Farming News - Robust & diverse farming sector is fundamental if NFS proposals are to succeed

Robust & diverse farming sector is fundamental if NFS proposals are to succeed

15 Jul 2021
Frontdesk / Arable / Livestock

Henry Dimbleby’s eagerly anticipated independent review is ambitiously headlined ‘The Plan’. Containing 14 comprehensive recommendations there is much to applaud. To effectively tackle the complex crises in consumption that our current food systems inflict on our planet and our people, we desperately need transformative, innovative initiatives that are fully integrated into every area of policy-making – health, trade, environment, and agriculture.

Thankfully, the National Food Strategy (NFS) outlines opportunities for systematic reform, while promoting a holistic approach to addressing the challenges we face. Government leadership in this area is vital to support a move towards a new system for food production; where sustainable and nutritious food is the norm, and the true cost of our domestic and imported food is reflected in the price we pay. 

Building a robust and diverse farming sector is therefore fundamental if the NFS proposals are to succeed. The review supports a three-compartment model for agricultural land: semi-natural land, high-yield and low-yield farmland.

One concerning aspect of the NFS is that farmers who adopt a ‘land sharing’ approach (organic, high nature value, agroecological) have been categorised as low yielding and ‘blurry at the edges’. As the UK’s first organic certification body, this has not been our experience of organic farming over the past 29 years.

Additionally, the NFS affords considerable weight to ‘Sustainable Intensification’, which is even more ‘blurry’ and ill-defined. ‘Sustainable Intensification’ has the potential to be far more damaging to the environment and its validity has been called into question by many.

It’s an approach that, at best, only partially addresses reducing input use and agriculture’s consequent dependency on fossil fuel, while doing nothing to challenge the underlying problems inherent in our current food and farming system.

‘Sustainable Intensification’ appears to advocate the current ‘business as usual’ model, so whether it delivers any real change remains to be seen. It certainly does not provide a credible alternative that displaces an organic / agroecological approach. 

OF&G believes that better representation of organic agriculture in a life cycle assessment[1] must be incorporated into future policy developments. Our European counterparts have made significant headway in this regard. Consequently, the UK is being left behind, despite growing consumer demand and market share for organic food.

The issue of consumer demand leads us to consider the ‘organic premium’ that is also highlighted in the review. The report fails to recognise that any price premium paid by consumers seldom makes its way back to the farm. This means ‘expensive organic food’ is as much a market dynamic as a reflection on production costs.

Both the first and second parts of NFS contain many recommendations to commend, although the overarching position seems to have shifted considerably. The original review set out with an intention to address the negative impacts from energy dense foods on the nation’s health, climate change and food waste. Yet, this new strategy effectively promotes high yield, high volume cropping.

Food system complexities, and how we address current inequalities are two of the reasons why the NFS has been so eagerly anticipated. Addressing human and ecological health are entirely dependent on each other and both have reached a critical point. 

We need a clear pathway for a transition to organic/ agroecological farming laid out for farmers, one that is supported by governments and the market. As a first step, policy needs to ensure on-going support for organic farming systems and embrace more environmentally benign approaches.

Therefore, OF&G advocates maintaining diversity in agricultural systems. If Mr Dimbleby is setting out his foodtopia – then organic, as he has previously stated needs to, needs to be part of it.

Roger Kerr, chief executive, OF&G (Organic Farmers & Growers), Shropshire

[1] van der Werf, H.M.G., Knudsen, M.T. & Cederberg, C. Towards better representation of organic agriculture in life cycle assessment. Nat Sustain 3, 419–425 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41893-020-0489-6