"No prizes in a race to the bottom"

FFCC Chief Executive Sue Pritchard speaks at IUCN World Conservation Congress 2020

By Madeleine Penkett

7th September 2021

Sue Pritchard, farmer and Chief Executive of FFCC, spoke at the IUCN World Conservation Congress’ online conference, The transition to sustainable agriculture: for people, food and nature, co-hosted by IUCN and FOLU on Sunday 5th September.

This session aimed to identify ways of creating common ground between agriculture and conservation. A diverse group of stakeholders discussed how to pave the path towards the conservation of nature while enhancing the production of healthy food for a growing population. It shed light on the importance of multi-stakeholder dialogue in finding solutions to complex food and land use problems through showcasing perspectives from a diverse set of actors.

“Thank you for inviting me – I’m delighted to be joining esteemed colleagues here today.

The Food, Farming and Countryside Commission is an independent inquiry, chaired by Sir Ian Cheshire, with 14 commissioners, set up in 2017, reporting in 2019, and becoming an independent charity in 2020. We work across the four nations of the UK. We bring together diverse voices to shape a more sustainable and fair future for food, farming and the countryside, to act on the climate, nature, and public health crises.

We focus on three themes. First, convening leadership and action around the complex and contested issues; second, helping implement our recommendations - currently focussed on land use decision making, a transition to agroecology by 2030, and food and health; third, directing resources to primary producers and communities to become more resilient and adaptable, ready to face whatever scenario is in front of them. 

We have concentrated on involving a wide range of voices, farmers and growers, food businesses, academic research, citizens, and communities across the UK. It is that diversity of experience and perspective that gives our work our strength, I think. And in the last few years, it is fair to say that UK policy teams have worked harder to talk to primary producers; I suspect that this has been helped by generous funders and foundations (like Esmée Fairbairn Foundation, who fund us) who have been directing resources to farmer organisations to amplify their voices and capacity. This may well be why, in the UK, the consensus behind a rapid transition to agroecology is growing. 

Organisations like Soil Association, Nature Friendly Farmers Network, Pasture for Life Association, Sustainable Food Trust, Land Workers Alliance, Groundswell and more are all working together with grass roots farmers, to support and accelerate a growing interest in, and adoption of, agroecological practices. Increasingly, progressive businesses and local councils are working with those producers to provide the essential markets for their products. However, it is also true to say that debates between climate scientists, nature scientists, health professionals and economists, can act in tension with one another, fuelling arguments about the right pathway to a just transition, acting on the climate and nature crises.  

Our own work, underpinned by our report commissioned from IDDRI - the French think tank - sets out why and how we can tackle these multiple challenges simultaneously, with a just transition to agroecology in the UK.   

We find that with the right enabling conditions, tackling waste, and adapting diets, the UK can grow enough healthy food for a future population while:

  • Eliminating synthetic fertilisers and pesticides.
  • Nearly doubling the amount of land available for green and ecological infrastructure – hedgerows, more trees in agroforestry and silvopasture, ponds, species rich meadows, restoring peatlands etc.
  • Releasing a further 7.5% of the current agricultural area for more flexible uses, depending on needs.
  • Reducing greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions from agriculture by at least 38% by 2050 (with potential to offset over 60% of remaining emissions through an afforestation scenario).
  • AND supporting viable farm businesses, with export capacity, and without compromising food security or offshoring food production and the associated environmental impacts. 

But, let us not ignore the pressures against such a transition. For decades, researchers and activists have warned us about the negative effects of increasing commodification, industrialisation, and intensification of the global food system – on the climate, on biodiversity and on people’s health, wellbeing, and livelihoods.  

We are now in a period of further consolidation and financialisation. Some global businesses seek to protect and develop their business models, and their profits, by cherry picking certain concepts, like regenerative agriculture, without adopting the values and principles that underpin them; and by developing plant-based products, which are still ultra-processed foods, with the same negative impacts on health, waste, and pollution. 

An unfettered global market got us into this mess. We need agreed, and if necessary, enforced global arrangements to align government policies, and direct business towards ecologically sustainable and fair business models. This includes raising standards, domestically and, importantly, in trade deals, adopting policies like the precautionary principle, the polluter pays (the true cost of their actions), and those that protect the wellbeing of future generations. There must be no prizes in a race to the bottom. 

We want to see investors turning their attention to food and farming businesses – especially those who profit from polluting the planet and harming people. In our experience, good businesses want a level playing field, and they will work with government and each other to make rapid progress. Those who don’t, and who seek to undermine progress, should quickly become the stranded assets of this decade. 

Fundamentally this requires wealthy countries to take responsibility for dramatically moderating our impacts, and support developing countries to be able to meet their basic needs, in the face of the climate and nature crises. In 60 days, the UK is hosting COP26, and whilst food and farming is not a central theme, Nature-based Solutions are. Agroecology is the Nature-based Solution to sustainable and fair food and land use, and countries must work together to speed this just transition.”

FFCC's report Farming for Change shows that agroecology provides a fair and sustainable path to 2030, producing enough healthy food for a future UK population whilst acting on the climate crisis and making more land available for nature too.