Time for a radical rethink
We have a once in a generation opportunity to reform agriculture – to change the way we farm in a way that promotes environmental enhancement, supports profitable food production, and contributes to a healthy society.
This ambition was set out by the Government last week, with the launch of a new consultation: “Health and Harmony: the future for food, farming and the environment in a Green Brexit”.
An opportunity for everyone to have their say
The Soil Association welcomes the focus on environmental protection and a ‘public money for public goods’ approach to farm payments. Whilst the proposals don’t go far enough in laying out how and when this could be done, nor whether it would be adequately funded, this is without doubt an opportunity for everyone who cares about healthy and sustainable food and farming to have their say.
A radical approach is required in order to achieve the goals outlined - such as supporting wildlife, mitigating climate chance and improving animal welfare. The consultation asked respondents to select just three ‘public benefits’ from farming - such as soil health, water quality, climate mitigation and biodiversity – and rank them in order of importance. But what the consultation should also be asking is: what farming systems and practices can deliver all or most of these public benefits at the same time?
A wholesale change to the dominant mode of farming is needed, not fiddling round the edges. We want to see agriculture which puts protection of the environment and producing great food at its heart.
Put organic food and farming at the heart of the new Agriculture Policy
Luckily, we already have such a system up and running and making good progress: organic farming. Although not perfect, it has been effectively achieving the goals laid out in the consultation paper. The public benefits delivered by organic farming have been well documented by independent research over decades. They include more wildlife and biodiversity, healthier soils and carbon storage, flood protection, clean water, lower pesticide and antibiotic use, more jobs, and healthier food. One thing we’re asking the Government to do, is to put more organic farming and food production at the very heart of their new environmentally friendly agriculture policy. Alongside wholesale change of the dominant farming system, we also need radical change in food supply chains towards a healthy, resilient and sustainable food system.
Agricultural policy can and should help to make fresh and healthy foods more accessible and more affordable
Curiously, despite the document being called Health and harmony: the future for food, farming and the environment in a Green Brexit, there is barely a mention of human health - in particular how it intersects with farming. This is a vital issue which deserves more attention. Agricultural policy can and should help to make fresh and healthy foods more accessible and more affordable. It should stimulate the production of foods that we need more of for a healthy sustainable diet, such as fruit and vegetable, nuts, pulses, wholegrains, and less but better quality meat and dairy.
Farming systems also have a direct impact on a ticking public health time bomb: the overuse of antibiotics. New agricultural policy could stimulate system change in farming towards extensive, high welfare systems that use fewer antibiotics. We expect a separate ‘food plan’ from the Government in due course and look forward to it containing these goals – but they must inform agricultural policy too.
Above this we need an approach that looks at land in the round – farming, forestry, water wilderness – taking account of public health, food poverty and international development. For further details please see our report ‘The Future of British Farming Outside the EU: Six game-changing ideas for the future of UK farming policy’.
We will work with farmers, growers and food businesses along with our members and supporters to respond to the consultation with practical, innovative and inspiring ideas. A key part of this will be how organic farming can contribute and how it can be best supported to make the large scale change we need.