10 August 2020, 08:10 AM
  • ‘UK food and farming has reached a tipping point’ was the conclusion from a recent live, online panel discussion on the value of agroecological food production systems, hosted by the largest certifier of UK organic land, OF&G (Organic Farmers & Growers) and knowledge sharing platform, Agricology.

Chaired by broadcast journalist, Charlotte Smith, OF&G chief executive, Roger Kerr considered the UK’s current environmental and political landscapes, consumer behaviours and their potential impact on food production. Also featuring on the panel were Sue Pritchard, chief executive at the Food, Farming & Countryside Commission, Dr Bruce Pearce, director of research at the Organic Research Centre and Vicki Hird, sustainable farming campaign coordinator at Sustain.

Whole system approach

Roger said that every aspect of the UK landscape has been influenced by humans over thousands of years but more recently the focus within farming has been increasingly on yields, inputs, and profit. “We need to take a broader view that includes enhancing environmental ‘assets’ and managing environmental ‘liabilities’, so the overall value of the land is viewed more in the context of a ‘balance sheet’.

“To make significant progress, our food supply chains, society and the natural environment must be considered in a whole system approach, which offers production gains, increased biodiversity and protection for soils and watercourses.

“It can’t be an either-or situation – we shouldn’t just focus on increasing biodiversity and neglect soils. To build productivity on farmed land and encourage more pollinators to thrive, all aspects should be considered simultaneously. This will help deliver robust food systems that are far more resilient to climatic and economic shocks.”

The panel agreed that although farmers inherently want to protect the land, some practices need reviewing. Sue proposed an increased investment in diverse, local systems that knit together.

“Start from the bugs up - create more wild spaces on farms to build an ecological mosaic and wildlife corridors that reconnect landscapes. Meanwhile, our population needs to eat and we can’t offshore our requirement for food by rewilding the UK and importing food from places which have different responsibilities to the natural world,” explained Sue.

“It all comes down to what we value as a society. Food systems, ecosystems and human health are inextricably linked. And the challenges we face can only be properly addressed when our food systems are designed with a whole system approach in mind.”

Consumer behaviour and government support

The speakers agreed that a huge culture change and government support would be vital to implement a whole system approach.

Vicki explained that as many farmers rely on government subsidies, we’re supporting market failure. “A sudden change in consumer behaviour during the COVID-19 crisis brought formerly niche food sourcing market opportunities into the mainstream.

“For example, vegetable box delivery schemes have brought farmers, the food they produce and consumers closer together in shorter supply chains. Let’s grasp and grow this concept over the next few years and create a local market infrastructure where farms can diversify on a smaller scale and don’t have to sell their produce at crippling prices.”

Sue agreed with the government’s ‘public money for public goods’ principle but warned that it’s narrowly defined and doesn’t go far enough.

“We’re moving into an economic climate where big decisions need to be made on public money investment. But what do the public value? Asking this broadens the debate but it could be a damp squib if a narrow definition remains and only serves a small number of public good aspects.”

Diet for disaster

The conversation moved on to the critical role of diet to aid the transition to more sustainable food systems. “Fundamentally, as a nation our food and diet are making us ill and it needs to change,” said Bruce.

“Since the Second World War, research focussed on input driven agriculture. In contrast, the agroecological approach is based on producing food that fits within a system, paying attention to the diverse interactions between plants and animals.

“The attitude and motivation of farmers is critical. There’s a need to invite, inspire and motivate farmers to make these changes.”

Vicki said to reverse our climate and nature emergency, we must dramatically convert diets as well as farming systems. “Junk food has an environmental impact. We need a transition with positive welfare and ethical impacts - stop intensive, factory farming and eat less but better meat; less junk food and more plant-based products.”

Sue explained that we’ve been persuaded to want the food system we have from huge investment in marketing by global agribusinesses that have profited from us eating too much food that can be bad for us and the planet. “We now have an opportunity to craft a different narrative which joins the dots - land use, retail supply, planetary impacts, and our health and wellbeing.”

To close the discussion, the panel agreed that there’s been positive change in consumer behaviour along with better food networks working more closely to develop alternative markets.

“R&D and advice is fundamental and if we want to see any change then we must invest. I’d like to see more of a focus from government in rebalancing landscape use. And I’m confident that consumers are moving in the right direction. When consumers engage, we can start to see positive change,” concluded Roger.

 

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