Tuesday, 17 January 2017

Trade ambitions must not threaten our long term food security

Brexit offers an unprecedented opportunity to redesign UK food systems, and the relationship between farmers and consumers, the food industry, landscape, and nature itself.

If we're brave then we'll develop policy and support systems that guarantee our long term food security, built on a bedrock of environmental, economic, and ethical sustainability.

If we're cowed by the scale of the challenge, then we run the risk of replacing the democratic frustrations of the European Union with a dependence on the tempestuous moods of the global free market.

Today the Prime Minister provided more detail on her vision for leaving the EU. Theresa May confirmed her intention to take Britain out of the Single Market and to manage immigration solely in the interests of the UK.

There are benefits to ending the existing free market in labour. Cutting off a ready supply of low paid immigrant farm workers is no doubt a challenge, but it offers a chance to persuade supermarkets (and through them consumers) to start paying a more realistic price for food. If the cost at the checkout more accurately reflected the costs of production, then this might lead to better pay and conditions for farm workers - and to jobs that more British people are prepared to turn up to do.

Mrs May also made it clear that she wants Britain to become a champion of global free trade. Here be dragons. Challenging barriers to trade and trimming the fat off regulation makes sense - where possible, and where it is in our best interests. But we need to be very clear about the important role that good legislation plays in protecting our long term food security.

Legislative frameworks not only protect workers and the natural world - they play a critical role in creating investor confidence and ensuring long term policy delivery.  Recent changes to energy subsidies pulled the rug out from under the UK solar sector, an important income stream for many farmers. The uncertainty around renewables has larger economic implications too. Just this week IKEA announced that it would not be investing the half a billion pounds it had planned to spend on green energy in the UK because the investment environment was too uncertain.

When we leave the EU we should replace European policy with British laws that deliver freedom for farmers to innovate and respond to the honest demands of the market place, with labels that allow direct conversations between consumers and producers, and with financial incentives that reflect the innate value of good animal welfare, landscape management, and improved biodiversity.

The current race to the bottom, in terms of ever greater levels of production for ever less money, is quite simply heading for a crash.  There are signs of strain across the industry, but particularly in the plight of the dairy sector, which is competing in a volatile global market place.  The future for British farmers must be in developing quality products for defined and discerning markets both at home and abroad.

Post-Brexit policy should set a solid trajectory for British farming to become truly sustainable. Within a decade consumers should be paying for food directly at the checkout, while their tax pounds are used to reward public goods that the market is much less able to recognise, such as flood prevention and soil improvement.

And then there's climate change.  The government's focus on global trade, must not be at the expense of domestic stability and growth in the number of small and medium-size farm businesses.  It is these smaller, more flexible businesses that will help protect us from the health and security impacts of a warmer world.  The most recent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change conclusions showed that +2C by 2046 is nearly inevitable, and that +4C is possible.  The UK climate expert, Professor Kevin Anderson, has said that a +4C future is incompatible with an organised global community, and is likely to be beyond ‘adaptation’.

Farms have an extremely important role to play in reducing greenhouse gas pollution and improving the land's capacity to sequester carbon. But some warming is inevitable, and if Prof. Anderson is right about the rate of change then we may find that by having too many eggs in the global trade basket our food economy and security is at greater risk.  Climate change is a threat multiplier - it makes economic instability, conflict, disease migration, and disrupted transport routes more likely.  A heavy dependence on trade with the rest of the world increases these risks still further.

At the same time, our own harvests will become more vulnerable to increasingly frequent extreme weather events, such as floods and droughts.  To mitigate and reduce these impacts, so that our own food security is strengthened, we must redesign our farmed landscape so that our soil quality and biodiversity is better recruited for our own community protection.

Leaving the EU means that Britain has a chance to choose its own destiny - but we must make our plans based on the likely challenges of a world twenty years from now.

A rush to embrace the global free market, in the belief that the grass on the other side of the planet is greener, runs the risk of transferring our decision-making ability from a frying pan and into a fire.

Thursday, 12 January 2017

Getting the language right

There was a really interesting piece published yesterday by Erasmus in The Economist, which described the importance of story-telling and emotion in creating change.  If we want people to engage on sustainability and climate change, then we need to speak at a personal, emotional level, rather than just thrusting facts and figures in people's faces and hoping for the best.

The column reviews what Erasmus calls a 'very short, very sharp book' by Alex Evans called, 'The Myth Gap'.  He notes Mr Evan's key argument, that 'all successful movements, including those that overturned slavery and racial discrimination, consisted of a network of small and large communities held together not by common calculations or common acceptance of certain technical facts, but by commonly-proclaimed narratives about the past and the future.'

In these revolutions, rather than a mass response to technical data projections, change came from an expression of shared experience and a need for a new direction.  Martin Luther King did not present an Excel spreadsheet, he had a dream.  The New Testament does not define the number of Judeans expected to face damnation in the next four quarters, it tells parables that create a public consciousness of a shared morality.  If 2016 has taught us anything, then we should reflect that stories, emotions, and a common narrative can trump raw facts every time.

In food and farming this is also true. Mainstream food production is driving biodiversity loss, obesity, greenhouse gas pollution, anti-microbial resistance, and poor farm animal welfare.  But campaigners won't suddenly create sustainable agriculture by warning of these dangers time and again with statistics, facts and figures.  Activists have been trying this for thirty years and the ethical and environmental challenges have only increased.

Sustainable mainstream food and farming will only emerge because farmers and food companies believe the change is possible, necessary, and that transition creates new financial opportunities.

To invoke this change we need farmers to talk to farmers; food businesses to feel pressure from consumers and their corporate peers.

Farmwel's key principle is that we must work together to build a momentum for sustainable food and farming by demonstrating that sustainability works.

Later this spring we will start show-casing practical action taken by independent farmers, co-operatives, and larger businesses that have made real progress on sustainability, and who have often reaped the economic rewards of doing so.

Tuesday, 10 January 2017

What is Farmwel?

Farmwel is helping to generate momentum towards sustainable mainstream agriculture, focussing on the environment, people's livelihoods, and farm animal welfare. 

To cut carbon, methane and other greenhouse gas pollution, we must transform our food systems.  To fight obesity, we must improve food quality and our national diet.  To restore soil quality and biodiversity, so that our land continues to feed us, we must farm with nature and not despite it.  To reduce anti-microbial resistance and farm humanely we must get animals out of monoculture-dependent intensive systems.  To protect communities from extreme weather, we must rethink the shape of our agricultural landscape.

There is a rising fear among key policy-makers in Britain and the EU that the current model of volume-production agriculture is starting to fail, and yet there is little agreement over what the mainstream alternative could look like.  This makes it extremely difficult for politicians to develop a policy narrative for progressive change.

We urgently need coherent pathways to ensure economic resilience throughout the necessary transition.  We need a systematic approach to adjustments in farm policy and to the funding of food production and land management.  We should champion progressive change by food corporates just as much as we celebrate action by smaller businesses.  And we must make a direct appeal to young farmers to plan and produce for the future instead of repeating the cheap oil and subsidy-driven mistakes of the past.

Using Farmwel's goals for secure and sustainable food we will help communicate good practice, build a robust case for change, and lobby politicians, industry, and other decision-makers to influence progress.

In the UK, as we prepare to leave the European Union, decisions will be taken about the future shape of UK agriculture.  Structures that govern food production will be reviewed and transposed for an independent Britain.  This provides a unique opportunity to influence the shape of mainstream food production in the UK economy.   Then, if we can make progress at home, we may also be able to export knowledge and experience to other economies.

Farmwel's Goals for Secure and Sustainable Food
For all farmed food, produced on land or at sea.

Farming families
- All farms, on land or at sea, are profitable
- A good life for all farm workers
- A vibrant industry provides opportunities for new entrants

- Diets are healthy and diverse
- Farms contribute to community life and rural development
- Every farm improves the climate resilience of its surrounding landscape

Farm animals and nature
- No routine behavioural mutilations
- Every farm animal has the freedom to express natural behaviour
- Biodiversity is increasing on all farms
- No routine use of antibiotics

- Farms have healthy soil and clean water
- Farms are net exporters of energy
- Farms are waste and carbon neutral
- Farms have good water management and are weather-resistant

- Financial support is targeted to deliver sustainable food production
- Legislation protects the welfare of all farm animals
- Farm system labelling on all products
- Outcome-based assessments are required as a route to market

The Farmwel project is informed by the experience of FAI Farms.