What next for British agriculture: Farmers and food businesses reflect on Brexit

Peter Lundgren is an arable farmer in Lincolnshire and a campaigner for an environmentally sustainable and financially viable future for UK farming.

Peter’s involvement in campaigning started twelve years ago when a neighbour phoned to inform him that they wanted to grow a GM oilseed rape trial in the field next to his farm. Peter was concerned that GM crops do not live up to their promise and that neither farmers nor consumers nor the countryside would benefit from this technology. Previously a  member of the GM Freeze board, and founding member of FARM – a group of like-minded farmers and environmentalists promoting common values and sustainable farming objectives, Peter now campaigns for a moratorium on the growing of GM crops and has recently published a report for Friends of the Earth on pesticide reduction and the drivers and barriers to adopting integrated pest management in the UK.

“Radical change is always a worry – especially in farming where the seasons roll past at the same steady pace regardless of how much our personal lives speed up through the use of IT and communications.

My biggest concern is that farming post-Brexit may look very similar to farming under the CAP – a sort of CAP mark 2. From my point of view the CAP has been immensely damaging to farming, the rural economy, food quality and the environment; however, I’m hopeful that the Agriculture Bill will help reverse that damage, not least by doing away with the iniquitous area payments – where landowners receive public funds regardless of how they farm the land, which has resulted in agricultural land being tied-up as landowners are financially incentivised not to sell. This has led to a situation where it’s almost impossible for young people and new entrants to get a start in farming.

The CAP may have delivered copious amounts of food but at what cost in terms of food quality, animal welfare, human health, the rural economy and the environment? I’m not one of those farmers who believe my job is to feed the world – especially not with food produced to the lowest unit cost so that others in the food chain can add value and profit. My job is first and foremost to feed my family; but also to produce safe wholesome food to the highest welfare standards, support a vibrant rural economy and enhance the environment.

The CAP has taken farming to a dangerous place where it is divorced from consumers and yield is king, regardless of the negative impact on the environment and society. I’m hopeful that the Agriculture Bill will enable UK farming to step off the CAP productivity treadmill, reassessing the future we all want for farming and the countryside, and supporting farmers to deliver that vision.

Sustainable Food Trust’s Response

Peter is completely right that farmers need to have certainty in the future. Volatility in the market and unpredictability in the future of Government subsidies presents huge risks. That is why the SFT has been advocating that post-Brexit agriculture policy will provide long-term commitments on spending levels and clarity on policy priorities (such as water quality, biodiversity and soil health) so that farmers are able to adequately plan for their businesses. By using the new Environmental Land Management Scheme (ELMS) to fund multi-annual ecosystem projects, will allow farmers and growers to deliver public goods more effectively and will ultimately improve the outcome of the ecosystem services. Many farmers like Peter have made a conscious decision to produce safe wholesome food to the highest welfare standards while enhancing the environment. ELMS could help encourage other farmers to adopt similar practices.

However, the SFT is also acutely aware that climate change has increased the challenges facing producers today. The growing frequency of extreme weather events that has resulted from rising global temperatures has increased volatility in agriculture. Agroecology has been shown to be more resilient to climate change and the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization has said that, “agroecology can safeguard natural resources and biodiversity, as well as promote adaptation to and mitigation of climate change”. Peter’s farm is a testament to the resilience of agroecological systems.

At its heart, agroecology aims to improve soil health. For decades, agricultural soils have been neglected and left to deteriorate. Almost a third of the world’s arable soils have been lost to erosion and pollution over the last 40 years, and it will take hundreds or thousands of years for these degraded soils to recover naturally. In the UK, we lose an estimated 2.2 million tonnes of topsoil each year, costing around £45 million per year, of which £9 million is in lost production and reduced yields. By building soil carbon levels through agroecological techniques such as composting, cover crops and holistic grazing (techniques that Peter employs), we can improve soil health and provide better resilience against flooding and drought, reduce agrichemical run-off and increase the yield and quality of food produced. By creating an ELMS scheme that invests in soil health, we can help to meet the challenge of climate change.

For more on the SFT’s position on the Agriculture Bill, our policy paper is available here.

This series is not meant to endorse particular businesses or farms, but rather seeks to offer a variety of perspectives on the impact of Brexit on agriculture and the food supply chain.

Photograph: Maria Keays 

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