The farming leadership we need

Sue Pritchard on how farming leaders can chart a just course to a more resilient future.

21st February 2024

I’m in New Zealand and missing #NFU24. As an NFU member, I’d have joined many others, paying tribute to Minette Batters’ courageous and clear leadership in one of the most challenging times for UK agriculture. Now, looking ahead, what kind of leadership do I hope for, for the next term?

I want leaders who will tell the truth – to politicians and businesses, and to members too, even when – especially when – it’s difficult.

From the vantage point of 12000 miles away, it’s clear that farming the world over is changing. NZ government officials have been telling me about their government’s strategic commitment to regenerative agriculture. Not because it’s the right thing to do (it is) but because their customers require it.

And who are their customers? The big global food corporations – like Nestles and Danone – who require their producers to meet rising environmental standards, so that they can meet new global frameworks that require them to account for their climate impacts, up and downstream in their supply chains.

In response, New Zealand’s future agriculture strategy is developing its regenerative agriculture brand, aiming for the high end of the market. It is inspired by regen and holistic farm management practices and Maori cultural principles.

But, remember, for free marketeers, NZ is the ‘poster child’ for farming without any subsidies at all, after they were completely withdrawn in 1984. However, this regime has had serious consequences. There are rivers here unsafe for swimming thanks to E Coli and nutrient pollution, due to intensive animal agriculture.

Now, the NZ government is introducing new environmental standards, mandated farm plans and more stringent rules like fencing near watercourses and reducing nitrogen loss. This will be obligatory by regulation. If you want to farm, this is a legal requirement.

Meanwhile, I’m following the rise of the farmer protests back in the UK, and the anger and frustration directed at governments and retailers. #NoFarmersNoFood has captured attention, claiming to offer a broad and supportive platform for farmers demands.

But which farmers, and whose demands?

Many farmers are already on the journey to more nature friendly, environmentally responsible farming, reducing emissions, improving soil health, raising standards of animal welfare, producing the healthy food we need. This is the future of farming – producing enough good food in harmony with the environment, and providing other services to society like restoring biodiversity, sequestering carbon and beautiful countryside.

Those who claim net zero is a scam, deny the overwhelming weight of scientific evidence, or demand that farmers be left alone to farm as they wish are just not reading the room. And they are doing farmers a disservice.

We know, through #TheFoodConversation, citizens want to see farmers supported to farm more sustainably. But let’s be clear here. They quickly withdraw their support when farmers pollute rivers, damage habitats and poison wildlife. Farmers' ‘social licence’ is strong – but it could easily weaken.

And the other lever available to government is regulation, whether farmers take government payments or not. Those who want to take their chances in the price sensitive commodities markets will find themselves in a race to the bottom, which – in a global marketplace – the UK won’t win.

There is much to do to shape a just transition for all farmers across all sectors. Farming support schemes have to work agronomically, ecologically, economically. Governments must use all their policy levers; from helping farmers to invest in new systems on farms, backing farmer-focussed R&D to spread knowledge and good practice, using public procurement to buy high quality British produce for schools and hospitals, legislating for responsible business practices across the supply chain, and negotiating fairer, more balanced trade deals.

Alongside properly strategic farming policy, government needs to deliver on the Food Strategy, emphasising long term food resilience, and the Land Use Framework to agree and mediate land use decisions. We also need a new deal for the countryside that recognises the critical role the rural economy must play in a more sustainable future for all of us.

Farming leaders must be crystal clear. There is no serious way back to a time when farmers could ‘go farming’ without consideration for their impacts on climate and nature. For governments, investing in farming that produces healthy food sustainably is foundational to a resilient future. The real leadership now is coming from those who see the whole picture, who understand the political economy of food and farming, who tell the truth, and help chart a just course for all to a more resilient future for farming.