How farming can be a force for change

Dr Charlie Taverner on how a new government can help farming work for climate, nature and people.

6th June 2024

It’s easy to paint farming as a fringe issue. A tiny proportion of the voting public have a direct tie to agriculture. Most voters won’t make up their minds based on parties’ plans for the future of the farm support budget (for England a little over 1% of what the government spends on health and social care). It’s unlikely the TV debates will feature a question on the worrisome prospects for the 2024 harvest. When pollsters ask people to rank the issues that will decide their choice, food and farming are rarely among those they are asked to consider.

There’s been a collective failure to explain why agriculture is, in fact, extremely consequential.

Take the topics that voters say they care about most. Growing more of the right kinds of healthy foods, especially fruit and vegetables, could have a huge impact on diet-related ill health and obesity, in turn reducing the burden on a creaking NHS. Food is a core component of the sharply rising cost of living. But driving down prices further is not wise when the UK already has some of the world’s cheapest food and the finances of its farmers are perilously squeezed. We need a proper reassessment of food’s real value and hidden costs such as emissions, pollution and the loss of natural habitats.

The nature and climate crises deeply matter to most people. Farming has historically been a big part of the problem, but farmers are also suffering the effects of dramatic shifts in weather and collapsing biodiversity, which are hindering their ability to run viable businesses and grow the food we all need.

For politicians, there is an opportunity to make progress on all these challenges. What’s needed now is a clear vision and joined-up strategy for farming. Citizens, food businesses and farmers themselves have been telling us they want to see a resilient and prosperous agricultural sector. They want farmers to earn a fair income, grow healthy food, stay connected to their community, slash their emissions, use lower amounts of costly inputs, regenerate their soil and encourage wildlife to flourish.

Such farming would be better placed to cope with risks that are becoming more regular threats, whether that’s the climate or geopolitical instability. But it would also be part of the solution to major problems the country is facing, from the economy to energy, health and nature. It’s a future that’s perfectly possible if leaders lay out clear ambitions and make sure all the levers at their disposal are working in the right direction. 

In England, the Environmental Land Management Scheme should be a powerful mechanism for encouraging change. The scheme’s flexibility and potential to be updated is receiving broad industry and political support. But despite the dozens of options now available under the various programmes, overall uptake remains cautious. Though the government’s environmental improvement plan is targeting up to 80% of farmers to be employing nature-friendly practices on at least 10% of their land by 2030, exactly how that’s defined and the role of these incentives in that shift are not clear.

Time is short. There are just three more years before the end of the old Basic Payment Scheme. To make up for the loss of subsidies, many farmers have had to intensify and scale up their operations. There is a danger that the countryside becomes divided between zones 'farmed harder’ and others left to nature, rather than achieving more sustainable and resilient land use across the whole landscape.

A chorus of organisations with very different perspectives are calling for the government to properly invest in farming’s transition. The consultancy group Andersons calculated that a figure of £4bn was needed to meet environmental goals while improving farm productivity. Others have landed on larger sums. But a new administration could create momentum even before delving into the awkward question of funding.

First, it should introduce explicit targets for the number of farms adopting specific sustainable, regenerative or organic approaches. It should explain how the current ELMS actions are directed towards these goals, and resource the farmer-led knowledge networks that are so effective in facilitating change. These steps would rebuild collapsing confidence among farmers, help them understand their role and plan accordingly.

Secondly, the incoming government should publish regular impact assessments, not just of scheme uptake, but of the effect these programmes are having on food production and environmental outcomes. This would ensure the public purse is receiving value for money, while allaying fears about the balance between food security and the targets for nature and climate. It would also start to address the profound flaws in the recently published Food Security Index, which took a dangerously narrow view.

If farmers are going to fundamentally change how they operate, they need to be on a surer financial footing. Environmental schemes will mitigate some of the risk, but in the long run farming businesses should be able to receive a reasonable return from the food they sell. That starts with fairer treatment in the supply chain.

Though this cause is frequently championed by politicians, the government must maintain and enforce a strict, regulatory framework, based on principles such as commitment to agreements with suppliers, clarity on specifications and regular payments. The principles of Riverford’s Get Fair About Farming campaign would be a fine start. It’s essential that any rules cover not just retailers who buy direct from farms, but intermediary firms too. Pre-existing authorities, like the Groceries Code Adjudicator, could have their scope broadened to cover the foggy middle ground of processors and manufacturers.

To work most effectively, tougher regulation at home needs to be deliberately paired with a trade strategy that ensures the highest standards on imported foods. For the UK’s food supply to be both secure and resilient, it will have to keep drawing from trusted international partners. But making British farms more sustainable and policing the supply chain more strictly must not result in retailers and intermediaries switching to cheaper, foreign sources. That was the main cause of uproar after the post-Brexit trade deals with Australia and New Zealand, which will eventually remove all tariffs on beef or lamb from Down Under. All our food, whatever its origin, should meet the same benchmarks for emissions, animal welfare, impact on wildlife, and conditions for workers. Those standards must be enshrined in all future agreements.

This is typical of the coherent, cross-departmental choices that changing the food system will require. Helping farming to become fairer, healthier and more sustainable goes beyond the remit of Defra. A good example of this is horticulture. At the Farm to Fork summit, the government published its long-awaited strategy for the sector. But it lacked a plan to connect expanded production in shiny, robot-filled glasshouses with improving access to fruit and vegetables and developing better cooking and eating habits among the public. Such a plan requires coordination with officials across education, planning, energy and health—which is why a food systems minister with distinct cross-department accountabilities would be so valuable.

Farming’s advocates have to be realistic. Public money is tight and agriculture will not be a new government’s immediate priority. But there’s good reason to be ambitious.

Agriculture is a smart place to invest time and resources. Farmers are keen to change if they receive the right guidance and support, and a transformed industry could have an outsized, positive effect across society. Through confident and clear leadership, savvy decision-making that breaks down silos, and transparent communication that brings farmers on the journey, that radical change is within reach.