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A coalition of the UK’s leading green groups concluded that the government has “fallen short” of delivering a Green Brexit – but there is still “huge” potential for the food and farming sectors, experts say.
Greener UK, which has tracked Britain’s environmental standards since 2017, said the government’s promise to “maintain and enhance” protections after it left the European Union had not been met. But while some protections were judged to be weaker now than they were pre-Brexit, such as chemicals, nature, air quality and waste, the group also noted positive developments, including the government’s “huge ambition in overhauling farming policy in England”.
Gareth Morgan, head of farming and land use policy at the Soil Association, told Speciality Food that at best, the prospect of a Green Brexit is a “work in progress, stronger on rhetoric than delivery”. He agreed that the food and farming sector still holds potential, but in some areas he believes the government’s plans are lacking.
“The potential to create a sustainable food and farming strategy outside of the Common Agricultural Policy is huge, and the stated ambition of the UK government on the environment is good, but the imminent publication of the EU strategy for organic farming stands in contrast to a lukewarm approach to organic farming in the UK and the new Sustainable Farming Incentive lacks ambition so far,” Gareth said. The EU’s new Action Plan for organic production aims for a quarter of agricultural land to be under organic farming by 2030.
“Generally, the EU was not a block to environmental ambition,” said Pete Ritchie of Nourish Scotland. “The Common Agricultural Policy was used as an excuse but the UK did not use its flexibilities within that to strengthen environmental measures.” Pete said the government has missed an opportunity to take a fresh look at the “key question of how to shift to a food system which would nourish the people of this country without trashing the planet or disrespecting animals”.
However, Vicki Hird, head of sustainable farming at Sustain, told Speciality Food that the “promise of positive outcomes on farming and the environment remain” thanks to the new suite of schemes supporting farmers and growers to adopt sustainable farming practices. “But so many questions remain on how well the design will work, and if we will lose many farmers in the tough transition and market disruption,” she added.
With so many disruptive forces hitting the farming sector – “new trade deals and tariffs, border friction with the EU on food exports and a public somewhat impoverished by a pandemic – Vicki said, “it is critical farmers and the supply chain have government support in this transition, so that they can evolve into more sustainable farming and healthier, fairer supply chains.”
All hope is not lost for a more sustainable food and farming sector post-Brexit. Indeed, Greener UK’s report said that if the Sustainable Farming Incentive proposals are backed up with “substantial long-term funding, maintained food standards and adequate enforcement, the chances of restoring UK wildlife are much improved.”
Opportunities are still available to strengthen sustainability in Britain’s food supply chain – but faced with the challenges that Brexit and Covid-19 have brought, support for Britain’s farmers will be critical.