With this week’s critical Parliamentary vote against the Agriculture Bill amendment, a challenging growing season and harvest, plus a global pandemic influencing shoppers and their buying habits alongside the continued debate around climate instability and biodiversity loss, farm businesses are in a potentially precarious position economically and ecologically.
This tipping point in UK agriculture has prompted crucial debate in the industry about the best way to manage our rural landscape while tackling climate change and building our nation’s food security.
We believe the Government and agricultural industry must back a whole-system approach based on organic and agroecological principles.
Organic farming, which is currently the most widely recognised agroecological approach, means farming with nature, rather than against it.
This allows us to benefit from many valuable biological processes and continue to feed our population while providing the best farmed environment for wildlife.
Which is not to say there is not a need for defined spaces where wildlife and nature take precedence.
But it is critical that in creating this additional space for nature, we do not continue to degrade our soils and biodiversity elsewhere by chasing yield alone to offset any perceived overall loss of production.
Former Defra chief scientific adviser, Prof Sir Ian Boyd’s vision that ’half the nation’s farmland needs to be transformed into woodlands and natural habitat to fight the climate crisis and restore wildlife’ is imbalanced and unsafe.
Although this vision may help to restore some wildlife species that prefer either unfarmed or very extensively farmed land, it completely misses the point that whatever food production system we have it must reflect the current challenges we face.
The issues we face are multi-dimensional – we are seeing significant degradation of soils and major climatic events alongside huge biodiversity loss.
How can we seek to reconcile these issues simultaneously without recognising the need for our food production system to significantly reduce its impact on finite natural resources and the environment?
The continued degradation of our most productive soils through increased intensification to allow lower grade soils to be rewilded can only lead to a long-term reduction in overall agricultural capacity and greater environmental decline overall.
We need to rebalance the conversation and take a broader view. To strengthen food supply chains and restore our natural environment, a whole-system approach is necessary to consider the wider environmental ‘balance sheet’ – enhancing ‘natural and public assets’ and reducing ‘environmental and societal liabilities’ through the wider implementation of organic techniques.
To bring a more benign farming system and the space needed for nature together, we must address the challenges of diet, food waste and inequities in our food system. Our productive agricultural land cannot be ransomed due to wider political inertia or slavish adherence to the current paradigm.
To optimise food production requires investment in organic and agroecological research alongside support for farmers to transition towards different farming methods, plus the development of more local food networks and peri-urban food production.
Diversity in farming and the supply chain is ultimately the key to a more resilient and productive food system.