Invest to adapt

FFCC's Lucy Bates explores what government's latest adaptation programme needs in order to help farming rise to the challenge of climate change

By Lucy Bates

25th July 2023

Climate change-related extreme weather events, like the heatwaves in the Mediterranean this week, are affecting farming systems profoundly. Farm businesses, alongside public health and national infrastructure, suffer as temperatures reach new extremes and seasons become less predictable. As global temperatures continue to rise, faster since 1970 than in any other 50-year period over at least the last 2,000 years (IPCC), the livelihoods of farmers everywhere are threatened - and, therefore, so too is everyone’s food supply.

The third National Adaptation Programme policy paper (NAP3), released by government last week, is testament to this reality. And as much as agriculture suffers due to climate change, it also has an important part to play in the fight against it.

Agriculture covers 70% UK’s land and can help mitigate climate change through improved crop and soil management, incorporating carbon-capturing habitats, reducing livestock emissions, and making more efficient use of animal feeds. Many farm practices identified as climate-positive are also shown to enhance farm business profitability and resilience, as evidenced by NFFN and The Wildlife Trusts amongst others.

Examples abound of land managers adopting such practices to avoid, reduce or even reverse the devastating impacts on and beyond their own holdings. Nowhere was this more evident than at Groundswell this summer, an event that has grown from 400 to 6,500 attendees since it started in 2015. Here, farmers gather from right across the farming spectrum - including organic, nature-friendly, pasture fed and regenerative, as well as the newly ‘regen curious’ - to discuss the practicalities of how sustainable agriculture can continue to develop and advance, improving soils and hence enhancing food security.

We heard from one partnership, Fred Price and Rosy Benson, who told us how they have increased crop diversity on one Somerset family farm over the past 15 years. Not only has Fred’s farm and land benefitted from increased biodiversity, but the local community has too, through the availability of fresh, nutritious bread from Rosy’s on-farm bakery. They are working with UK Grain Lab to help other farmers do the same. A diverse system helps to encourage functioning ecosystems and guards our food supply against disease and other threats.

Yet, there are costs to transitioning to agroecology at scale that cannot realistically be carried by land managers alone. Government has an important role to play. This is recognised in the NAP3 policy paper, which cites the Environmental Land Management schemes as one of the Government’s key measures for protecting not only food security but also homes and infrastructure. However, while increasing agroecological farming is a goal of the English Future Farming & Countryside Programme, of which ELM is a cornerstone, the extent to which ELM is set up to support a full agroecological transition is still a matter of debate. To achieve this, ELM would need a level of funding that can enable farmers to deliver high-quality public goods, and a trajectory of ambition that reflects the urgency of need for change. When the broadened Sustainable Farming Incentive component of ELM opens for applications in August, its ability to do what it says on the tin will be under close scrutiny.

Government also has an important role to play in setting guardrails around how private finance shapes emerging natural capital markets, as our recent report highlights. As companies seek farmland to generate tradeable environmental credits, through enhanced carbon capture or biodiversity enhancement, there are real risks of perpetuating power imbalances in supply chains. Recent reports from LSE, IPPR, Green Finance Institute and the Scottish Land Commission all make recommendations on how principles of fairness and justice for farmers and wider communities can and should be embedded in these new market structures, whilst also upholding principles of additionality and permanence.

It is timely to take a systemic appreciation of farming’s capacity to affect change and adapt to climate change. To progress this work even further, Government could look to bring in market regulation that promotes the decarbonisation of food by applying equivalent standards to imported produce, leverage the power of public procurement to support sustainably farmed produced, and establish a holistic Land Use Framework. With the right mix of policy change, it is entirely possible for UK agriculture to aid in national adaptation to climate change, rather than accelerate it.

Lucy Bates is FFCC's Farming Transition Co-Lead