Changing Policy

By Will Frazer

11th May 2021

We recently hosted the final workshop in our #RoutestoAction series, which explored the policy aspects of agroecology. The #RoutestoAction series aimed to help build the evidence, ideas and community of practice for a transition to agroecology in the UK by 2030 - and we have been joined by a fantastic mix of hundreds of farmers, academics, NGOs, Government and civil society.

With presentations from speakers Indra Thillainathan of the Climate Change Committee, David Edwards of WWF, Professor Tim Benton of Chatham House, Caroline Drummond of LEAF and Dr Julia Aglionby of the Uplands Alliance and the Foundation for Common Land and questions from the audience the session covered a huge amount of ground in 90 minutes, including:

  • Building common ground for UK food & farming policy that encourages farmers to produce healthy food, protect the environment, fight climate change and restore nature.
  • Existing policy opportunities and potential barriers to making agroecology more mainstream
  • Balanced approaches to prioritise public value and healthy food produced by agroecological farming practices
  • The potential for an approach that works across devolved administrations
  • The potential for reducing policy and political silos attached to land use and agriculture and developing a more integrated approach

This blog shares some of the evidence and ideas gathered from the panel speakers and the audience’s comments and questions. We will use this material to inform the second phase of our Farming for Change research, due to be shared in the autumn alongside the final technical modelling paper from IDDRI – Modelling an agroecological UK in 2050.

What did we hear?
  • Policy frames and guides action but cannot be the sole lever for change. There also has to be careful consideration in how varying implications of policy (e.g. through schemes, subsidies and incentives) can affect aims and outcomes. Farm business viability still must remain the key driver of driving change, meaning policy must facilitate this.

  • There is a need for greater coherence across government departments to ensure more joined up and effective policy. Agricultural policy extends beyond Defra. To create effective change, we need policy that is radically anti-siloed, extending beyond the confines of single government departments. Creating siloed policy can lead to policy incoherence: policy goals that undermine or conflict with one another.

  • Similarly, there must be an increasingly integrative and multifunctional approach to land use. Agroecology offers land to be used for food production, biodiversity and environmental benefit and social and economic reward. There is growing tension surrounding sustainable intensification and land sparing methods, and more agroecological land sharing methods, particularly in the approaches of the devolved nations. Focus on efficiency and yields in a sustainable intensification approach often risks excluding beneficial outputs of agriculture for biodiversity, environment and climate.
  • The private sector has a huge role to play in shifting the dial in policy. Multi-stakeholder partnerships across businesses as well as between big business and NGO’s have demonstrated effective collaborative pathways to change.
Comments from Caroline Drummond

"Why does policy matter? And what do we really need and want from policy? Ultimately, it’s understanding why policy is there in the first place. It sets those principles and the framing in terms of guiding action to ultimately achieve a goal. And for many it’s helping accelerate change... it’s there to really engender a sense of direction."

"But policy should not be the focus of a farm business to drive change. It’s critical for farmers to be driving change because it works for their business."

Comments from Indra Thillainathan

"We very much see the delivery of net zero as an opportunity for farmers to diversify their income stream. So, in food production, but also what else they can do to enhance their local environment."

Comments from Dr Julia Aglionby

"It is not surprising that farmers aren’t engaging and changing their businesses for a future that does not yet exist, a future that is subject to change."

"It is not only the policy, but how it is implemented through schemes, and how those schemes are delivered, that dictates the outcome. How is as important as the what."

"We live in a world where we no longer ring people up...We do need to bring humanity back into this. How we operate, how we work with people, how we value each other."

Comments from Professor Tim Benton

"We just don’t value food and the production of food in the way that we should do, so we’ve got a whole systemic transformation around how we as a society value food."

"Our government...often see the big component of our land base as an outdoor factory to grow a product for the export market. They don’t see it as food production."

"At the moment these four blocks [sic] of needs: economic growth, climate mitigation, zero net carbon land use, biodiversity and health are all separated into very different policy areas, and the challenge that we have looking ahead is to find ways to integrate those policy areas to provide some policy coherence for the farming sector. Because if we just privilege the economic growth needs, then that drives us into the land of sustainable intensification: producing as much as possible, as efficiently as possible and forgetting almost everything else because it becomes too expensive to deliver."

"The real challenge is for all of us to stop thinking about agricultural policy – DEFRA – as the be all and end all. It is policy across multiple silos."

"If we’re driving GDP positive growth, that is implying that we are growing consumption exponentially...The challenge is not what is the balance of imports and exports, I think the challenge is recognising the upper limit of what we can produce sustainably and finding the most profitable markets for that rather than just say “there is a global market out there, we can produce as much as we can to fill it."

Comments from David Edwards

"Trade policies to affect domestic consumption will be of no impact if that demand signal for less and better animal food production is subverted by demand for more and cheaper on our exports."

"It is the increasing focus on multi-stakeholder partnerships to align on the ground to affect system changes at a landscape scale. You might call it economies of collaboration."

Comments from the audience

"In terms of shifting the narrative and engaging farmers, perhaps the message that we need to 'release land out of agriculture' could be replaced with a call to 'integrate trees into agriculture' to emphasise that farmers can still be in the driving seat, without assuming a change of land use implies a change of land tenure?" Jo Lewis

"We have to unpick the assumption that there is a "need to take 8% of land out of agricultural production" and what climate impacts any associated intensification would entail. Agroecological approaches can significantly reduce impacts in the field for example." Gareth Morgan

"Clearly the challenges are multi-faceted and multi-layered. Surely a sustainable, healthy food supply and ecologically sound policies and practices must take precedence over politics and profit." Geoff

"The lack of access to land and a dearth of land management skills create a dependency on the existing industrial farming model and prevent local communities from creating viable small-scale projects to increase local resilience and sustainability." Geoff

"What if farmers were incentivised and rewarded for reducing nutritional poverty and nutritional inequalities within the UK?" Maddy

"Under current trade policy could we end up exporting all our high-quality high value food and feeding ourselves on the lower quality imports which is all most of us will be able to afford." Bill Grayson

"Recognising "true value" can be done by government subsidy or by charging indirect costs to the environment and thereby nudging consumer behaviour. There's a German supermarket that displays both actual price and price including direct costs - is that the way forward?" Nick Palmer

"Irrespective of the merits of GE as a novel technology, it still represents a temporary fix within a business-as-usual paradigm, which has shown over the past seventy years it doesn’t work. Why would anyone advocate for GE over a more holistic approach to land, food and health?" Jimmy Woodrow

"GE does not lead to reductions in synthetic inputs or in an increase in farmer incomes. Without either of those, it's difficult for it to be part of a holistic approach or a triple bottom line." Johnnie Balfour

More questions to explore

  • What role could silvopasture play as a technique for sequestration of agri-emissions from livestock in the UK?
  • How do we educate the consumer to make more sustainable choices regarding food – supporting more environmentally friendly farming, but also ensuring they are prepared to pay more for it to make better choices - in the context of increased food bank usage in the UK?
  • How would taking 20% of UK agricultural land out of production affect our self-sufficiency?
  • How would taking 20% of UK agricultural land out of production affect our global impact on biodiversity?
  • How can we ensure that we protect valuable open habitats such as species-rich grasslands when we are planting trees?
  • How do we support smaller agroecological operations?
  • Grassland is one of the best and most 'natural' ways of sequestering carbon back into soils. How can replacing it with other land uses be thought to be an appropriate means for combating climate change?
Research shared by the audience

The Royal Society/ National Academy of Science seem to have a different policy - "The Challenge of Feeding the World Sustainably: Summary of the US-UK Scientific Forum on Sustainable Agriculture (2021)"....

Real Food Campaign Final Report (2019). RFC Lab:

Agroecology: Science and Politics. Peter Rosset and Miguel Altieri:

A People's Food Policy: Transforming our food system:

N8 Agrifood:

Tackling the Farm Crisis & Climate Crisis report from NFU Canada:

The Power of the Plate: The case for regenerative organic agriculture in improving human health:

University of York, Centre for Novel Agricultural Products:

IPES-FOOD (2016) From Uniformity to Diversity: A paradigm shift from industrial agriculture to diversified agroecological systems:

What is food sovereignty?:

OF&G’s response to the GE consultation:

Recent Chatham House report on food systems highlights the "cheaper food paradigm" issues:

The genome editing consultation response from the English Organic Forum:

Tesco and WWF, Creating a sustainable shopping basket: