There were many unpredictable and unprecedented events in 2020, but what does 2021 have in store for farmers? Sustain’s head of sustainable farming, Vicki Hird, explores what could be on the horizon.
Let’s not look back at this rum, crazy year.
It brought us unprecedented food disruptions; a global pandemic; widespread UK child hunger; a resurgence of interest in home cooking and fresh food; a new US President who puts hope of global climate cooperation back on the table and new UK agricultural legislation and schemes that could promote the transition to agro-ecology so urgently needed for both people and the planet.
Yet if there’s one thing 2020 has proved, making predictions is a dangerous game.
But I’ll try a few for 2021 and suggest some self-care preparations...
Panic at the ports
Brexit and Covid food and supply chain chaos is likely to last a while, with tariffs and port blockages for food and farm inputs.
The big Brexit fallout for many farmers in 2021 will be on export tariffs, access to labour, impacts of new trade deals and more.
Yet I do see some opportunities.
Aside from the many immediate harms, which must be addressed, this should focus our minds.
We need to build the resilient capacity to feed ourselves with healthy food as preparation for the inevitable challenges of extreme weather events associated with climate change, biodiversity loss, and possible future pandemics.
What can UK farming do to diversify and embed true sustainability into their businesses?
How can Government and supply chain money and policies support this? And how can consumers shift what we eat to better match capacity? We need a mass shift in consumer buying to support farmers.
The food price crunch
Low incomes, Covid and growing poverty have meant access to good food has grown ever harder for millions of British families, including many farming families.
Yet our partners see some silver linings in emerging work to make the systemic changes needed – from local finance; fair trading and decent farm-gate prices; to new food partnerships promoting better routes to market.
As Sustain has long argued, now brought to public attention by footballer Marcus Rashford, food poverty needs to be addressed by Government action on living wages, decent school meals, and a social security safety net that covers the cost of living.
Let’s not fall into the trap of believing that the answer to food poverty is to push down food prices ever further, to the detriment of farmers, animals, food workers and the environment.
Solutions lie upstream.
An agroecological revolution
To ensure we can feed ourselves well, the whole farmed environment – from the soil and fungus to beneficial bugs and trees – needs to be nurtured as the foundation of sustainable food growing, not something to be suppressed.
This way can feed us, maybe differently, but well.
In 2021 I anticipate the push for agro-ecological farming systems will grow ever louder and that farmer-led innovation in such approaches will spread.
I recently suggested a target of 25 per cent by 2030 for new and better, farmer-focussed routes to market.
Is that unreasonable?
This will require innovative finance for agroecology and new supply chains so these are a focus for Sustain in 2021 along with farm scheme evolution.
A fair supply chain? Not yet
Only a measly average of 8 per cent of the food pound trickles down to farmers. This is pitiful given the risks and uncertainties farmers and growers have to grapple with.
We must see sector consultations ASAP in 2021 on the new ’Fair Dealing’ supply chain codes of practice and details of the enforcement body – as laid out in the Agriculture Act (Clause 29).
The market must be regulated to better match public values and help to ensure farmers can farm sustainably and ethically.
But alongside regulation, a big effort and new finance could start to create new and better routes to market for farmers, with collaborative efforts across the supply chain.
The big Agricultural Transition starts here
Public finance is starting to change, and cuts to BPS, starting in 2021 will hurt.
Defra must ensure the new phase of the Farm Resilience Scheme is fit to deliver support and advice to all who need it when they need it.
No farmer should have to exit farming.
It’s good to see, finally, that Phase 1 of the pilot English ELMs starts in 2021. It’s just a first pilot, so let’s not get too excited or frustrated.
It will be a learning process, based on a version of the Sustainable Farming incentive (SFI).
Just a few farmers will be involved, so we have pressed hard to ensure they cover as many types of farm as possible, to see how environment, nature and other public gains can be delivered alongside food.
Beyond 2021, plans look hugely interesting on SFI, on the local nature recovery component (with funds for collaboration) and the third bigger landscape recovery component.
Later in 2021 we’ll see details of the Farming Transformation and Investment funds, the Animal Health and Welfare Pathway, plus the new Peat Strategy, Tree Strategy, new regulations under the (still being finalised) Environment Bill and various new climate funds.
You will have to wait to 2022 for the new exit scheme though.
If you are in Wales, the new Sustainable Farming Scheme is now out for consultation.
Trading up or down?
In early 2020 I predicted the Trade Bill would be an Act, like the Agriculture Act, but it is creeping, beast-like into 2021.
It is a key piece of legislation for farm futures, but 2020 taught us that ministerial promises to protect our food standards are wearing pretty thin and still need fighting for.
The final reports of both the Trade and Agriculture Commission (which usefully will now be a statutory body) and the Henry Dimbleby-led National Food Strategy should get published in the first half of 2021.
I’d love to predict good, joined up, sustainable and healthy outcomes, like a green food recovery as Sustain suggests – but that all depends on whether Government actually listens and acts.
After 30 years working on farm policy I’ve learnt not to get too excited, but I am eager to see how the dizzying array of ambitions and schemes and strategies deliver or not.
Finally some brief suggestions to anyone interested in a resilient, sustainable UK food system, do take time to be:
I would like to give a very warm, mince pie-filled thanks to farmers and growers, and food policy folk, Defra staff and everyone I’ve worked with over this challenging year.
Here’s to a better 2021.
Vicki can be found tweeting at @vicikhird