What lies beneath?

Assessing assumptions for a sustainable food system

By Dr Jim Scown

24th May 2022

The new Chatham House report from Professor Tim Benton and Dr Helen Harwatt – out today – presents a challenge to the foundations of the food system. Commissioned by FFCC, it is a clear-eyed analysis of some of the assumptions which underpin the contested debate around what a sustainable farming future should look like. Timely and incisive, it paves the way for examining the barriers preventing an agroecological transition – which is the focus of our next phase of work.

The report brings clarity to comparisons between sustainable intensification and agroecology. It reveals how the sustainability of the food system as a whole depends on assumptions to do with demand, and that rarely acknowledged assumptions about sustainable farming often come with a values-laden basis. Ideological positions on the role of markets, the responsibilities of the state, and the likelihood of diet change channel policy, regulation and investment in certain directions that have huge impacts on what, where and how food is produced.

Watch the Chatham House debate about the report

Efficiency and productivity are not reliable measures of sustainability.

The analysis also shows the faulty logic in arguments for sustainable intensification. To meet current levels of demand while addressing the climate and nature emergencies, proponents of sustainable intensification argue that agroecology is not a viable mainstream option because farmers would need more land to grow the same amount of food. The argument runs that it would be better to intensify production in some areas, minimising environmental impacts and aiming for improvements in efficiency and productivity. But – as this report makes very clear – efficiency and productivity are not reliable measures of sustainability. Efficiency gains stimulate consumption as prices fall, which creates incentives to bring more land into production to meet increased demand, threatening any land protected for nature.

The report’s authors make it clear that the sustainability of farming systems can only be assessed in the context of the whole food system and, therefore, that achieving a sustainable farming system means getting to grips with demand. Remove the assumptions over demand growth and the claim that agroecology can’t ‘feed the world’ begins to break down. Within markets designed and governed to deliver a range of public goods, including human health, carbon sequestration, and species abundance, agroecological farming is far better equipped to provide a healthy and nutritious diet for all within planetary boundaries.

The war in Ukraine has made these questions more urgent. Our responsibilities as an importer of commodities combined with the cost-of-living crisis have amplified calls to increase the proportion of our food that is grown domestically. The critical thing is not to focus on producing more at all costs, but to recognise that food security – in the UK and abroad – requires a resilient agroecological system that does not offshore environmental impacts nor rely heavily on synthetic external inputs.

The report’s challenge to foundational assumptions comes at a critical moment in the transition to 2030.

The National Food Strategy sets out a range of recommendations to help this transition happen. Henry Dimbleby and his team examine the need for diet change, the role of governments to support that, and the many demands placed on land. As this new Chatham House report shows, addressing consumption at one end of the food system can ease the pressures on land at the other, paving the way for an agroecological transition.

At FFCC, much of our work so far has been about providing the evidence base for this transition. This report adds to a growing body of work that examines both the opportunities for, and the barriers to, that change. The evidence continues to stack up. But as the report’s authors explain, ‘for [agroecology] to have a significant role in the future, the market needs to change significantly – including through regulation – to incentivise or otherwise deliver less demand in total, and more demand for food with the attributes of social and public health.’ Now we want to focus less on why agroecology is the right direction of travel, and more on how to accelerate progress.

One of the most significant barriers we hear about is that some farmers are ‘harder to reach’ than others in this transition. Over the last few months, my colleague Emily and I have been talking to people about so called ‘harder to reach’ groups; we’ve come to see that this label is based on a series of assumptions about how the food system is working (or not working) for farmers and growers at the heart of it. We’ve realised we need to flip the question to ask: what about the system is making it hard for many farmers to make an agroecological transition?

This is the next phase of our work. Agroecology combines regenerative farming practices with a system-wide transition where nutritious food is sustainably produced and affordable for all, nature is thriving across the whole landscape, and resilient businesses and communities help to mitigate climate and geopolitical shocks. But the current options available for farmers and growers to help drive this transition are limited by their place within an industrial food system – where citizens are seen only as consumers, markets are left unregulated, and the state shies away from incentivising diet change.

It’s time to tackle those assumptions, with policies, markets and investment designed to reduce over-consumption and food waste in favour of sustainably-produced, affordable, healthy food. Then the opportunities for farmers to make their own agroecological transitions – and drive that wider transition for the benefit of all – will be greatly increased.

Dr Jim Scown is FFCC's Farming Transition Programme Co-Lead alongside Emily Linton.