What is wrong with farming? It appears to be perennially in crisis. From BSE to foot and mouth, “horsegate” and bovine TB, to flooding and the recent collapses in prices for dairy and corn, the news seldom seems good.
Making farming fit for the future
It’s always been the case that farmers are exposed to shifts in what they can earn for their produce but globalised markets make these swings more dramatic. Only a year or so ago, farm leaders were promoting the need and opportunity for the UK’s farmers to produce more to feed an expanding and hungry world. Now a boom in arable production means grain prices have dropped to around 30% from their peak and below the UK cost of production, so businesses are suffering. A glut in world milk production means dairy farming is facing a similar crisis with prices paid to farmers dropping from more than 30p a litre to the low twenties or less, again to below most farmers’ production cost. Unsurprisingly, farmers are leaving the sector in droves: 400 in the past year alone.
So what’s the answer? Many economists would say farming has to respond to the market signals like anyone else. We have seen other industries forced to restructure, rebuild to survive, so why shouldn’t farming do the same? Is there any reason farming should be any different?
I think it should. Farming is special because it is intimately connected with our survival and our environment and so we need to and should demand more from it than any other business.
We all recognise that farming produces the food that is a precondition for our survival, but farming accounts for how we manage nearly 70% of the land surface of England and so is key to numerous other benefits we derive from our land: think recreation and the countryside that provides it ; think clean water filtered through the land; think storing carbon (the nation’s soils lock up around ten billion tonnes of organic carbon, equivalent to 50 years of our emissions); and think nature: the many species that depend on how we farm.
Many of these benefits we take for granted and yet they are under threat. The intensification of farming during the past 50 years has depleted key habitats and their rich natural diversity: more than 335,000kms of hedgerow lost, only 3% of traditional wildlife-rich lowland meadows remain, and three in five of all wild species have declined. Data continue to emerge of species loss, soil degradation, poor water quality, and decline of habitats, while we continue to waste food at an appalling rate. Few of the indicators are where they need to be or are even heading in the right direction.
But we need to be optimistic and this could be a pivotal moment for our food and farming system and its interdependent relationship with nature: the new Conservative Government has committed to develop a long-term – 25-year (a very long time in politics) – plan for food and farming, and a similar plan for the natural environment. These plans linked together could and should enhance and restore the natural systems that underpin farming to make nature and farming more resilient for the long term.
This is the stated ambition of a new vision for farmland and nature published today by Wildlife and Countryside Link and launched in Parliament by MP Zac Goldsmith and Environment Secretary Elizabeth Truss MP. Farming fit for the future is supported by 20 or more organisations with millions of members and which collectively manage over 500,000 hectares of land, of which over 250,000 hectares is farmed, and work with 10,000 landowners and farmers. The new vision sets out the urgent need for change and calls for policy makers, civic society and the farming community to work together to act to achieve farming that is:
“Better for nature: a farmed landscape that is rich in wildlife, with healthy functioning and resilient ecosystems;
Better for people: with approaches to food and farming that are fair to farmers and wider society and which promote health and wellbeing for all;
Better for our land and livestock: farms that look after and respect the land, and the farm animals on which we depend;
Ready for the future: farming and food production that can cope with the changes and challenges that lie ahead, as well as being able to capitalise on future opportunities.”
The vision argues that farming fit for the future is a necessity, not an option and that the health of natural systems should be at the heart of it. Farming will always need to sell into markets, global or otherwise, but markets or the Government will surely need to find new ways to recognise and value what farming does and needs to do more of for nature and society. The vision is just the beginning of a conversation to be had about how we go beyond the boom and bust of production and the kind of framework that can deliver it.
Find out more