Depending on your livelihood, you may still be reeling or cheering from the election result. You may be getting on with the vital jobs on the farm as winter sets in. For those few who were at the UN climate COP (Conference of the Parties) in Spain, you are possibly trying to suppress the dread that rises as you recall last week's weak outcomes.
A big food debate
Sustain is dusting off it’s not very dusty strategies on working to improve trade policy, the Agriculture, Fisheries and Environment Bills and on the new farm and land management scheme developments. The conversations around a new National Food Strategy, led by Henry Dimbleby for Defra, will be ramping up - what do we want of our food system and why? We’ll be working to make sure the ‘we’ in that question is diverse and includes all stakeholders and parts of society. The economics of food supply – who benefits and why - needs to be part of the debate.
Farmers and all those working in the food system should make their voices heard. After a series of citizens assemblies, research and debates, the White Paper emerging in 2020 could and should create opportunities for good farmers but also should drive out unacceptable standards of food (both imported and UK).
Land and climate
Before I lose readers, possibly frustrated with 'environment’ talk, I have to be clear. Climate policy is not about the environment. It never really has been. We are all citizens of this world which is quickly suffocating itself; heating up the oceans and rising seas levels so floods are just the start; making farming anywhere that much more unpredictable; creating instability in already unstable regions; and so on.
Farmers feeling climate chaos in the UK have something in common with those in Australia suffering wildfires, and in Africa who can't farm or graze where no water has fallen for years.
The preparations for the Glasgow Climate COP in December 2020 should present a driver for strong UK leadership... The failure of the 2019 Madrid COP puts all the more pressure on Glasgow – it will be a key, defining, decision-making moment.
Action to keep fossil fuels in the ground and accelerate decarbonisation in homes, transport, industry must be top of the agenda. But changing land use will have to be a feature of future climate policy as the International Panel on Climate Change and mountains of evidence show both the need to build adaptation into farming and other land use uses alongside reducing emissions and creating carbon stocks.
Increasing the use of agroecological methods will ensure we can still get the food we need in years to come (though not necessarily the food that companies like to sell us). Climate action will also be about what we grow and eat not just how – diversifying cropping and more rotations, mixed farming, using more suitable breeds and varieties, less and better meat and dairy, more protein crops and so on. And we will need a need a net zero consumption strategy so we don't just cut UK emissions by sending production overseas.
Agriculture and trade policy
On agriculture policy, UK 2020 looks like 2019’s less chaotic cousin - as the Brexit withdrawal agreement will go ahead as well as the Agriculture Bill. Trade deals will be the political hot potato. How far we diverge from EU food, environment, labour and welfare standards will be the first hot spud. Our detailed analysis of the leaked US/UK trade negotiations gave serious cause for concern and we will join forces with others to demand a trade policy and political will to legally protect our food standards.
Deal-making will not be quick, but meanwhile we can surge on with new farm schemes on environment – ELMS in the UK, and on animal welfare and, hopefully sustainable, productivity. We need to lobby hard for a big enough budget from the Treasury for the transition and so that new schemes can deliver the public goods needed.
The measures (backed up by the Environment Bill and regulations) must genuinely support farmers taking action on climate alongside other objectives. Climate focussed schemes will be largely new. The tools to advise and guide farmers, agree activities across the farm, set payments levels, measure outcomes, and so on will need to be well-tested. Nature-based carbon mitigation is a real opportunity that could be scuppered by poor implementation and over-hyped claims.
Fair supply chains
Fairness in the whole food supply chain needs to be accelerated from the slow progress in the UK over past 2 years. A new Groceries Code Adjudicator will be appointed this year and must accelerate action on code breaches. Yet we need new statutory codes to be developed, as mandated in the Agriculture Bill, enforced by an independent body (like the GCA), for all supply chains. And they need to be sector-specific.
This matters for farmers, environment, animal welfare and consumers. Farmers selling into the EU will to some extent be protected from supply chain abuse by the new Unfair Trading Standards Directive. Lucky for them.
My hope for 2020 is that we move up a gear and have intelligent and honest debates on what is needed based on the (alarming but accurate) evidence that we can't carry on as before. Farm businesses need clarity of what goods are needed - private and public - and what they will be paid for them.
Compromises yes.. but not ones that hinder rapid progress towards a fair, sustainable food system.
Published 4 Jan 2020
Sustainable Farming Campaign: Sustain encourages integration of sustainable food and farming into local, regional and national government policies.