The state of sustainable farming in the UK

05 February 2024, 12:09 PM
  • What does sustainable farming really mean, how are British producers championing an environmentally friendly farming method and what can speciality retailers do to support them? Speciality Food reports
The state of sustainable farming in the UK

With about a third of all human-caused greenhouse gas emissions being linked to the food sector, there is no doubt that the food industry must take action on the climate crisis.

British farmers are beginning to adopt more sustainable farming methods – but what falls under the umbrella of ‘sustainable farming’? “There are many ways to define sustainable farming,” says Will White, sustainable farming coordinator at Sustain, the alliance for better food and farming. From regenerative to organic to holistic farming, the list goes on. But the best way to describe sustainable farming, he says, is agroecology.

What is agroecology?

“Agroecology is the application of ecological concepts and principles to optimise interactions between plants, animals, humans and the environment, while taking into consideration the social aspects that need to be addressed for a regenerative, resilient and fair agri-food system,” Will explains. 

A number of farming approaches apply many of these concepts, such as organic, permaculture and biodynamic farming.

Gareth Morgan, head of farming policy at the Soil Association, agrees that agroecological farming, like organic, “is the best and most evidence-based option for a resilient and sustainable farming system in the UK”.

Agroecological farming works with nature instead of against it. “Truly sustainable food is possible but challenging,” Gareth says. While it needs to be carbon neutral as a baseline, farmers and growers should look beyond carbon capture to ensure farming “helps to reverse the huge nature declines we are seeing”.

“Humanity and farming cannot survive without wildlife,” Gareth continues. “In particular, we must stop relying on harmful pesticides and fossil-fuel derived nitrogen fertilisers, which are very energy intensive to make and are driving river and air pollution,” he says.

Agroecological farming examples in the UK

While Gareth says there is a “groundswell of farmers working productively in harmony with nature, and many more are keen to do so,” he admits that progress is too slow.

Will agrees. “Unfortunately, agroecology is not widespread in the UK as there are several economic barriers in place which are preventing the transition,” he says. “If these barriers could be overcome, it’s been shown we could produce enough food for the nation, while delivering for climate and nature.”

So what changes need to happen to boost sustainable farming in the UK?

“Our supply chains need to change to prioritise the right sort of farming to make it the obvious business choice.” Indeed, a campaign led by Riverford, the organic food box maker, has been pushing large supermarkets to get fair about farming. Meanwhile, a report delivered by the House of Lords Horticultural Sector Committee in November revealed only 17% of the fruit consumed in the UK is grown domestically, with supermarkets choosing to buy cheaper supplies from abroad – and British farmers are feeling the pinch.

“Without reducing the top-down pressure exerted from retailers on farmers, the long-term investment and thinking needed for a transition to sustainable farming will be impossible. For this we need more punitive regulation on supermarkets, and more farmer-focussed, localised supply chains,” says Will.

Gareth called on the UK and devolved governments to “act now to support transformative change, with farmers adopting resilient, climate and wildlife sensitive methods across their entire farms”.

Speaking while world leaders met at COP28, the NFU’s deputy president Tom Bradshaw called for more support for farmers. “Climate change is one of the biggest threats to global food security. More and more, farmers and growers across the world are facing severe weather events of drought, fires and flooding,” he says. “Every year at COP, many policy conversations take place and many commitments are made. These are very important, but they have to lead to support for practical action on the ground.

“Farmers across the country are also ready and willing to help alleviate the risks of extreme weather events on their local communities, but they will need support to do this.”

Pioneering agroforestry

Combining trees with crops or livestock is a way to work in harmony with nature – a key example of agroecology.

For example, Helen Browning, chief executive of the Soil Association, is an organic farmer who has been working on an agroforestry project for seven years. She’s producing fruit crops now and has also seen increases in biodiversity, including near-threatened meadow pipits, which prefer the scrubby land between trees.

At Eastbrook Farm, the team is growing pear trees alongside grazing cows. The trees provide shelter and shade, as well as food. They also play a role in carbon and nitrogen sequestration, and when cows graze on trees that are high in condensed tannins, this also reduces the level of methane produced in digestion. What’s more, the fruit gives the farmers another source of income.

Organic farming

Another way farmers can adopt agroecology on their farms is through saying no to insecticides and pesticides. Beneficial insects include pollinators (bumblebees, honeybees, hoverflies), predators that eat other species that would damage crops (ground beetles, hoverflies, lacewings, ladybirds) and food sources that fill up wildlife (caterpillars, aphids, slugs).

Organic farming offers producers the opportunity to be reduce their carbon impact. “We’re proud to say that Godminster Farm is carbon negative by 875 tonnes of CO2 per year, thanks to our many long years of sustainable organic farming practices. This means we’re locking away more CO2 than we produce, with the difference equating to roughly the same as burning 239 tonnes of coal,” says Sarah Norris, head of marketing. What’s more, on average, plant, insect and bird life is 50% more abundant on organic farms, she says, and there are around 75% more wild bees on organic farms.

Godminster only uses organic milk for its range of Cheddars “because we believe that farming organically is key to lowering environmental pollution, increasing soil health, and increasing biodiversity in the British countryside,” Sarah says.

Sustainable grazing

Grazing cattle outdoors is better for their welfare, but often the way it is done can be damaging to the soil, which leads to run off and pollution in water courses, according to the Soil Association. In a trial with Innovative Farmers, the organisation found that growing a diverse range of plants can combat the negative impacts. 

At Weston Farm, Richard Stanbury says moving away from monocultures towards a multi-species crop has made a “massive difference” in helping increase insect life, providing a variety of feed for the animals and improving soil health. It also means famers are less likely to have a widespread crop failure.

How can retailers support sustainable farming?

“Supporting sustainable farming is one of the best things you can do for the planet,” Will says. “Clean rivers, improved biodiversity and reduced carbon emissions are all associated with sustainable farming. It’s one of the best ways for businesses to show their commitment to sustainability.”

Scotland the Bread is a sustainable bakery project that is part of a community of businesses at Balcaskie, which work together to collaborate and share resources. Balcaskie is encouraging land-based businesses to join its community through its Pitch Up! project, which offers small businesses access to rural land.

Andrew Whitley of Scotland the Bread believes indie retailers must be “clear-sighted about unsubstantiated (even if well-meaning) claims of ‘sustainability’ or ‘regenerative’ approaches”. 

“Trust is in short supply in our food system thanks to ultra-processing and dubious marketing,” he says. For example, terms like ‘regenerative agriculture’ have no legal definition. 

Sam Parsons, the estate manager at Balcaskie Estate, agrees. “The term regenerative farming is used pretty loosely by many people who don’t fully understand what it means. To regenerate means to improve and this is not limited to soils, biodiversity and the nutritional yield for consumers, but also the regeneration of short supply chains.”

Retailers can opt for producers that go through certification processes like organic. “Organic standards have legal meaning,” Andrew says. “By supporting farmers who go to the trouble and expense of becoming certified, independent retailers are in a good position to help their customers who are also on a journey towards personal and biosphere health and who need the truth,” he says.

“What’s needed – and what we are working for at Balcaskie – is a transparent and just transition to a truly organic farming system that produces healthy food and good work within a vibrant landscape for the good of everyone,” he says.

As well as looking for producers with strong certifications, Sam says retailers should get to know their suppliers, ask questions, and be challenging to make sure you share the same values. Collaborating with others is another key to the success of sustainable farming. “The reason we joined Kingsclere Estate in Hampshire with Pitch-up! was to increase the pool of people, business opportunities and diversity at Balcaskie – we simply can’t do everything, and we miss opportunities because we are concentrating on the complexities of our own business. By opening up opportunities to others, we can ‘stack’ enterprises to bring greater diversity and a more three-dimensional approach to our land.”

What’s next for sustainable farming?

According to Balcaskie’s Sam, sustainable farming is as much about looking forward as it is about looking back. “Since the 1950s, agriculture has been specialised and simplified with the support of synthetic inputs – from fertilisers to pesticides,” he says. 

Simplification also creates homogenised, low labour and quantity at the expense of quality. Regenerative farming brings back the human element and, embarrassingly for us, makes us realise that we were not farming, but applying inputs. We must now relearn the skills our grandfathers had when they were truly farming. Supporting this transition enables greater improvements in the way we manage land, sequester carbon, benefit biodiversity and swap synthetic inputs for human skill. The output is a product which is proven to be better for human health and the planet.”

He believes the largest barrier now is knowledge and a clearly defined meaning of what ‘sustainable farming’ is. “There have been so many fads, trends and anacronyms over the years which are often well meaning, but quickly adopted without principle, that customers have become wary of labels,” he says.

Is it really possible to feed ourselves on sustainably farmed produce? This, Gareth believes, is part of a more complicated question about what and how we eat. “Studies show that agroecological farming, following organic principles, can feed Europe’s population, but we need to see a shift to sustainable and healthy diets while transforming farming,” he says.

“Half a century of increasingly input-dependent intensive farming hasn’t worked for the planet, hasn’t made for resilient farm businesses, and it also isn’t feeding us a healthy diet. We need to move to grass-fed livestock and end intensively grown crops for industrial animal feed, and instead produce a more diverse range of protein sources for our diets alongside a dramatic increase in fruit and vegetables,” Gareth continues. 

“We face climate, nature and diet-related public health crises – the time is long overdue for productive nature-friendly farming that works to secure a more sustainable food system for consumers and farmers.”

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