It's time to listen closely to farmers

Dr Charlie Taverner: real food security starts with rebuilding confidence

13th May 2024

I’m glad the government’s Farm to Fork summit is back. The second annual event is a precious chance for farming matters to be discussed at the centre of power. After a disastrously wet winter and with the industry in unsettling flux, the gathering couldn’t be timelier.

On the other hand, this summit is an ideal photo op for a prime minister scrambling to shore up the Conservative vote. One of last year’s attendees called the summit an ‘empty meeting’. The Downing Street press office, delighted with shots of Rishi Sunak chuckling with the stars of Clarkson’s Farm, might disagree.

Top politicians should be talking and thinking about these issues on a much more regular basis, beyond these sorts of spectacles. A deeper problem is that farming should never be hived off from areas such as nature, health and economics when dealing with the knotty crises facing the UK food system. Most worryingly, the previous guest list contained no organisation that spoke for ordinary citizens, specifically their worries about affording nutritious food. ‘Farm to Fork’ doesn’t make sense without a person with a fork in their hand.

If politicians and business leaders actually want to transform the food system for the better, they should start by listening closely to farmers. That shouldn’t mean protecting farmers’ interests, echoing refrains about red tape, or tweaking subsidies to maintain a status quo that maximizes production in a way that is neither sustainable nor fair. Really listening means giving farmers room to speak, in their own words, about their hopes and values. It means appreciating their skills, experience and dedication, which perhaps have never been more essential.

The people who rear animals and grow crops, fruit, and vegetables have an intimate connection to the land. We need them to be tackling problems like climate change and collapsing biodiversity in the scarily short timeframe that confronts us. Farmers are also mums, dads, sisters, brothers, friends, neighbours and members of their community who shop, eat and feed others every day. The food UK farmers produce is the foundation of the food system, but those farmers rely on that system too.

Right now, their heads are down. Latest results from the NFU’s rolling confidence survey show that farmers’ optimism for the short and medium term is at its lowest since at least 2010. More than four-fifths of respondents cited the move away from the Basic Payment Scheme, rising input prices, and government rules as having a negative impact on their business. What’s worse, the survey was carried out in November and December—before the worst of the winter weather. As the dire prospects for 2024 have become more apparent, the mood has surely darkened.

Dwindling confidence is not merely alarming for food security. At last, there’s burgeoning consensus that farming practices rapidly need to shift towards regenerating the soil, allowing nature to flourish, slashing emissions, and producing a wider range of healthy, accessible food. But the very people who can make this change happen are being ground down economically and mentally. That’s not a recipe for resilience.

Rebuilding that confidence starts with listening. Farmers are already telling the government that they don’t know the plan. According to Defra’s own opinion tracker, just 6% of English farmers fully understand the department’s vision for farming. The majority say they lack confidence in post-Brexit changes to support schemes and regulations. This might explain the recent muddle about the Sustainable Farming Incentive’s effect on food security and the programme’s cautious uptake. Farmers deserve clarity and honesty about the intentions of these schemes and how they connect to explicit targets on healthier diets, climate adaptation, restoring wildlife and other connected issues.

The food industry and retailers need to do more listening too. Businesses are being pushed by governments and their customers to make their supply chains more nature- and planet-friendly. But they need to respond to farmers’ repeated concerns that they are the ones who bear most of the risk in the transition towards sustainability. Waitrose has shown what some first steps might look like. At its supplier conference last week, the supermarket announced encouraging plans to help 2,000 farmers adopt more regenerative practices, through access to finance and a knowledge-transfer tie-up with the University of Reading.

At FFCC, we want to see farmers’ voices in the heart of the political debate. We’ve just released a series of short films featuring farmers and growers reflecting on why they farm and how the food system can become more resilient. This is only the start. With the election approaching and all parties plotting their agendas, we will be seeking out and sharing perspectives from all types of farms in all corners of the country.

Farmers, we want your take on the urgent problems of food, health, nature and climate, the challenges of changing the way you farm.

Politicians, business and all the rest of us, it’s time to open our ears.