food waste, making sure everyone can afford healthy and sustainable food including more fresh fruit and vegetables, and tackling the aggressive marketing of unhealthy ultra-processed foods to both children and adults.
To many readers of this blog the vision set out above won’t be surprising.
But what our meeting at Oxford has revealed is the previously missing sense of common purpose across different interest groups, and a recognition of the inter-connectedness of the challenges and solutions in food and farming. We can’t restore nature without rethinking our food system, we can’t create sustainable and people-centred farm businesses without putting the environment centre stage, and we can’t hope to tackle the problem of diet-related ill-health without putting nutritious food production at the heart of farming. Solutions to these challenges won’t always be easy – but working towards a transformative consensus on food and farming and setting out what a future food and system needs to look like is a first step on a journey. This is the start of a dialogue – with farmers, with politicians, with those involved in the food system, with citizens – so we can start to see progress on the issues we all care about – nature recovery, a stable climate, a resilient farm sector, healthy diets and sustainable food production.