What does the National Food Strategy mean for farmers?
The recently published National Food Strategy (NFS) is a surprisingly good read. It is well written, full of interesting observations and information, with a clear sense of purpose and ambition. ‘The UK now has a once in a lifetime opportunity to reshape the food system,’ it proclaims, to which I found myself pondering ‘yes, but is it capable of seizing it?’.
‘Absolutely everyone participates in the food industry’
Can a government grappling with Covid, post Brexit division and an explosion in public debt, really embark upon a long-term plan reliant upon multi-departmental co-operation, to deliver fundamental changes not just to food and farming, but to public health, and the physical appearance of the whole country? The 14 NFS Recommendations will, if implemented, affect us all, ‘absolutely everyone participates in (the food industry) as a consumer.’ The impact will be felt especially keenly by farmers, and it is from this perspective that I make the following observations.
Farmers face challenges in an uncertain time: what we need is clarity
Until recently, farmers have been able to set long term goals for their businesses, operating under a stabilizing web of public support payments, low interest rates, protectionist trade policies, and the large consumer market of the EU. That period of stability has come to an end. We have now entered an uncertain, challenging time. We all know that we need to adapt; but adapt to what? To quote the NFS ‘For farmers to adapt and plan for the future … they need clarity.’
Frustration with Agricultural Transition Plan
There are two key areas where that clarity is lacking; over Defra’s frustratingly unformed Agricultural Transition Plan (ATP), and whether the UK market for food and feed will be opened up without built in protections for imports from countries with lower production standards. There are warning signs; Defra’s own impact assessment from 2018 of the withdrawal of public support for farmers (quoted in the NFS) highlights the sad fact that some 40% of farms will be unviable; and the recent Australian trade deal is criticized for having ‘no core standards in place, and no way of enforcing them.’
National Food Strategy offers a mostly coherent plan for organic farmers
The NFS does offer up a positive vision for farmers, much of which will be both welcome, and familiar, to most organic farmers. The 14 Recommendations add up to a coherent action plan, through which everyone can play their part to achieve good outcomes for climate, nature, and health. Organic farmers should have nothing to fear; ‘The proposed Environmental Land Management scheme (ELM) will - if properly implemented - reward those farmers who manage their land sustainably and work to restore biodiversity.’
Working out adequate, long-term funding is critical
However, there is room for controversy; the location of your farm, and farm type, will assume increased significance in the light of a changed basis for support away from pure agricultural production, and towards delivering ‘public goods’ (as defined in the 25-year Environment Plan).
The NFS advocates that future support for land use should flow from a new Rural Land Use Framework, underpinned by a National Rural Land Map, which would help to identify up to 10% of farmland to be dedicated to restoring nature, based upon the productive capacity of the soil. Farmers in these areas ‘would receive payments on the basis of carbon sequestered and nature restored.’ As Defra ELMs policy makers will attest; this is a tricky area for state policy, bearing in mind the impact on land values, and on the traditions of farming in these (largely) upland areas. To this end, the NFS urge Defra to ensure that the schemes are adequately funded, and guaranteed for the long term.
The NFS also aligns itself with farmers when it comes to trade policy. It recognizes that the government has to act collectively to ensure that a strategy of such importance to health, nature, climate, and the economic livelihoods of farmers is not wrecked through so-called ‘free trade ‘deals. ‘It makes no sense for politicians, farmers and manufacturers in this country to put in all the work necessary to create a sustainable food system, only to find the market flooded with food imports produced in ways that cause environmental devastation abroad.’
Regrettably, it is possible that this advice has already gone unheeded, and this does lead one to fear that the NFS, and so much of the work that Defra is engaged with in the ATP, is under the shadow of global market forces.
This ‘pitch’ to government is too important to dismiss
This leads on to my final reflection on the NFS; it may be brilliantly researched, assembled, and presented; but it is essentially a ‘pitch’ to government. It is saying ‘this is what we can be, if we really want it.’ It is up to Defra to pick up on in a White Paper this autumn; and for several government departments to collaborate for there to be a successful implementation. That can only happen if the government backs the recommendations.
The initial response to its key recommendations around food and health were roundly dismissed by Boris Johnson, with key support from the Food and Drink Federation and the Sun newspaper. A few days after the NFS release, Boris Johnson unveiled a substitute plan; an app that a special 10 Downing Street team had been working on that would give shoppers rewards for buying fruit and vegetables.
We shall have to wait and see which strategy wins out.
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We will continue to explore the details of the National Food Strategy from a farmer’s perspective, and keep you updated as policy and politics change.
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