By Will Frazer
22nd April 2021
We recently hosted the third of five #RoutestoAction workshops, which explored the economic aspects of agroecology. The #RoutestoAction series aims to help build the evidence, ideas and community of practice for a transition to agroecology in the UK by 2030 - and we were joined by a fantastic mix of over 135 farmers, academics, NGOs, Government and civil society.
With presentations from the economist, Professor Allan Buckwell, farmer George Young, Vicki Hird of Sustain, Dr Courtney Scott of FFCC, Chris Clark of Nature Friendly Farming Network and Johnnie Balfour of PFLA and Balbirnie Home Farms and with questions from the audience the session covered a huge amount of ground in 90 minutes, including:
This blog discusses some of the evidence and ideas gathered from the panel speakers, the audience’s comments and questions, and the answers given in the survey that accompanied the event. We will use this material to inform the second phase of our Farming for Change research, due to be published in the spring.
If you would like to contribute your own ideas, please complete our survey.
"There are three big picture challenges that our food system and land use face: climate change, biodiversity crisis and diet and health…I would importantly add three further considerations: the chronic economic marginality of much farming in Britain and Europe; the political hypersensitivity of food prices; and the globalised nature of agricultural commodity markets."
"If the UK moves to transform its food system onto a plane of higher environmental quality and higher environmental standards – and I suggest higher prices consequently – are we prepared to deploy the necessary carbon and environmental border adjustments so that the domestic inducements don’t simply provoke a flood of imports with cheaper, but polluting inputs?"
"We now understand that farm business should treat nature as a shareholder in that farm business."
"The economic and commercial prospects of farms…is driven by the availability and quality of natural fertility and natural grass and is driven by the ability of the farmer to use that resource effectively."
"To make dietary change is essential…This does mean big changes to the way we eat and the way we produce food and ultimately the economics of [how] the whole food system is oriented."
"When we talk about dietary change we automatically go into a frame of mind that this is a citizen driven change…This is not all on citizens, the system needs to drive this dietary change and be set up to support this dietary change."
"Inequalities are holding back progress, and there are many people in the UK who are experiencing food insecurity…And in a food system like the UK, this is not a problem of not having enough food in the system. It’s a problem of people not being able to afford that food and that rests largely with the economics that are happening outside of the food system."
"Cheap food is only cheap in the short term…their long-term costs will catch up with us either in terms of environmental damage from the production system or in terms of health costs and damage to us as individuals, but also to the health system as a whole."
"The ability of individuals and households to be able to afford food that they buy is largely determined by what happens post farm gate and is a political decision."
"Subsidies and tax breaks and free trade agreements provide a huge advantage to large industrial food producers and processors at international level, which is one reason why industrially produced food, even when it’s been shipped from halfway across the world, is often less expensive than agroecologically grown food from the farm next door."
"A fundamental change in our mindset of thinking about agriculture is rather than as a linear system with inputs and outputs, it is a series of interlocking cycles that we’re trying to manage to get produce out of those cycles. In doing this – in simple economic terms – we have reduced both our variable and our fixed costs over the last few years."
"We are demonstrating to ourselves that farming with nature is actually better for our bottom line than not."
"We need to rethink supply chains. So more of the value…goes to producers of food. And that means policy has got to change to make that happen."
"We need new supply chains. New farmer focused supply chains."
"We need policy shifts, we need changes in how governments pay for the public goods and how they advise farmers, we’ve got to have advice on business planning with these things in mind, we’ve got to have LEP’s (local enterprise partnerships) and any funding that’s been syphoned off to local and regional development and regeneration should support new supply chains and to make sure buying standards target good farming practices."
"[We need to] make sure that we integrate the consumer into what we’re doing on the farm…which is the whole basis of food sovereignty and a really key part of agroecology, that is not talked about enough. Then you start understanding that it’s no longer about affordability, but it’s about value. Two words that have broadly similar meanings to a lot of people, but they’re actually really different."
"The language we use (subsidy/ investment/ grants) really does matter. In other sectors, government calls spending in whole system change, ‘investment in a green recovery'." Sue Pritchard
"Living wage and benefit levels need to reflect the real price/ cost of food. That way real prices could be paid." Charlotte Barry
"Public procurement must be an important driver for this system change." David Finlay
"Quality, locally produced meat doesn’t have to be more costly: the cost per meal depends upon the amount consumed as well as the price: a 20% reduction in amount will easily compensate for the perceived costs of marketing locally. Let’s get past this assumption that good and local inevitably means costly." Catherine Mack
"In order to effect positive change in the ‘food system’, those businesses who are pushing the agenda need to be required to fully take part in that change. And by those who push the agenda I am referring to the fast-food giants and the huge food processing businesses that are profitable for owners, but have drawn strong criticism for low pay to the workforce and poor relations with their primary producers. The Lancet report, The Global Syndemic, pointed out that industry and policy have repeatedly failed to take significant action. Food is a cultural matter. Fast food identities (McDonalds, KFC and so on) are in the common lexicon and not by accident. People meet and share experiences in those outlets. Cultural change is where agroecology has had more traction - and that is in locations in the global south where there it can be argued there has been a less food industry-focused cultural identity to begin with." Steven Jacobs
What will supply chains look like in 2030?
We asked the audience to imagine and describe how their local food supply chain would operate in 2030 within an agroecological food system. These are some of the components they came up with:
How affordable would agroecologically produced food be in 2030?
We asked the audience to explain why their food may be more or less affordable in a predominantly agroecological food UK food system. Here’s what they said:
More questions to explore
The ‘4 per 1000’ Initiative: https://www.4p1000.org/
Reconnecting people with nature through agriculture: https://www.mdpi.com/journal/agriculture/special_issues/People_Nature_Agriculture
Investing in local food hubs: https://www.sustainweb.org/blogs/feb21-food-hubs/
Indy Johar on making sense of highly complex systems and make effective change: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=X3cphdAQdug
Farmer focused supply chains: https://www.sustainweb.org/blogs/feb21-farmers-need-power-money/
Comments on the trade and agriculture commission: https://www.sustainweb.org/news/mar21-trade-agriculture-commission-report/