Food, Farming and Countryside Commission

Pitchforks and pragmatism

By Sue Pritchard

7th December 2021

The indomitable James Rebanks put out a tweet over the weekend, possibly provoked by Defra Secretary of State George Eustice’s speech, and the release of details of the Sustainable Farming Incentive scheme in England. An interesting result, given the general ‘small c’ conservatism of the farming community in the UK. As a child of the 60s, I’m all in for a protest. And, as a farmer, I have an extensive selection of my own pitchforks.

But what really caught my attention - and moved me - in this long thread (it is @herdyshepherd1 after all) were the number of ‘other ideas’, pragmatic and patient suggestions from farmers, land managers and growers all over the UK.

The common ground we’ve taken for granted is cracking.

We are all living through the most turbulent times. The common ground we’ve taken for granted is cracking – from our relationships with our neighbours on the continent, to the enormity of the climate and nature crises we’ve helped to create, to the impact of a global pandemic for which we were unprepared. And yes – Westminster politics is currently being conducted in a way that is at best “disruptive” and at worst deeply disquieting to many.

We have glimpsed a future in which things that are foundational to our lives – from seeing our families and friends, to having enough food on the shelves – feel more fragile than most of us in the UK have ever known.

For many farmers, this is not a feeling, it’s a certainty. It is nigh on impossible to make sense of the UK operating context, whilst also trying to read the runes of a volatile and fast-changing global food system, handling a lack of clarity from governments, and navigating the conflicting ideologies fighting over policy territory.

Like James (I suspect), I am very much inclined towards the Do More! Try Harder! Camp. The scale of the challenge and the seriousness of the consequences drive me to want to act now wherever I can. But I have also come to realise that – whilst action is essential – I also need to recognise the progress we’re making, to take stock of all that is happening, to build on that same tenacious conviction that what we all do matters, in real and practical ways.

But we also need to bank our progress – even when it’s imperfect and insufficient.

So, I think we also need to bank our progress – even when it’s imperfect and insufficient. Like a citizen’s climate assembly that supports progressive UK farmers; like a National Food Strategy, making comprehensive and practical recommendations; like a Secretary of State’s speech which majors on regenerative farming; a COP26 statement which includes agroecology; a key industry conference co-chaired by BAME women; or a new land management scheme that supports soil health in its outcomes. Separately they can feel too small and too fragmented. Together, they add up to much more.

Demonstrating more of that pragmatism, the tweet thread included many things we can do. We can illuminate the work of the trailblazers, many of whom are quietly plugging away in their communities, doing what they know to be right, showing what is possible. We can look for our common ground and build a movement of leaders wherever they are - in governments, businesses, and communities - to find more levers for action. Yes, sometimes this means talking more to the people who are not ‘one of us’, with respect and empathy. We can find new allies - from private finance who want to invest in agroecology, to international lawyers who are working on new ecocide laws, to citizens who want to change the power balance and economics of the food system, and who can help build pressure for change. And we can seek out the good and important things to collaborate on – from growers’ co-ops to supply chains to community food events to policy asks. The antidote to despondency is not just hope, it’s collective action.

The antidote to despondency is not just hope, it’s collective action ... a more connected and aligned and potentially unstoppable movement for change

Most importantly we need to keep telling a new story. Storytelling is something James does brilliantly, bringing all sorts of people into a conversation about upland farming, from all over the world. And so does Patrick Holden, and Helen Browning, and Ben Andrews, and Nicky Yoxall, and Henry Dimbleby, and Jyoti Fernandez, and Andy Cato, and Carolyn Steele, and – who’d have thought, at the start of 2021, I’d be saying this – so does Jeremy Clarkson. That list alone – names picked out from amongst many – the elders, who’ve been doing this for decades, the young activists, and the new-to-farming stars - is a glimpse of a more connected and aligned and potentially unstoppable movement for change. Yes, there is much more to do, and fast. But at the end of another turbulent year, let’s not underestimate the progress we have made. (And, just in case, I have the pitchforks).