A look ahead to the main political moments in 2020 on food, farming, climate and more by head of farming at Sustain alliance, Vicki Hird.
Depending on your livelihood, you may still be reeling or cheering from the election result and the fact that the Defra Ministerial team are back at their desks – at least for a couple of months.
You are probably getting on with the vital jobs on the farm as winter sets in.
For those few who were at the UN climate talks in Spain, you are possibly trying to suppress the dread that rises as you recall the weak outcomes which were agreed.
You may have been concerned not to hear the Agriculture Bill mentioned in the latest Queen’s Speech, as it was relegated to the briefing.
Sad, but maybe inevitable after three years of hype.
A big food debate
Sustain is dusting off its not very dusty strategies on working to improve trade policy, the Agriculture, Fisheries and Environment Bills and on the new farm and land management scheme developments.
The conversations around a new National Food Strategy, led by Henry Dimbleby for Defra, will be ramping up – what do we want of our food system, and why?
We’ll be working to make sure the ‘we’ in that question is diverse and includes all stakeholders and parts of society.
The economics of food supply – who benefits and why – also needs to be part of the debate.
Farmers and all those working in the food system should make their voices heard.
After a series of citizens’ assemblies, research and debates, the White Paper emerging in 2020 could and should create opportunities for good farmers, but should also help drive out unacceptable standards of food production – both imported and UK).
How far the Government will go in adopting the recommendations is a matter of political will.
Agriculture and trade policy
On agriculture policy, UK 2020 looks like 2019’s less chaotic cousin, as the Brexit Withdrawal Agreement will go ahead, as well as the Agriculture Bill mark II.
Trade deals will be the matter of the moment.
How far we diverge from EU food, environment, labour and welfare standards will be the first hot spud.
Our detailed analysis of the leaked US-UK trade negotiations gave serious cause for concern, and we will join forces with others to demand a trade policy and the political will to legally protect our food standards.
This is possibly the most important job, and we need no new ‘over my dead body’ promises – just solid legal text please.
Deal-making will not be quick, but in the meantime, we can surge on with new farm schemes on the environment, such as ELMS in the UK, and on animal welfare and, hopefully, sustainable production.
We need to lobby hard for a big enough budget from the Treasury for the transition and so new schemes can deliver the public goods needed.
The new measures – backed up by the Environment Bill and regulations – must genuinely support farmers taking action on climate, alongside other objectives.
Climate-focused schemes to cut emissions, store carbon and adapt to a new climate will be largely new.
The tools to advise and guide farmers, agree activities across the farm, set payment levels, measure outcomes and so on, will need to be well-tested.
Nature-based carbon mitigation is a real opportunity which could be scuppered by poor implementation and over-hyped claims.
Land and climate
Before I lose readers, possibly frustrated with ‘environment’ talk, I have to be clear.
Climate policy is not about the environment. It never really has been.
We are all citizens of this world which is quickly suffocating itself – heating up the oceans and rising sea levels so floods are just the start, making farming anywhere that much more unpredictable and creating instability in already unstable regions.
Farmers feeling climate chaos in the UK have something in common with those in Australia suffering wildfires, and people in Africa who can’t farm or graze where no water has fallen for years.
The preparations for the Glasgow Climate COP in December 2020 should present a driver for strong UK leadership.
The failure of the 2019 Madrid COP puts all the more pressure on Glasgow – it will be a key, defining, decision-making moment for the UK and the planet.
Action to keep fossil fuels in the ground and accelerate decarbonisation in homes, transport and industry must be top of the agenda.
But changing land use must be a feature of future climate policy.
The International Panel on Climate Change and mountains of evidence show the need to build adaptation into farming and other land use uses, alongside reducing emissions and creating carbon stocks.
Our ability to tackle climate and still feed ourselves depend on it.
Increasing the use of agroecological methods will ensure we can still get the food we need in years to come – though not necessarily the food companies like to sell us.
But climate action will also be about what we grow and eat, not just how – diversifying cropping and more rotations, mixed farming, using more suitable breeds and varieties, less and better meat and dairy, more protein crops and so on.
All according to national capacities and strengths.
And we will need a need a net zero consumption strategy so we don’t just cut UK emissions by sending production overseas.
Fair supply chains
Fairness in the whole food supply chain needs to be accelerated from the slow progress in the UK over the past two years.
A new Groceries Code Adjudicator will be appointed this year, and must push forward action on code breaches.
But we also urgently need new statutory codes to be developed, as mandated in the Agriculture Bill, enforced by an independent body – like the GCA – for all supply chains. And they need to be sector-specific.
This matters for farmers, environment, animal welfare and consumers.
Farmers selling into the EU will to some extent be protected from supply chain abuse by the new Unfair Trading Standards Directive. Lucky for them.
My hope for 2020 is we move up a gear and have intelligent and honest debates on what is needed based on the alarming but accurate evidence that we can’t carry on as before.
Farm businesses need clarity of what goods are needed – private and public – and what they will be paid for them.
Compromises yes, but not ones which hinder rapid progress towards a fair, sustainable food system.
Vicki can be found tweeting at @vickihird