How to fix our food system? It’s a big question that would be hard for anyone to master; perhaps impossibly broad in scope (a subject apparently covered by 16 government departments) and encumbered by inevitable trade-offs. Thursday’s release of the main bulk of Henry Dimbleby’s National Food Strategy (NFS) is an ambitious and compelling effort, led by someone who is clearly passionate and wants to bring us all with him, that ends with some concrete and positive recommendations for an upcoming government white paper.
Reading the report on Wednesday afternoon, I felt I agreed with almost every conclusion he reached beyond the farm gate. Perhaps most relevant for the PFLA, he was strongly in favour of a ‘harmonised and consistent food labelling system’ that described the environmental impacts of food products. This closely mirrors the efforts of the CLEAR consortium, of which the PFLA is a founding member, which argues for mandatory method of production labelling. He is also incredibly worried about the negative impacts of trade policy on our food and farming system, believes government should be intervening in this area, and will himself campaign on this issue after the NFS is wrapped up. He sees a glimmer of light where many of us who have worked on this subject over the last year, do not. I welcome his optimism.
I would argue his recommendations on junk food, government food procurement, education, social support and innovation are all essential components of a future food system that works for all, although perhaps some of them could have gone slightly further. Industry push-back on the tax recommendations on salt and sugar, has been swift and seemingly supported by the Prime Minister. I would have preferred a focus on taxing highly processed food, rather than ingredients: this could end up unfairly hitting products like cheese. I also sense that the meta-analyses that are used to link high salt intake with early mortality are confounding with other factors, such as ultra-high processing. Not dissimilar to the links between eating red meat and early mortality.
Despite all of this positivity, I thought the analysis and recommendations up to the farm gate were more of a mixed bag. I wasn’t particularly concerned by the recommendation that we reduce our meat intake by 30%. If we did away with industrialised animal farming, I think we’d manage this. Reading between the lines, and knowing some of those who have been advising him, I thought his recommendations on farming were perhaps somewhat constrained by politics and the biases of the prevailing methodological approaches to the issues of climate and biodiversity; perhaps too, there was an admirable desire to bring all farmers with him. However, I felt there was a resultant lack of a clear identification of the on-farm problems and an ambition to solve them that would have matched those made beyond the farm gate.
Three examples stuck out:
Climate scientists seem united behind the view that burning fossil fuels causes global warming. I would argue, therefore, that the single greatest imperative for the farming system to reach net zero (and perhaps beyond) would be to reduce its reliance on these inputs, for example, diesel to power farm machinery. Despite seeming to understand the nuances of methane when compared to CO2 and N2O as a greenhouse gas, Dimbleby’s lack of interest in GWP* – the new accounting method for carbon equivalence between the three that adjusts for the actual warming impact of methane – allows the climate change focus to fall more on ruminant methane than fossil fuel usage. The perverse outcome is that feedlot beef is said to be more carbon efficient than extensively grazed beef, despite the latter requiring next to no fossil fuel inputs. We need to move to circular farming systems, not ones arrived at from the clever use of mountains of waste but instead by eliminating the inputs that are causing the waste, in particular the over-reliance on grain-fed animals and synthetic nitrogen. I also felt frustrated that the report used global data to highlight the problems with animal farming, rather than a more nuanced dataset that accurately reflected the UK context; according to DEFRA the UK cattle and sheep numbers have both decreased by 22% since 1996, which on methane represents a net cooling effect.
The report was very clear about the issue of ecosystem degradation and the role of farming in this, with strong references to the Dasgupta report, but where was the clarity around the ultimate culprits in the UK: monoculture, tillage and chemical inputs. Unlike our Commonwealth cousins in Australia and New Zealand, we are not cutting down forest to increase our farmland area. The UK farming system needs to strip out these three on-farm crutches as fast as possible but the report stops short of saying that, leaving a door open for them in the pursuit of yield, despite the fact his yield-focused farmer case study was admirably trying to strip them out of his system. I fear this is a green light for business as usual, despite this clearly not being what Dimbleby wants himself. His view that agroecology is a low yield system seems to be at the root of this issue and he appears to miss the vital role of agroecological polyculture in driving up yields overall, even if not in the example of one single crop on one farm. I believe it is this polycultural approach that is our best hope for restoring overall diversity in our landscape. Pockets of ‘spared’ land do not contribute to overall diversity in the way some think, due to the necessity of wildlife corridors for the majority of species that do not have wings.
There is a huge focus in the report on nutrition and its role in diet-related ill health but this all seemed to be approached on a per product basis and I couldn’t see a mention of the vital role played by the farming system in delivering nutrition. The evidence is clear: our industrialised farming system has not delivered good nutritional outcomes. The annual McCance & Widdowson data shows that the nutritional quality of our staple crops has declined dramatically in the post-war period and there is a growing body of evidence showing that nutritional quality is closely linked to soil health and diversity; not all carrots or steaks are equal. I can understand from a dietary perspective that step one in addressing our public health problem is to get the public to switch from highly processed food to real food, but I felt the vision could have been more ambitious towards farming systems that drive these nutritional outcomes, not a further nutritional deterioration in our staple foods. The farming systems that do this could most simply be defined as agroecological ones. The longer we postpone this farming shift, in favour of yield, the longer we wait to solve the public health crisis that this report is trying, in part, to fix.
To summarise, and to pick up the report’s conclusions on the future of land use – that we need to spare a little, devote some to low-yield agroecology and leave lots of room for yield-focused farming (the three-compartment model) – what I feel was ultimately missing was more clarity around where this is all heading. Irrespective of whether you are prioritising yield, profit or ecology, the end point is the same: a set of farming practices that recognise that we can’t farm against nature. Farming against nature and bankrupting the soil leads to the death of civilizations. The farmers I meet, of all different persuasions, are realising that it is good business to prioritise nature. Reducing inputs works from an economic resilience perspective as much as a soil health one. Reducing your use of heavy farm machinery saves on expensive fuel costs as much as it minimises the damaging effect of soil compaction. What we need is a vision of a one-compartment model, with lots of tree planting, where all farms are reducing their inputs, farming in tune with nature and producing nutrient dense food. After two years of working closely with the PFLA, this is clear to me as someone who does not have a farming background and comes from the food industry. After two years of research, visits, round tables, and a powerful team of advisors and supporters, I am surprised that Henry Dimbleby, also someone who has no farming background and who comes from the food industry, cannot be clearer about this. There should be no space for destructive practices in our farming system and we need landmark reports to be saying this more emphatically rather than creating false trade-offs between yield and nature.
This is the view of Jimmy Woodrow and it doesn’t necessarily represent the views of the PFLA as a whole.