Policy work these days can be stifling; keeping you stuck to a desk, locked in meetings and shuffling around Westminster. It is only a matter of time before we hear news of Brexit fatigue or even burn out. The sheer volume of news and Bills and lobbying requirements makes it hard to go out and see what is happening in the field and talk to ‘real people’.
Quite understandably too, we get accused of being in a London bubble… often by farmers (in their farming bubble I could add) and not really understanding the realities of the food system.
With this stricture in mind, I happily accepted three farm based invitations recently: to a meeting and farm walk on a wholly pasture fed livestock farm; an organic farm and garden meeting organised by the Sustainable Food Trust; and to attend and moderate sessions at a conservation, no-till farm-based and farmer-led conference called Groundswell. Collectively, they filled my brain with new understanding and my senses with great food and visions of farm loveliness.
To distil the learning down would be impossible but I can outline three key thoughts which are top of my mind after these visits and which will inform our lobbying (apart from the pleasure of visiting such great farms and talking to the farmers):
Issue 1. The role of farmers in delivering food is utterly poorly recognised and it is not clear how that will change unless something radical happens. Greater social media activity, Open farm Sundays and facetime a farmer and so on are all great but they are no counter to consumers’ confusing dilemma of seeing quality, environment or animal friendly food costing far more than cheap, filler-filled junk. Marketing and costing and valuing of food are badly misaligned and as Tony Allen put it at the Politics of Food session I moderated at Groundswell we are producing “underpriced food for underpaid people“. And often those underpaid people are the food workers… We need farmers work valued more and that means new, better routes to market (supported by public as well as private investment) with local infrastructure (abattoirs, processing, storage) to support it as well as more and better PR. And trade negotiations must put farming and food standards first.
Issue 2. The new Gove-inspired farm policy is feared. This is a tipping point as one speaker put it – a new agriculture policy designed by us and new trade deals – so it’s a shame that farmers have low expectations. I was surprised when questioning farmers on whether they want outcomes or prescription based approaches to farm support – that most preferred prescriptions – being told what to do when (as long as it is ‘simple). They felt being paid for outcomes were too risky – e.g. a bad bit of weather and you’ve screwed your water catchment outcomes and so may not get paid. Most were happy with a whole farm approach which was positive – this favours systems-based thinking and considering in-field and cultivation issues not just edge of field and separate areas for nature. It feels like the land sharing vs land sparing arguments don’t work so well in this crowded isle and we need a bit of both.
Issue 3. The farm community is changing by networking which maybe bodes well for a new farm support and wider system based on delivering public goods especially at landscape or catchment scale. The industry is sadly still averse to cooperating, with farm coop numbers dropping for the fifth consecutive year* and it still loves big machinery but farmer-led learning is around and growing. I’ve seen more exciting ideas, schemes, sharing and networking approaches than ever before working on farm policy. Soil health is a big driver. and the organic movement have been collaborating on this for years. I also hear much talk about new metrics and (simple always simple) on-farm measurements needed to help both drive innovation and monitor delivery of public goods. Mistakes will be made but I hope seen as developmental not disastrous (RPA aside). But we must keep faith.
If change is happening, will the new farm policies being developed be fit for purpose? The hugely enlarged Defra team delivering the new Agriculture Bill have had a major consultation response to trawl through but still suggest that the Bill will be published any day now. It will be very top line but we very much hope it supports the genuine culture change I’ve witnessed, good health outcomes and deals with supply chain and trade issues.
A recent report by MPs on the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee – the result of a rapid inquiry into the Defra Health and Harmony consultation on future farm policy – came out in June. The MPs had valuable overall conclusions including the need for the government to:
- provide thorough sectoral assessment of impacts to identify support for small and medium-sized farms and ring fencing funds to fund the rural economy and environment;
- address the barriers to productivity and so will not support the Government’s ambitions for farming in England;
- consider wider food policy with public impact such as reducing diet-related diseases, support healthy food in payment models to farming, and bring forward changes to Government buying standards and ensure use of healthy, affordable and British food in Government procurement;
- assess which public bodies can coordinate the environmental land management system; and
- ensure that trade agreements always prevent agri-food products that do not meet our environmental, animal welfare and food standards from entering the country.
Sustain welcomed that report as it reflected the multifaceted and multifunctional roles of farming. Sustain’s wide membership reflects that complexity too and works to ensure that policy delivers for all issues of public interest and not merely a single issue. Our response to the Defra consultation reflected that. Meanwhile Westminster and devolved administrations remain crazily busy with the eight other Brexit Bills being rushed through…
Finally, a warm and profound thank you to the farmers allowing folk like me to prod inexpertly at your soil and ask silly questions. I salute your perseverance, flexibility and forward thinking. We will need it.
Vicki Hird, Food and Farming Campaign Co-ordinator.
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*this is in marked contrast to the rest of Europe where cooperatives dominate (UK’s farming co-operatives have 6% of market share, Germany 45% and France 55%). Could this be why they show far higher growth in total factor productivity?