A shift to sustainable food production is vital for farming and the environment

Friday 23 March 2018

Defra’s proposals are going in the right direction, says Green Alliance, but further detail is needed on how future policy will help farmers build their businesses around more sustainable food production.

UK farmers are facing major environmental and economic challenges.  Agriculture accounts for ten per cent of the UK’s carbon emissions and its dominant modes of food production are causing degraded soils, biodiversity loss and water contamination. Farms are becoming commercially as well as environmentally unsustainable. A step change is needed in farming practice if the UK is to reverse environmental declines overall.

A new report from Green Alliance argues that Environment Secretary Michael Gove’s proposals to replace EU agriculture subsidies with a scheme that pays for public goods are absolutely right. However, the report says that the government needs to be clearer on how regulation and incentives will support all farmers to improve the sustainability of their core activity of producing food.

Improving soil health, preventing pollution, reversing biodiversity losses and tackling carbon emissions from agriculture are vital public goods and can only achieved by changing what farmers do in the middle of the field as well as round the edges, according to the new report.  Green Alliance also says that payments for environmental delivery need to be made as relevant to lowland arable farmers as sheep producers in the uplands if they are to lead to the ‘net environmental gains’ the government says it wants.

More detail is needed on how farmers will be supported to move to higher environmental standards of food production, or we might end up paying for environmental benefits in some areas whilst farming standards elsewhere remain the same or get worse. There is a danger that the UK could be heading towards oases of nature surrounded by intensively farmed deserts.

Farmers in the UK will need better advice, as well as rewards and incentives, if they are to build their businesses around high quality sustainable food.  And, the report warns, this transition will be undermined by any future trade deal which increase food imports produced to lower environmental standards, from competitors like the US, Australia and New Zealand. 

Angela Francis, chief economist at Green Alliance, said:
“Increasing crop variety and improving soil quality in the middle of field delivers public goods in the same way as the hedges and trees around the edges.  To be a success the new agriculture scheme needs to be clear it will reward all these public goods, put high environmental standards at the heart of British farming and not undercut them with cheap imports.”

'David Fursdon, chairman Beeswax Dyson Farming, said:
“I welcome this contribution from Green Alliance to the post-Brexit UK policy debate because it calls for a vision for sustainable agriculture which recognises the role food production can play in restoring our environment. Making environmental responsibility an integral part of farming and the basis for building profitable agriculture needs to be supported in new policy and through our trade deals to hit the right buttons for forward thinking farming businesses”
Patrick Begg, outdoors and natural resources director at National Trust, said:
“This report reinforces the fact that farming needs a healthy environment to survive and thrive and significant changes are needed to ensure farming contributes to restoring the natural capital it depends on – the true spirit of sustainable agriculture. We are keen to work with other farming and environmental organisations to help make this a reality, including working with Green Alliance and our tenant farmers in developing and testing new approaches that can help build a vibrant and environmentally sustainable future for farming whilst delivering the Government’s 25 year environmental ambitions.”


Angela Francis, chief economist, Green Alliance (available for interview)
afrancis@green-alliance.org.uk 020 7630 4526

[1] Setting the Standard: Shifting to sustainable food production is published today by Green Alliance http://www.green-alliance.org.uk/resources/Setting_the_Standard.pdf
 [2] Setting the Standard is the first report from Green Alliance’s new Food and Nature Task Force whose members are Nestlé, Co-op, Sainsbury’s and Tesco. The Task Force also receives support from Jonathan Hughes, CEO of Scottish Wildlife Trust and co-founder of the World Forum on Natural Capital, and David Fursdon, owner of Fursdon estate and chair of Beeswax Dyson Farming