There's more that unites us

By Sue Pritchard

21st November 2019

It is now common to hear that we live in polarised times. However, as we approach the December general election, there is in fact overwhelming consensus, when it comes to what is needed to tackle the climate and nature crises. Sustainable food and farming systems and a coordinated approach to land use form the heart of the manifesto recommendations made by a range of advocacy groups that historically have often been seen as at odds.

The National Farmers’ Union (NFU) join with the Campaign to Protect Rural England (CPRE), Sustain and the Food Ethics Council (FEC) in calling for a rapid transition to net zero emissions. Sustain, Soil Association and NFU ask for multi-annual budgets to support the post-CAP transition towards agroecological farming, backed by investment for a fair transition; and new public procurement policies oriented towards procuring British-made, healthy and sustainable food and drink. The Country Land and Business Association (CLA), CPRE and the new Rural Coalition – made up of rural advocacy organisations including the Plunkett Foundation and Rural Services Network – call for a better-connected countryside, where people can afford to live and work, forming a powerhouse for a new green economy. Meanwhile, every agricultural, rural and environmental group that we could find calls for a trade deal with the EU that ensures continued frictionless trade, and for new trade deals to preserve and extend existing standards.

And let us not underestimate the urgency. Next year, 2020, is the Super Year, so called for two principal reasons. First, if we are to confront the crisis and begin to turn things around by 2030, we need to take action now. Otherwise we face runaway global warming that becomes harder and harder to slow down and stop, let alone reverse. And second, 2020 is the year in which governments and businesses will take stock in a series of high-level meetings. From the UN Conferences of the Parties (CoPs) on biodiversity in Beijing, climate change in Glasgow and the reviews of progress against the Sustainable Development Goals, we will find out just how well we’re doing in meeting the targets set. The news is not likely to be good. The planet is warming, causing ecosystems changes across the globe. Extreme events are becoming more extreme and more frequent – from fires in California and Australia, to floods in Yorkshire and Venice, to hurricanes in Florida and Japan.

The cost of managing these changes is rising exponentially and, according to the Bank of England, now presents the biggest risk to business. More than $20tn of assets will be wiped out by climate breakdown if they are not effectively addressed. And if we cross the ecosystem tipping points, when changes become unpredictable and rapid, even these eye-watering sums will pale into insignificance.

When we talk about plans for mitigation, adaptation and resilience, these are not just relevant to low-lying countries like Bangladesh or Maldives, or distant desert countries like Sudan or Ethiopia. In the UK, the summer droughts and now the autumn floods are the new normal. This is our resilience and adaptation challenge.

Many of the answers lie in and on the land – nature-based solutions like reforestation, increasing renewable energy and BECCS (bioenergy carbon capture and storage). Yet that same land is also required to recover biodiversity loss, for food production, for infrastructure and housing, whilst rising sea levels and global warming reduce the available space. How we use our land, and who decides, raises serious questions, which need inclusive, thoughtful debate, respectful, skilled mediation, and fair, transparent outcomes. It’s time for a land use framework, to help negotiate between competing national priorities, and to ensure the knowledge and needs of local communities are valued.

Then, the food we grow, and how we grow it, becomes a central question. Professor Tim Benton of Chatham House argues we need to ask a basic question: what do we grow food for? Is it to provide a secure and sustainable range of healthy and nourishing produce that everyone can obtain and afford? Or is it to grow a small number of commodities, as cheaply as possible, in ‘outdoor factories’, for global markets? We currently organise our whole food system as if the latter is the case. And this has consequences.

The global food system has become geared towards selling cheap and ultra-processed convenience food at the lowest prices, dependent on a few ecosystem-damaging ingredients like soy, corn, wheat, rice, palm oil and sugar. Producing and processing these commodities tends to have a destructive impact on climate and nature, and our over-reliance on them in our diets has driven a huge rise in diet-related ill health. Type 2 diabetes, heart disease and obesity related conditions are threatening to overwhelm our NHS. Currently, the costs of treating and managing Type 2 diabetes alone is over £27bn a year. And we haven’t even begun to price the true cost of this poor health – the costs of removing medicine traces from our water supplies, or the long-term impacts of poor quality diets on mothers and children yet unborn.

Some say this is down to consumer choice; farmers only grow, and shops only sell, what consumers want to buy. But this argument doesn’t stand up to serious scrutiny. Producers and consumers shift behaviour according to a variety of incentives and influences. Consumers buy what is marketed and promoted to them. For every £5 spent on government healthy eating campaigns, £200 is spent by food businesses on increasingly sophisticated marketing campaigns for junk and ultra-processed food. In the US, the volume of sales per day of a well-known sugary cola drink add up to more than the daily calorific requirement of the entire population. As Tim Benton says, people forget that consumerism is a political ideology promoted in the post-war era to grow economies. But healthy food is everybody’s business, and the next government must level the playing field for a fair food system. Bold actions now will not only improve people’s health and wellbeing, but also more than repay that investment with savings made in the NHS.

The government has alighted on ‘public money for public goods’ as its catchphrase to define the future of our agricultural subsidy policy once we leave the EU and its Common Agricultural Policy. The proposed environmental land management schemes are a good start; but this approach could be extended. Farmers should be incentivised to grow more of the good stuff – fruit, veg, nuts and pulses, and sustainably produced meat and dairy. Backed by a new drive in public procurement, schools, hospitals and other public institutions should buy healthy food from sustainable UK sources. The policy tools (like the Social Value Act) to make this happen are there, and it would kickstart the market for the kind of regenerative agriculture that would heal the natural environment, increasing biodiversity and carbon sequestration, replenishing soils and preventing water run-off.

Next, the full weight of regulations and standards must be aligned to deliver public value – from restricting advertising, marketing and promotion of junk and ultra-processed foods, especially to children; to extending taxation, such as the sugar tax, across a wider range of foods, to encourage reformulations; to strengthening planning laws to limit the junk food outlets on high streets. Critics of this cry “consumer choice!”, but this ignores the incentives that already undermine any notion of a level playing field in consumer markets; and they are wrong to imagine the public regards such regulation as ‘nannying’. Over 80 per cent of the British public support the smoking ban, including a majority of smokers. When the ban was introduced in 2006, 22 per cent of the British public smoked. That figure is now below 15 per cent.

Meanwhile, too many campaign promises throw money at serious structural problems without dealing with the underlying causes. Vast sums of public money are frequently spent cleaning up after businesses who harm both people and planet for profit. Applying the ‘polluter pays’ principle right through the food and farming system would mean that companies who make, promote and sell harmful products must expect to pay for it.

Some argue business won’t buy this. But responsible businesses want better regulation. At a high-level global gathering in early November, Mike Barry, former M&S Sustainability Director said “…volunteerism doesn’t work”. Business welcomes a fair and level playing field, ensuring that good businesses can’t be undercut by bad businesses. Former CEO of Unilever Paul Polman agrees, arguing that businesses want ‘less and better’ regulations, to help them focus their shareholders attention on responding and adapting to global challenges. Businesses require the right enabling environment to change, with meaningful incentives to acknowledge and reward their innovation and enhance public value. In short, we must make it easy to do the right things and increasingly difficult, expensive or illegal to do the wrong things.

The Grantham Institute at LSE says: “Climate change is arguably one of the greatest injustices in history, given the extent and duration of its negative impacts on current and future generations, rooted in past greenhouse gas emissions, the vast majority from developed countries”. The Government’s Green Finance Strategy, published in July 2019, also highlights the importance of delivering a just transition. Rather than spending money papering over the cracks and relieving the worst symptoms of the growing crises, government should endow a National Agroecology Development Bank that can identify and mobilise the public and private resources needed and marshal them towards reshaping the food and farming system, in a just transition.

The climate and nature crises are bringing life-changing impacts on citizens’ security, safety, health and wellbeing. An appropriate response requires courageous leadership, radical thinking and urgent and practical action, backed by the necessary resources. The next government has an opportunity and a responsibility to step up to the challenge. It is their last chance to do so.

Sue Pritchard is Chief Executive of the Food, Farming and Countryside Commission.

Note: this blog was originally published on the RSA website (Royal Society for the encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce), which hosted the Food, Farming and Countryside Commission between November 2017-April 2020.