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It’s 2022 and Ed Sheeran is rewilding... A look at the farming year ahead

Sustain's Head of Farming, Vicki Hird looks at what 2022 might bring and gives a bit of advice to pop star turned re-wilder, Ed Sheeran.

Yorkshire Dales. Credit: James Woodward

Yorkshire Dales. Credit: James Woodward

Farm policy is ridiculously full of acronyms in 2022. It’s all down to the first iteration of ELM (i.e. Environmental Land Management), the SFI (i.e. Sustainable Farming Incentive), which will be open for business for all farmers claiming BPS (i.e. Basic Payment Scheme) and will require some but maybe not enough action to deliver public goods.

Farmers get a second, painful BPS cut in 2022, and whether the two are linked is up for debate. The old CS (i.e. Countyside Stewardship) scheme will also re-open with new rates in 2022.

Then the LNR (i.e. Local Nature Recovery) scheme will be piloted and linked heavily to the new statutory LNRS (i.e. Local Nature Recovery Strategies) from the new Environment Act, alongside the LR (i.e. Landscape Recovery) scheme also to pilot this year. And there's the FIF (i.e. Farming Investment Funds) capital grant support for farming innovation and productivity. Outside England, other UK nations are also getting started with new sustainable farm support schemes such as the SFS (i.e. Sustainable Farming scheme) in Wales.

And there are more acronyms littering policy this year. There are the new FTAs (Free Trade Agreements), such as with Australia and regional partnerships like the CPTPP (Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership), full of risks for the new schemes' success alongside climate, nature, farmers and health. Whither the new TAC (Trade and Agriculture Commission)? Despite new trade agreements already being presented as ‘done deals’, the Commission has had little chance to convene, let alone hold our trade negotiators to account for the Government’s vague, placatory promises to uphold British standards.

But acronym pain and short-term politics aside, if farm schemes in England and other UK nations' policies live up to their hype, the new era of paying farmers for public benefits like soil health, nature recovery, heritage, and public engagement, begins in earnest, albeit slowly. Schemes should be available to all farmers, small (including less than 5 hectares, currently excluded) or large, new and old. This year marks a revolution in farm support and other countries, like EU Member States and beyond, are looking on with great interest at what the UK is doing. We are co-hosting a session at the Oxford Real Farming Conference on 6 January – do join us.

But farmers need protection from abusive supply chains too as the food retail sector is just going to get even more cutthroat (see this for an excellent explanation) with ever smaller margins. Inevitably this means primary producers, taking most of the risks of working with natural systems, will be further squeezed as the base of the food supply chain. Defra should have a New Year's resolution to get the statutory dairy supply chain code of practice launched and enforced and get the next sector codes consulted on ASAP. The legislation to enable this was passed over a year ago. What's the delay? New support for better, localised chains would be ideal too as our farmer survey last year showed – there’s a huge farmer appetite for better routes to market.

Also on the New Year’s resolution list should be to deliver what millions of eaters, thousands of farmers and hundreds of civil society organisations are calling for, namely: laying down policy red lines for food in any trade deals and partnerships we enter into in 2022 and beyond. If you need a reminder, here’s why.

After 2021, the year of the era-defining COP26 climate negotiations in Glasgow, I believe everyone should be now be fully aware and , frankly terriefied, about climate change. Farmers must be. The effects we are seeing globally and even in UK are faster and deeper and we are just not ready. As the UK is still chairing COP27, in Egypt in November 2022, we must demand stronger outcomes – including the targets urgently needed and action to reduce our total land and food based emissions. Without them, we won't get Net Zero done and move beyond that to carbon negative. More finance for countries suffering from, but hardly contributing to the climate crisis, to pay for all the loss and damage is also essential.

Will we have a Spring food policy package that sorts out priorities in our domestic food system, as identified in the National Food Strategy? All 70 of them? We’re putting on the collective pressure, but we are worried that – for this Government - food policy may go off the boil. A Food Bill could be the glue that starts to bind the many strands of food and farm policy together. Public and private sector procurement that supports sustainable farmers, SMEs, delivering fairer and fresher produce should be a priority. Transparency, via mandatory reporting for larger food businesses so we can see just what health, environment (such as deforestation) and social impact these complex food supply chains have. But we need real changes not just the lip service that we’ve seen over many years. As our CEO Kath Dalmeny says: “More guidance and voluntarism will simply not be adequate to stimulate the changes now required.”

My final prediction for 2022 is as depressing as it has been periodically over the past five years: Self-inflicted political turmoil leaving the real business of Government reeling and catching up. Covid-19 doesn’t help; we should learn lessons here and treat nature and land with the true respect it needs. Those who govern must make good, not self-serving, decisions on issues as far apart but connected as peat land restoration and deforestation in our food supply chains. They also need to really ramp up local food infrastructure. Healthy food procurement could really help, with a strong role here for both national and local government.

Whilst looking back can be interesting, right now we have to focus on what's ahead as the climate won't wait. My most popular/controversial blog of last year - on what 'regenerative' farming should mean, illustrates my point. 'Carbon counting' on land will get more prominent, as will – if we are not careful - misleading and misdirecting claims and promises. The scale of impact gives me shivers**.

This leads me to the mega successful pop star Ed Sheeran, who has said he wants to re-wild vast swathes of the UK. Well, some restoring of nature, by nature, in some critical places would be perfect**. But I hope he hears a bit about food supply and realises he could spend some of his money on helping farmers go nature and climate friendly, agroecological, whilst still producing better and more diverse foods for eating (not wasting, putting into cars or intensive livestock, etc.). We should let nature sing** everywhere and be investing in the new agroecological farming and supply chains needed to support this transition. We definitely should not be pushing farmers out of business and importing more to replace their food if we inappropriately re-wild good farmland here. Ed, as well as our land owners, farmers and decision-makers can help to ensure all farming becomes more nature based.

Good luck to everyone in the food system but especially the millions struggling to put decent food on the family table and farmers tackling an increasingly unstable climate and harsh markets. There is common cause. I hope this year, through progress on farm and food policy and our supply chain campaign, that we can find solutions that work for people and planet.

** gold stars to those who spotted my Ed Sheeran song titles

Published Wednesday 5 January 2022

Sustainable Farming Campaign: Sustain encourages integration of sustainable food and farming into local, regional and national government policies.

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Vicki Hird MSc FRES is an award -winning expert, author, strategist and senior manager who has been working on environment, food and farming issues for over 30 years. Vicki’s book: Rebugging the Planet is a homage to insects and other invertebrates, why they are so essential to our ecosystem and what we can do to help them.

Vicki Hird
Strategic Lead on Agriculture for the Wildlife Trusts

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