NFS: compartments or continuum?

By Dr Jim Scown

22nd July 2021

In his National Food Strategy, Henry Dimbleby and his team set out a series of achievable recommendations to transition the food system towards a healthier, fairer, and more sustainable footing. Focusing on England, the NFS team take a welcome, systemic approach. Their recommendations cut across trade, agriculture, land use, food, and health. FFCC Farming Transition Co-Lead Dr Jim Scown takes a look in detail at some of the implications for farming in England.

The team call for ‘joined-up thinking’ from government to help farmers prosper under a new food strategy. They emphasise the importance of foreign trade deals not undercutting domestic standards – a vital emphasis given how influential future trade will be on how we farm and what we eat. Commenting on England’s Environmental Land Management Scheme, the NFS calls for a regulatory framework aimed at ‘rewarding better farming, rather than just carbon sequestration.’ And there is a welcome recommendation that current farm payments be guaranteed until 2029, a commitment that would recognise the crucial role farmers have to play in the challenges of the decade.

"We must consider more than carbon-efficiency when it comes to the intensive rearing of animals."

This includes a ‘new deal for livestock farming.’ A 30% reduction in meat consumption will be needed by 2032, but by focusing on ‘less but better’ produce, 53% of England’s total land area would remain for farming beef, dairy, and lamb. The ecological, aesthetic, and production benefits that cattle and sheep can bring to farming landscapes here contrasts sharply with the intensive inputs needed to produce cheap pork and poultry, a distinction we also arrived at in our Farming for Change report. As Henry and his team suggest, we must consider more than carbon-efficiency when it comes to the intensive rearing of animals. We will be examining the questions around meat further in upcoming blogs.

The NFS recommendations are based on a ‘three compartment model’ for farming and land use. Under this framework, the English countryside is devoted to either sustainable intensification, agroecology, or spared for environmental projects. By making some land as productive as possible, land elsewhere is left free for wilding. The remainder would be farmed agroecologically, offering increased biodiversity and carbon sequestration alongside food production. As Henry and his team rightly say, ‘diversity of method is a virtue.’

"Agroecology can help nature flourish across all farming landscapes."

Yet we should not see hard lines between these uses. It is easy to think of the English countryside divided like a pie, three compartments split as equal slices. But this is better seen as a continuum, with a big space in the middle for agroecological farming and small edges for intensive production and wilding projects. As land is farmed intensely to allow for environmental projects elsewhere, the risk grows that environmental protection in one area drives damage in another. Agroecology can help nature flourish across all farming landscapes.

In their calls for sustainable intensification, Henry and his team argue that ‘there is no doubt that science and technology will be used to make high-yield farming much less destructive.’ This optimistic assumption needs a little caution. Putting our faith in future tech to solve a current problem seems a big bet. Technology undoubtedly has an important role to play in the farming transition – but we must ensure future innovations are available to farmers on a range of scales and support farming systems that are intensive in ecological function rather than input.

"The NFS suggests that knowledge sharing between farmers could lead to a 15% increase in yields across England."

Agroecology offers another set of technologies to meet our health, climate, and biodiversity needs. Regenerative and organic farming practices – such as minimum tillage, cover cropping and mob grazing – are available to all right now. The NFS examines the benefits of increased knowledge sharing between farmers, greater collaboration that could lead to a 15% increase in yields across England. Our Routes to Action workshops, joined by over 800 farmers and researchers, have shown huge appetite for such innovations at grassroots level.

In the three compartment model, agroecological farming finds a place alongside land sparing and sustainable intensification. This is partly because it is seen to offer lower yields. Yet our modelling with IDDRI has shown the potential benefits of re-orienting land to produce food for human consumption while reducing waste across the whole food system. Yield is not the kingpin it once was, with what you grow, for what market, and at what margin all increasingly important considerations.

"When focusing on one problem, we cannot lose sight of the interconnected challenges with which we are faced. Balance is key."

Agroecology can grow a more resilient food system while producing enough nutritionally balanced food for all, better feeding our nation while meeting the challenges of food security, climate breakdown, and biodiversity loss. Henry and his team are right that the IDDRI modelling continues to see some GHG emissions from the farming sector. But when examining the whole system, this is arguably outweighed by gains elsewhere – the ecological functioning of the UK’s predominant grassland landscapes, for example. When focusing on one problem, we cannot lose sight of the interconnected challenges with which we are faced. Balance is key – a point Henry makes very well.

The NFS does a good job of addressing trade, agriculture, land use, food, and health priorities together. The strategy offers a valuable point to build from – but we can be more ambitious. Looking at what is happening around the world in July 2021, the urgency and scale of action needed is only increasing.

The best chance for transformative change, with the potential to address environmental, societal, and civic challenges together, comes from an agroecological transition, offering a broad pathway for UK food and farming to prosper on.

This short paper is part of Healthy food is everyone's business - a series exploring and developing the ideas in the National Food Strategy, and discussing what needs to happen now.

The National Food Strategy is a rigorously researched, eloquently written and passionate call to action. As the dust settles, it’s time for serious conversation about how we work together to take the eminently achievable recommendations in the Strategy into the promised White Paper. They are the first steps on the route to a different future for food, farming and land use, improving the public’s health, reducing inequalities and acting on the nature and climate crises.

This is a critical moment. It’s both deadly serious - we have just 9 growing seasons left until 2030 - and hopeful, as we see a growing consensus forming around a route to a better future. When we published Our Future in the Land in 2019, which shares the same analysis and many recommendations as Henry’s Strategy, that consensus was not so clear.

It’s time to let governments know we want them to be bold, radical and practical, to create the conditions for business and citizens to work together to get this done.