Farmers on a just transition

Leading voices in agriculture on what they need to farm sustainably.

14th February 2024

As farmer protests continue to spread across Europe amid concerns over farming policy, rural livelihoods and the exclusion of farming voices in decision-making, we ask some leading figures in UK agriculture why they think it's important to support farmers to farm sustainably – and what's needed to help them do this.

Sophie Gregory, Home Farm, Dairy Industry Woman of the Year 2021

"Sustainable farming isn’t just about clean air, carbon and good soil. Real sustainable farming is ensuring a business also has a healthy economic bottom line, so it can weather market and climate fluctuations, as well as providing a decent return for hard work put in. This means we need a fair, stable price for produce produced."

Ben Andrews, Broadward Hall Farm, Herefordshire

"In order for farms to become “sustainable”, many need to first regenerate what they have lost through the last 80 years – soil health, biodiversity. Without a thriving natural ecosystem including diverse rotations, healthy, living soil, diverse vegetation for healthy livestock and habitat to support natural predators of crop pests, a farm will always require purchased inputs. This doesn’t only help farms to be sustainable but also resilient, which is arguably more important.

Many modern farming systems focus on few saleable products, intensifying in order to make use of efficiency of scale - not to increase profit but merely to remain profitable in a world where food prices are constantly under pressure, particularly from cheaper imports. They rely heavily on bought-in inputs to maximise yields and when prices for milk, grain etc are fair, can make a profit. However we have seen in the last couple of years sharp increases in the price of synthetic fertiliser and a volatile wheat market. These fluctuations really can be the difference between profit and loss. Building resilience into farms helps to buffer businesses against market forces as well as a changing climate, both of which are the greatest threats to global food security.

I think many will be forced to become more resilient more out of fear of the financial uncertainty rather than environmental concern but hopefully, both should go hand in hand. It would be very useful if the government could identify the crops required to nourish the nation (looking at FFCC’s Farming for Change report and their own National Food Strategy paper) such as increased area of beans and pulses and support farmers (both financially and skills) to grow those to reduce the areas of productive land used to grow animal feed, rapeseed and sugar beet. The long and inflexible food supply chains also need to be addressed but with over 90% of food in the country being purchased in supermarkets I fear the hold the “Big Six” have over the country’s spending habits will be impossible without an overhaul of the Grocery Supply Code of Practice."

Patrick Holden, farmer and CEO of Sustainable Food Trust

"We need an agricultural transition which enables our farmers to move from being part of the problem, in terms of greenhouse gas emissions, biodiversity loss and damage to public health, to becoming part of the solution. This can be achieved through a national transition to regenerative food and farming systems.

We need a combination of enabling policy instruments linked to harmonised measurement of the impacts of different farming systems on their climate, nature and social impacts. With these in place farmers could become eligible for a new income stream, rewarding them for their so-called 'public goods’. In the end, overcoming the transition challenge is all about money - improving the business case for the farming transition, and making it more profitable than the current approach."

Nic Renison, Cannerheugh Farm, Cumbria

"Producing food within a thriving biosphere makes both ecological and financial sense. The farmed environment, the food we eat and our health are all intrinsically linked. What a powerful force for good farmers could be if policy recognised this."

Joe Stanley, farmer and writer

"I don’t agree with those who suggest that recent farmer protests across Europe point the way towards a welcome renunciation of more sustainable agriculture. Ultimately, farmers are on the front line of climate change, and have a unique ability to deliver for society on biodiversity and the climate. Food and environment can and must go hand in-hand; the techniques are known: we just need the support to make the transition.

To make the shift to more sustainable farming, we need a new way of thinking from government and the supply chain: long-term, joined-up strategy; a fair return for a quality product; relationships founded in mutual respect and responsibility. Ultimately, it will take the voice of the people to make this transition occur; but it’s a hopeful future which we can lay before them."

Guy Singh Watson, farmer and founder of Riverford

“The answer to all this is to pay farmers fairly, and give them clarity and pride in the role they must play in a well-planned, well-regulated green transition.”