A Radical New Vision for British Agriculture

A Radical New Vision for British Agriculture

Oxford Farming Conference, Jan 4 2019


1. Introduction


Thank you so much for inviting me to be here today.

I was following yesterday morning’s session via the live stream and was really encouraged that when Anna asked the audience whether they still felt there was a divide between farmers and environmentalists the overwhelming majority said no.

And I want to be clear that I’m speaking today with a deep appreciation of the wisdom and knowledge of the farming community about nature, wildlife and land – and with a recognition that farmers are inherently custodians of the countryside.

I want to pay particular tribute to the Cool Farm Alliance of which M&S who are kindly sponsoring this session was a founding partner: a pioneering collaboration of industry NGOs and academics making the best science accessible to farmers to reduce climate emissions, water use and on farm waste.

But in spite of the myriad individual examples of good practice, the case I’d make today is that our agri-industrial food system is in crisis too often favouring consolidation in order to improve competitiveness, at the expense of human health, ecology, and farmer livelihoods.

Instead we need an alternative model, based on agro-ecological principles:

  • A sustainable, resilient, nature-friendly food system which restores rather than undermines biodiversity, and which makes a significant contribution to a zero-carbon world
  • A food system which supports fair trade and good livelihoods for farmers and farm workers, which upholds high animal welfare standards, and which enables everyone to access healthy and affordable food

That’s easy to say – but much more complex to achieve, and I’ve only got 10 minutes to say how!

So to narrow it down a bit, I’ll focus on the case for a more joined-up food and farming system, and consider just 3 areas:

  • First, the role of food in the agriculture debate; re-instating the F which is all too often missing in DEFRA
  • Second, re-envisaging farmers as the custodians of nature, and agriculture as a restorer not destroyer of the countryside
  • Third, the creation of a fairer and more rewarding food supply chain, one in particular that attracts more young people into farming.


2. The Context

First, a few words by way of context.

Farming in Britain is clearly being propelled into a new era.

And even assuming we avoid the disaster of a no deal Brexit – the impact of which was set out so starkly yesterday by the Secretary of State – if Brexit goes ahead, then also ahead lies the full force of Treasury spending rounds from 2022, and the consequences of whatever trade deals actually ensue, once Liam Fox’s flights of fancy have been overtaken by harsh reality.  

His sights are on the major agriculture producers like the US and Australia. These countries are looking for a sizeable slice of our market, and to extend the reach of their own de-regulatory agenda based on standards very different from our own, whether that’s for beef hormones, the use of GMOs, or the essentials of animal welfare.

But I’d argue that this is not the time to walk away from hard-won standards for healthy food and a sustainable environment.

Indeed, these standards are needed more urgently than ever.

They need to be enshrined in legislation, with guarantees they won’t be undercut by cheaper imports that don’t meet them, and they need to be extended.

In my lifetime, we’ve wiped out half of our wildlife.  Chemical agriculture isn’t solely responsible, but it’s played a big part. 

In Britain, three quarters of butterfly species have declined over 40 years, while in some areas moth abundance has fallen by over 40%.  The consequence for just one remarkable bird, the swift, has been a halving of its population in the last 20 years alone.

While many farmers are more than aware of this and are pioneering new approaches, the UK still ranks a mere 16th out of 28 EU countries on the 2018 Food Sustainability Index.[1]

This composite produced by the Economist intelligence Unit acknowledges positive achievements in the UK - but it also highlights vital areas where we are seriously lagging behind, in particular on high Greenhouse Gas emissions from agriculture and too few young people in farming.

Now is the moment to pick up this challenge.

Whatever happens over Brexit, we must confront what kind of farming & food system we actually want and how to get it.

The Agriculture Bill ought to be the mechanism to bring about far-reaching change. But it lacks both a long term vision and long term funding commitments.

It grants ministers many powers, but too few duties.

It leads on land management, but divorces that from the wider nexus of food, farming and health - and from the social partnerships with farmers, on which the future needs to build.

This is a serious policy failure in the making.


3. Food and the Food System


There is no single recipe for the diverse and dynamic communities that make up our country.

The beauty of the British landscape is precisely in its geological, climatic and human diversity.

But the food system as a whole must focus on:

  • Producing more local healthy food, with far less waste
  • With fewer or no pesticides
  • More attention to the welfare of animals
  • Greater transparency about origins and methods of production
  • A much smaller proportion of meat and dairy in our diets, from more sustainable sources.
  • And overall far less food loss and waste

We need a more joined-up approach to primary food production.

Farming should be about producing the means for sustainable diets from sustainable food systems. That’s not what we have at present.

Human and ‘eco’ health are two sides of the same coin. That should be a ‘public good’ in the Agriculture Bill, around which we could all unite.

Our goal should be to make the UK food system resilient.

And while self-sufficiency isn’t the main objective, there is much more that could and should be grown here.

Our level of self-sufficiency in some areas is incredibly poor - around 57% for vegetables, and just 16% for fruit.[2]

A process of re-localisation would see more horticulture grown here, more top and soft fruit.[3]

We must be clear that the point of land use is not just to protect and enhance ecosystems, but to produce food and enhance ecosystems.

Far from embracing this approach, the ever inventive Mr Gove has taken the editorial pencil to DEFRA, deleting the ‘F’ to create DERA.

I welcome the fact that there was a greater focus on food in his speech yesterday – and the fact that back in June he asked Henry Dimbleby to craft a food strategy.[4]  Now I absolutely welcome this – but time is running out!

This strategy should be a foundation stone for farm and land policy, not a ‘bolt-on extra’.

It should be at the heart of the Agriculture Act, not an after-thought. Nature and food.

I want a thriving UK farming system which serves both food AND the environment - consumers AND health at the same time.

4. Respecting the environment


Rebuilding environmental resilience is not easy. It will take more than motivated consumers to bring about sustainability.

Farm production needs to be aligned within planetary boundaries, perhaps nowhere more so than in relation to its climate emissions.

According the Committee on Climate Change, there’s been no progress in reducing agricultural emissions since 2008, so these still remain at around 10% of the total.

Going forward we should prioritise:

  • Targets to bring down emissions year on year to lead us to net zero farming in the UK as soon as possible. I was encouraged to hear Minette Batters yesterday calling for this, and I very much hope the NFU will support my amendment to the Agriculture Bill to achieve it.
  • Measures to increase the level of soil organic matter so that soil can play a much greater role in carbon sequestration and regeneration.
  • More humane and human scale methods of livestock farming, together with support for farmers to transition to less, but higher quality, livestock production.  I accept, of course, that better manure management and careful selection of seed can both help reduce greenhouse gas emissions, reducing unsustainable meat consumption needs a combination of education, changes to school and work place menus and subsidies for plant based foods.

At the risk of incurring the wrath of the Energy Secretary in particular who said recently that encouraging people to eat less meat would be “the worst sort of nanny state ever”, I’d add that we need serious consideration of measures like a meat tax, particularly for beef (I accept that British sheep farming is one of the least intensive forms of livestock farming so perhaps a banded  system according to production method would help), offset for more sustainable meat producers through increased revenue from targeted agri-environment schemes.

We need to recognise that diets are already shifting. 1 in 8 people in the UK are vegetarian or vegan – whilst a further 20% are so called flexitarian. As if to prove the point, just this week, Greggs launched their new vegan sausage roll, whilst it appears to have caused Piers Morgan some serious indigestion it’s been widely welcomed.

  • Crucially, we need to bring the whole food chain into the circle of responsibility, not leaving farmers to work on their own, together with clear signals that society will play its part in funding this transition through a new agriculture policy. 

The Agriculture Bill ought to be legislating duties on ministers to support and guide the Transition, and commit sufficient financial support from the Treasury to achieve it.   

Mr Gove promises only a temporary extension of the current agricultural budget but what he does guarantee is tapering out of direct payments.

But with well-directed and long-term support (including for example from water companies and other beneficiaries of fewer chemicals in the landscape), farmers could plan for a sustainable transition to more extensive systems, mirroring the pathway to renewables in the energy sector.

To the extent that higher prices might be necessary, then welfare and minimum wage payments will also need to increase. Keeping food artificially cheap cannot be allowed to be an excuse for continued environmental destruction and poor diets.

Clearer objectives are also needed in the Agriculture Bill, linked to future targets designed to make progress in areas where even well managed and funded Environmental Land Management (ELM) plans won’t be sufficient.

Take the continued use of Pesticides and Nitrogen, both major pollutants, on an unsustainable scale.

A study just published found that pesticide residues were present in 82% of agricultural soils producing the main crops in Europe.[5]

We need targets for a substantive decrease in reliance on these inputs, together with measures like a tax on  synthetic fertilizers – and a willingness if necessary to protect our own higher standards on cheaper imports that don’t meet them.

Reluctance to face planetary facts has held back much needed investment in research, trials, farmer engagement and innovative thinking.

There has been slow progress in developing Integrated Pest Management (IPM) for example.

Yet in France, they’re at least grappling with new ideas – including a scheme whereby suppliers of agrochemicals will have to inform farmers about 36 alternatives to the use of sprays, including crop mixtures and biological controls.[6] The aim is to reduce spray use by 20% by 2021 whilst maintaining farm profitability. 

Whether or not this succeeds, it’s signposting the future, reinforcing the need for practical approaches as varied as slurry injection, agro-forestry and IPM, as well as, of course, organics.


5. A fairer food system to protect farmers & rural communities


Finally, an elephant in the policy room is how little money gets back to primary growers.  As many of you know only too well, most money is made off the land or beyond the farm gate.

According to Defra’s October 2018 Agriculture report, UK farming accounted for £8.4 bn in Gross Value Added (GVA) in 2017.[7]

Minus the subsidy, it shrinks to £5.1 bn – far less than other sectors in the chain and well below 10% of total food sector GVA.

By any notion, that’s not fair.

We urgently need proposals from the Government on fairness and social inclusion, not only for farmers but for disadvantaged rural communities.  The challenges must be spelled out before finalising the policy levers or, still less, setting the budget.

And let’s think outside the box.  So, yes, strengthen and extend the Groceries Code Adjudicator to protect farmers from unfair trading practices, and reinstate the Agricultural Wages Board in England – but we need to go further than that. 

Restricting the 100% relief from inheritance tax, currently available to all landlords regardless of the length of time for which they’re prepared to let land, and apply it only to those prepared to let for, say, 10 years or more could be one way to offer more opportunities for tenant farmers.  

A Tenant Right to Buy policy could also be investigated, learning from the experience of the crofters right to buy in Scotland, and with restrictions on future sales to prevent unreasonable private gains.

There is plenty of scope for more innovative thinking.

6. Conclusion


I appreciate these are hugely uncertain times for farmers and without policy certainty it’s immensely difficult to plan for the future.

I’ve made the case that the only future I see is to realign food and farming with ecosystem and human health.

There is no reason why a food and farming transition to sustainability, with accountability and affordability, cannot be led from the UK.

I’d like to see the EU as a whole move forward together on this. I am a strong supporter of a People’s Vote on the final Brexit deal, with a right to remain on the ballot paper, but if Brexit does happen, all of us working together will have to do everything possible to ensure a new farm policy is based on a strong commitment – supported by the tax payer and well-regulated market – to sustainable, resilient, nature-friendly farming that delivers healthy, affordable food for all, with high environmental, animal welfare and labour standards.

That, I believe, is where the national interest lies.


[1] Created by The Economist Intelligence Unit (2018). Food Sustainability Index. London and Parma: Barilla Center for Food & Nutrition and Economist Intelligence Unit http://foodsustainability.eiu.com/

[2] Figures on Table 7.9 and 7.12 in: Defra (2018) Agriculture in UK 2017. London: Dept for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs Chart. 14.2 pp 58-61 https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/741062/AUK-2017-18sep18.pdf

[3] For example: De Ruiter H, et al (2018). Moving beyond calories and protein: Micronutrient assessment of UK diets and land use, Global Environmental Change, 52, Sept, 108-116,  https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0959378017310555


[5] Silva V, H Mol, P Zomer, et al (2019). Pesticide residues in European agricultural soils – A hidden reality unfolded, Science of the Total Environment, 653, 25 February 2019, pp1532-1545. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.scitotenv.2018.10.441

[6] There are plenty of problems in France but they are trying! See Erik Stokstad, ‘France’s decade-old effort to slash pesticide use failed. Will a new attempt succeed?’, Science, 11 October 2018 https://www.sciencemag.org/news/2018/10/france-s-decade-old-effort-slash...

[7] Figures in Chart 14.2 in: Defra (2018) Agriculture in UK 2017. London: Dept for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs Chart. pg103  https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/741062/AUK-2017-18sep18.pdf


Join The Discussion