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Reflections on the Farm to Fork summit

Reflections on the Farm to Fork summit

‘Ah Soil Association! It’s all about soil health!’ These were Rishi’s parting words to me today as he left the garden of No.10 following his speech at the ‘Farm to Fork summit’, after his announcement of investment into UK horticulture and a focus on food security. So how did we get here? And how did I end up giving the PM a bowl and organic cat treats for Larry?

My grandparents were small-holders: part of the many thousands of small growers that were the unsung heroes of the post-war effort to feed Britain.

They were Irish immigrants growing potatoes, lettuces and the legendary ‘Blaby Tomato’ alongside their flock of two thousand egg-producing hens. What they managed to grow on just 5 acres of land, year in year out, for 50 years, was truly heroic.

Today, as the grandson of these immigrants I walked through the door of No.10 seeking to champion the interests of today’s generation of Britain’s unsung heroes. We are under siege from a changing climate, unprecedented biodiversity loss and a burgeoning public health crisis, in no small part driven by the agricultural intensification that rebuilt our nation after the war.

So what’s the answer? We need to back our British farmers to produce the right food in the right way, using nature-friendly farming practices like organic, to ensure that our farmers are the proud heroes of our time once again.

'Farming and nature have to work hand-in-hand'

My grandparents' connection to the land was deep, going back many generations; growing food was in the blood. To know that today 40-60% of organic soil content on arable land has been lost in the UK is staggering, and would have been unimaginable to them. As would the fact that a third of adults and only 12% of children are eating their recommended 5 a day. Given that 95% of food production relies on healthy soils and that 70% of the UK is farmland, we know that to reverse the extensive biodiversity loss seen over the last century farming and nature have to work hand-in-hand. Re-connecting with our soils, informed by intelligent monitoring, testing, learning, adapting, responding. Using biology, not chemistry, to produce nutritious food for the nation.

We’re not the only ones facing the onslaught of climate change and there is much that we can learn from our neighbours. The EU's target to be 25% organic by 2030, despite the challenges we are all facing, is laudable and ambitious. By investing, long-term, with intent and connecting supply chains we can make an impact and we need to be equally bold in order to achieve the Environment Act targets.

I am proud to represent the four thousand organic licensees in the UK seeking to make a difference; businesses certifying to the regulated organic principles that farm without reliance on synthetic fertilizers or harmful pesticides. Not just protecting biodiversity, but actually working with it, to a trusted third-party certified standard. In a world of green-washing and fig leaves we are giving consumers confidence in something that has integrity and rigor.

Long-term plans

What we now need is strategic, long-term and intentional support for nature-friendly farming like organic in the UK. Starting with a consistent framework for baselining and monitoring on farms, helping to understand the impacts of government incentives, and to know if they are delivering both value for money and the Environment Act targets that are needed. This can also help provide a mechanism for private sector investment in sustainable practices, unlocking green finance within supply chains, reducing the reliance on government alone. In Soil Association Exchange we have a model that provides the breadth of monitoring (carbon, biodiversity, water, soil, animal welfare and social) needed to avoid the perverse outcomes resulting from too narrow a focus on carbon.

We recommend that Govt makes SFI/ELM payments contingent on monitoring and reporting environmental and social outcomes that are linked to a whole farm plan that sets out a strategy for maximising across those goals. It only takes modest government financial support to allow this but would help SME farmers to access green finance and meet increasing sustainability and data requirements of supermarkets.  Nature-friendly farming, backed by the private sector, to produce nutritious food for the nation. And why stop there? We should be a global exemplar and given the focus on export by our EU neighbours, we should be proud of our British produce and seeking opportunities to develop our organic market overseas. But we need to break down the barriers to trade, making it easier for business to trade in organic and be intentional in investing in future markets.   

The opportunities of procurement

The Government spends £2.4 billion every year buying food – for schools, hospitals, the Armed Forces, prisons and government offices. This represents 5.5% of the total UK food service turnover, and is a huge opportunity. We need to ensure that taxpayer money is spent on food that is both healthy and sustainable, supporting local and British businesses. We support many of the summit's proposed revisions, including a 20% target for spend on organic/LEAF produce, an emphasis on supporting SMEs to gain market access, and the mandating of the standards across the public sector.

The potential benefits of public procurement have been demonstrated by Food for Life. Roughly 2 million meals are served each day to Food for Life standards, including in roughly 30% of English and 50% of Scottish primary schools, over 50 NHS hospitals and over 50 universities. This helps children to eat healthier diets and reduces burden on the NHS.

An Action Plan for organic

As Rishi shook my hand, leaving our gathering of the food and farming industry today, I said ‘Well done on the plan for horticulture, now we need an Action Plan for organic’. The reason we need a plan for organic is because we know that if we can set out ambitious targets we can establish strategies for boosting both supply and demand. It will allow us to reconcile nature, food and climate objectives and deliver for all of them on the same parcel of land. And we desperately need to reverse downward biodiversity trends if we’re going to stand any chance of meeting our biodiversity targets.

I’ll always remember my Grandad talking about what he thought of the ‘Man from the Ministry’, in his strong Northern Irish tones. I’m often reminded of this when I speak with our licensees about their interests and relationship with government. Ministers and PMs will come and go though and therefore we have to ask ourselves, what is our legacy? It surely must be to unite government, business, our NGOs and the food sector, to shape the agenda and ensure that today’s British farmers are the heroes of our time. Today felt like a really important part of this journey to supporting our British farmers to become the heroes we need them to be.

And so, back to where it began, a few weeks ago when I told my 7 year old daughter I was going to No.10 I asked if she knew who lived there. ‘Of course’ she said, ‘Larry the cat!’ And so I knew that if I was seeing Rishi I couldn’t not bring something for Larry. I hope that he enjoys eating from his Soil Association branded bowl, tucking into his organic treats, knowing that his food has been grown in harmony with nature. And, at the end of the day, Larry’s owner couldn’t have said it better, ‘it’s all about soil health’.