Food, farming and the general election

By Tobias Phibbs

6th December 2019

Soil Association, Greenpeace and Sustain have produced their scorecards for the major parties. We wanted to add some additional commentary about the parties' commitments in some of the policy areas where the Food, Farming and Countryside Commission has made recommendations.

The first thing to note is the prominence of the environment and biodiversity in all parties’ campaigns. The days of environmental concerns being relegated to a few pages or paragraphs at the back-end of manifestos are over. Rising public concern has concentrated minds and compared even to the 2017 manifestos there is some policy improvement. What’s more, parties have at least attempted to situate tackling climate change within a wider programme of political and economic renewal, rather than segregating it in its own separate silo. And it is not just the parties which demonstrate a growing awareness of the seriousness of the environment. There is also a remarkable degree of consensus across environmental and rural advocacy groups about what is required.

But there are blind spots and a worrying lack of detail across the manifestos, particularly when it comes to bringing about a sustainable transition in farming. There is also a wide range in both ambition and policy on the table. The choice made at this election will have a significant bearing on the country’s response to climate change and ecosystems breakdown. This blog mostly focuses on the Labour and Conservative manifestos, as the two parties with the possibility of forming a government.


Sitting atop much of the detailed policy is each party’s commitment to achieving net zero greenhouse gas emissions. The Committee on Climate Change advised 2050 was the earliest realistic date for achieving net zero, and the Conservatives have pledged to meet this target. Labour’s previous commitment to achieving net zero by 2030 appears to have been ditched, replaced by a commitment to achieve net zero in the 2030s, if not before – in other words, by 2040. The Liberal Democrats opted for 2045 and the Green party 2030.

A target in itself does very little. They are significant for the direction of travel they suggest but it is the detail on the policy to achieve those targets that is most important.

Additionally, not all means of moving towards net zero are equal. Merely outsourcing externalities (and with them, jobs) to other places in the world does nothing to tackle climate change, for example. The Labour manifesto is correct to point out that, “Over the past three decades, Britain has reduced its emissions at the expense of domestic industry by offshoring production. This is an accounting trick, not a solution. It does not protect the climate, is unfair to other countries and it damages jobs and communities at home.”

It is for this reason that the FFCC advocates a sustainable transition in farming without damaging our farmers, rather than entirely rewilding whole swathes of land – thereby increasing reliance on imports on the one hand and over-intensification on the other to meet domestic demand. While advocates of globalisation see more and more globally connected supply chains as inevitable, in fact they are increasingly insecure and dominated by a few players who suck value out of the system, damaging the interests of small-scale producers and concentrating power and wealth in the hands of a few.


Putting this accounting trick to one side, then, what are some of the different policies the parties are proposing and how effective might they be in tackling climate change and ecosystem breakdown? There are several interesting policies and points of similarity and difference in the parties’ approaches, especially where they relate to FFCC recommendations, that are worth drawing out in more detail. We have picked out a few areas – agriculture, public procurement, and rural underinvestment – which shine some light on the different approaches the parties are taking.

The future of agriculture

The future of agriculture in this country depends not just on whether or not we leave the EU and with it the Common Agricultural Policy, but also on the nature of the trade deals that will be struck subsequently over the years to come. All parties, however, advocate continued financial support for farmers while incentivising them to move to more sustainable methods of farming.

The Conservative manifesto is premised on our leaving the EU; the Liberal Democrat and Green manifestos on our staying a member. The Labour party’s ambiguity on Brexit means its pledge on the future subsidy regime is limited to one line that promises a Labour government, “will maintain agricultural and rural structural funds but repurpose them to support environmental land management and sustainable methods of food production.” It also pledges to reinvest in the County Farms Estate (although there is no corresponding financial commitment to this in its costings document) and restore the Agricultural Wages Board in England – both highly welcome and overdue policies not mentioned by the other parties.

The Conservatives advocate moving “to a system based on ‘public money for public goods’,” with guaranteed funding at current levels for the duration of the next parliament. As the last three years have shown, translating this topline ambition into a practical system is not quite so simple. Similarly, the Liberal Democrats pledge to “Reduce basic agricultural support payments to the larger recipients and redeploy the savings to support the public goods that come from effective land management, including restoring nature and protecting the countryside, preventing flooding and combating climate change through measures to increase soil carbon and expand native woodland.” The Green party, meanwhile, explicitly call for the UK to lead efforts to reform CAP from within the EU and support regenerative farming. They go further than the other parties in, for example, calling for phasing out pesticides and immediately banning the most harmful.

On trade policy there is a reassuring consensus on the need to protect and deepen existing standards. The Conservatives, for example, promise “not [to] compromise on our high environmental protection.” But striking trade deals always relies on compromise and any divergence from existing regulatory frameworks brings with it risks that no line in a party manifesto can obviate. And that is before we get on to the immense damage that losing unfettered access to the EU’s common market would do to those parts of our farming system that rely heavily on exporting to EU countries. Again, warm words may fail to fully reassure those farmers who depend on such access.

Public procurement

The Commission has called for a plan to transition to a more regenerative system of agriculture by 2030. But simply expecting farmers to do so off their own back, when they are already up against it and struggling with historically low farmgate prices and uncertainty surrounding the subsidy system as we leave the EU, is unrealistic. Instead, we need some demand-side policy to ensure there is domestic demand for the produce of regenerative agriculture and decent pay for its producers. To this end, we have proposed a muscular public procurement strategy through which public bodies procure healthy food and drink from local and sustainable sources.

The major parties all engage with public procurement to some extent but struggle to get beyond general support for a more strategic approach. The Liberal Democrats propose: “a National Food Strategy, including the use of public procurement policy, to promote the production and consumption of healthy, sustainable and affordable food and cut down on food waste,” as well as expanding “the market for green products and services with steadily higher green criteria in public procurement policy.” Labour and the Conservatives make the case for public procurement to support domestic industry, with the latter focusing on the UK’s ability to leave restrictive EU directives. The policy of both seems to lean on the admirable Preston model and shoring up domestic industry. Neither, however, explicitly call for public procurement policy to be used to support more sustainable farming in their manifestos – although the Conservatives have pledged to “encourage the public sector to ‘Buy British’ to support our farmers and reduce environmental costs.”

Rural underinvestment

Finally, environmental issues may be front and centre of the parties’ manifestos this year, but rural issues are not. The countryside as a place where people live and work, and which has particular challenges around housing, infrastructure, crime and work, is reduced to something only seen through prism of the environment, farming and animal welfare. The Labour manifesto, for example, equates rural crime with animal welfare abuse, as though the two were the same thing. Its environmental manifesto begins its section on rural communities by immediately talking about farming.

That said, the two major parties both acknowledge there has been some neglect of rural and coastal communities and make commitments on rural infrastructure, with Labour focusing on replacing bus services shut under coalition government austerity, and the Conservatives on a modest repeal of some of the closures of the railway lines and stations caused by the Beeching Axe. Both make commitments on broadband and digital infrastructure – but about which those living in the countryside may be rightly sceptical.

Labour adds a further commitment to rural proof all future policy, something established by the Countryside Agency in 1999 but gradually discontinued as an active part of policy formation towards the latter end of the New Labour years. Its return would be welcome, and chimes with recommendations made by the House of Lords Rural Economy Select Committee earlier in the year, but more detail is needed on how it would operate, where within government it would sit, and how it would be implemented.


So many environmental targets, EU and domestic alike, are missed and with such regularity that credibility remains a problem for all parties. Labour in particular hint at all manner of promising schemes which thus far suffer from insufficient funding or lack of clarity over details. Labour’s plan for a horticulture fund for organic fruit orchards, for example, is to be funded by excluding billionaires from farm subsidies. Even if this exclusion were extended to millionaires, the horticulture fund would struggle to raise much more than £10m a year. Likewise, while we naturally welcome Labour’s commitment in their environmental manifesto to “implement recommendations from Our Future in the Land, the report of the RSA Food, Farming and Countryside Commission,” there is little detail on which recommendations, or how and when they will be implemented. And its proposed Climate Apprenticeship scheme sounds intriguing; it could segue with the Commission’s proposals for a National Nature Service in which the environmentalist energy of young people could combine with the need to help farmers transition to regenerative agriculture and a more sustainable countryside.

Similarly, the Conservative manifesto makes the welcome pledge to substantially extend the science budget, introducing a “new agency for high-risk, high-payoff research.” Dominic Cummings suggests this will be modelled on the highly successful military research body ARPA in the US and describes it as an answer to the challenges posed by the problems of AI and climate change. But there is no detail to be found on its budget, its governance, or the extent to which its focus will be tackling the environmental crises. On top of this, the Commission remains sceptical about the extent to which technological innovation can undo the damage brought about, in part, by technological innovation. It is certainly unlikely to do much to repair our broken relationship with nature.

In sum

The parties all have much to say about the environment, and all are ambitious relative to commitments made at previous elections. Voters can decide between the more ambitious timeframes of the Green party, the Liberal Democrats or Labour, or else go with the more modest Conservative programme. Yet no single manifesto pledge or election result will bring about the change that our food and farming systems need. The manifestos mostly feature headline pledges, not the detailed work required to bring about the transition. The real work goes on.

Tobias Phibbs was a researcher at the Food, Farming and Countryside Commission until April 2020.

Note: this blog was originally published on the RSA website (Royal Society for the encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce), which hosted the Food, Farming and Countryside Commission between November 2017-April 2020.