The SFT at the party conferences: Six takeaways for food and farming 

  • 25.10.2023
  • article
  • Environmental Issues
  • Events
  • Policy
  • Lesley Mitchell

SFT Policy Director, Lesley Mitchell, recently went on a whistle-stop tour of the latest UK political party conferences. Here, she delves into the main parties’ positions on food and farming issues, explaining how the SFT’s work can continue to push for transformative policy changes to enable a more resilient and sustainable food system.

As we head into autumn and begin to look to 2024, one of the big (potential) events on the horizon will be the UK general election. While the prospect of a political circus might not inspire many, there is a huge amount at stake for food and farming, at this pivotal point in time.

With the removal of land-based Basic Payment for farmers by 2027, introduction of environmental management schemes and many new demands from supply chains on carbon, biodiversity and more, farming could be on the brink of a major regenerative transformation – or alternatively, a shallow shift that fails to deliver on these key goals. At the same time, farmer incomes are squeezed from both ends, with rising costs of production and pressure not to raise consumer prices. All of this is happening in a context where recent research has shown that poverty, and associated lack of access to healthy food, is a far deeper crisis than many of us could imagine, with the latest evidence of more than one million British children living in destitution. Political leaders’ priorities will have major consequences, from livelihoods to health and society, and to our rapidly changing climate.

I joined the SFT as Policy Director in June and, since then, have been working to assess the potential for policy action, including getting a feel for what the various parties are saying about food and farming at the recent party conferences. Here, I share some of the key themes that are beginning to surface.

The lay of the land for food and farming

The first question is where does food and farming fit in each party’s priorities? The incumbent Conservative government has emphasised the shift to Environmental Land Management schemes (ELMs), rewarding actions that boost biodiversity or nature recovery. There were no obvious new announcements from the Conservative conference, more a focus on holding the line on existing pledges.

For the Liberal Democrats, there was a notable focus on rural communities and farming, with pledges of increasing the agriculture budget (and thus support for ELMs) by £1 billion. However, others have suggested these pledges are to win support in key constituencies such as the South West, rather than core demands the party might bring to a potential coalition government.

With Labour, there were no formal statements on farming budgets, but much advocacy toward shadow ministers from fringe events, seeking the same level of budgetary uplift. Food and farming were not explicit priorities but are embedded in their key missions for green growth and increasing opportunity for all. There were some strong statements from shadow ministers Steve Reed and Daniel Zeichner on the importance of future farming to work with nature and the need for the UK’s food system to build resilience and boost environmental recovery while rewarding farmers fairly. But there will be much work to do to turn these good words into policy actions, should Labour win.

Six food and farming takeaways

Some key narratives arose across the different conferences outlined here, alongside a short overview of SFT’s relevant work:

  1. ELMs and the need for holistic metrics

The need for ELMs to effectively reward farmers for transitioning to new practices, recognising the cost and risk involved, with more investment to support more ambitious change, was reflected at all the conferences. At Labour, we heard calls from nature organisations to focus support on those farmers who have high ambition for regenerative transformation. One of the biggest current challenges for ELMs, however, is that it rewards practice change rather than outcomes. Through our engagement with policymakers, SFT will continue to emphasise the need to reward farmers fairly both through public payments and supply chains. We will emphasise the need to underpin this with primary farm level data, based on the holistic and common approach to assessing farm sustainability offered by the Global Farm Metric.

  1. A national land use framework

There was a clear call from nature and farming advocates for a national land use framework to support decision-making in an environment where multiple demands are encroaching on finite land, from new green energy to housing, rewilding, agroforestry and food production. While the concept of a land use framework has been on the political agenda for more than a year, so far little progress has been made. The SFT will be working hard to ensure that the place of nature friendly food production is at the heart of that conversation and will use our landmark research, such as ‘Feeding Britain From the Ground Up’, to make the case for an approach based on farming with nature, rather than separating nature recovery from food production.

  1. Decarbonisation through regenerative agriculture

There was much attention given to the transition to renewable energy and the potential for farmers and food producers to benefit from both energy creation and energy self-sufficiency. On the fringes of this conversation was the wider point of the potential for agriculture to be a solution to decarbonisation itself. To support this case, the SFT’s future research will explore what the ‘Feeding Britain’ findings mean for farming’s ability to deliver these outcomes, and what value they could have for farmers.

  1. Future skills, jobs and infrastructure

There was also discussion of future skills needed to underpin the green transformation. If the potential for green growth through food and farming jobs was grasped, this would tackle a major hurdle of lack of knowledge and skills in regenerative farming. This is an issue SFT will continue to explore, both through our work on local farming and supply chain infrastructure, such as small abattoirs, and through partnership projects on what is needed to deliver new and local food networks.

  1. Food security and local procurement

Calls for food production resilience and food security were loud and clear across all conferences. However, little was said about trade and the importance of preventing unsustainable production and lower standards for food imports, at a time when major supply chains across the UK currently are sourcing key commodities such as eggs from countries with poorer welfare systems. One key point from Labour was a restated commitment to source 50% of publicly procured food from local and sustainable suppliers and a focus on locally devolved decision-making that could support regional food networks.  The SFT continues to work in partnership with other organisations including The Harmony Project to support schools in sourcing more seasonal, local ingredients, whilst also advocating the inclusion of food and farming within the national curriculum.

  1. Healthy, sustainable food for all

One area that, somewhat disturbingly, seemed far under the radar was the need to address diets and health, as well as production – especially with the latest revelations of deep chasms of food poverty. We know, for example, through the Food Farming and Countryside Commission’s recent work engaging citizens’ priorities, that people want political leadership and that, whatever a person’s financial situation, the majority of people want access to real, healthy and sustainable food. This is an important public mandate for us to promote the importance of proactive and integrated public leadership on food and farming.

What’s next?

This snapshot focusses on the main three parties in the UK. It’s important to remember that there are many exciting developments in devolved nations, from implementation of the Good Food Nation Act in Scotland to the Well-being of Future Generations Act in Wales. We will be touching upon these in upcoming editions of the SFT newsletter.

In between all the political noise of the next 12 months, the SFT will continue to bring the challenge of creating a deep, just and regenerative shift in food and farming to the forefront of the minds of those with power and influence, who can shape our future landscape. Let’s see what promises turn into real pledges for action.

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