The Government must fund more farmer-led research to ensure the industry becomes more resilient after leaving the EU, says Liz Bowles, associate director for farming and land use at the Soil Association.
The UK is currently in transition to leaving the EU, but key aspects of the post-Brexit policy agenda remain unresolved.
The great uncertainties of Brexit and the Covid-19 crisis have shown us we need far greater resilience in our food and farming systems.
How can farmers be empowered to make the best decisions for their farms at such an unpredictable time?
Farmers experiment independently all the time, but coming to conclusions in complex farm environments is hugely challenging, and many farmers are unable to even begin to test their ideas because the risks of failure are too high.
Extensive research is undertaken in the name of farmers in controlled laboratories, but much of this takes place without any involvement from farmers – and results are often unavailable for several years.
There is now a growing movement of organisations advocating for farmer-led research, including Innovative Farmers, Rothamsted, AHDB and ADAS, who are involved in supporting farmers carrying out research on farms to help answer the questions that interest them.
The Agriculture Bill presents us with a vital opportunity to support farmers to be more resilient in the future, but will it unlock funding for research to support farmers to achieve net zero and transition to farming systems which work for climate, nature and health?
Involving farmers is the only way to ensure agricultural innovation is responding quickly and effectively to the climate emergency.
With greater support for farmer-led research, we can produce healthy food and support biodiversity at the same time, but investment must focus on innovative solutions which deliver on a number of different levels – supporting climate, nature and health – not just yield maximisation.
When given the opportunity, many farmers opt to trial systems-based solutions, using natural processes to reduce reliance on inputs and build biodiversity at the same time.
Through the not-for-profit Innovative Farmers network, farmers have been leading cutting edge research into some of the most pressing challenges facing farmers today, for example, using intercropping to manage weeds, reducing antibiotics usage for mastitis in dairy farming and pioneering methods of organic and low input no till farming through the use of living mulches.
These field labs go well beyond providing valuable research data, with over 60 per cent of Innovative Farmers surveyed saying they had learned significantly from the process.
Famers reflect the insights learned from these field labs in their practices right away, and share their findings with other farmers who can then add value to future trials.
Farmers need to be better supported to innovate, prepare for and adapt to this changing world – and changing markets – if they are to continue to deliver in this increasingly uncertain climate.
The time is now to support a transition to farming that works with nature.
The UK spends around £450 million a year on agricultural research and innovation, but perhaps as little as around 1 per cent goes to practical projects led by farmers.
Putting just 10 percent of this budget towards these projects could see upwards of 1,000 projects a year led by groups of farmers, with hugely beneficial results.
The world is not going to return to the way it was, and this should be welcomed.
Ten years from now, the UK’s food and farming systems must be radically different if we are to have ‘grown back better’ from the Covid-19 crisis.
The climate, nature and health crises demand a response that is as radical and rapid as the response to Covid-19.
The ‘Ten Years for Agroecology’ study by thinktank IDDRI models a fully agroecological Europe, showing us that we can protect soils and biodiversity, tackle the climate crisis, and feed a growing population healthy food.
By increasing support for farmer-led innovation we can transition more quickly to a healthier, more resilient and more sustainable food and farming system.
Liz can be found tweeting at @hayneoak