No matter how much we think about it day to day, food touches all of our lives. After all, we all eat! As well as being responsible for managing many of the landscapes we appreciate, the food and farming sector generates jobs, especially in rural communities where employment is sometimes more difficult to find. Many young people are concerned about the future of food and farming, shown through the activities of grass roots and youth organisations such as Common Soil and the county Young Farmers Clubs. There are also many young people, such as our own members, who are passionate about the future of the natural world.
The total land area of the UK is over 24 million hectares and about 75% of this is farmed. The way this is managed therefore has a fundamental impact on wildlife and the broader environment. With such a large proportion of land allocated to food production it is vital that we connect the two and establish a vision for farmland within our vision for nature.
In true vision for nature style this post does not reflect overly on the problems we face but on the vision we want to see come alive.
At the forefront of this vision must be a movement to support British food producers, who face numerous pressures over the coming decades. They are expected to provide cheap food for an increasing global human population at the same time as meeting high environmental expectations. Future conservationists must support farmers to protect biodiversity on their farms and avoid confrontational behaviour that creates division. Our vision takes in to account the future of soils, subsidy support, stewardship schemes, restoring upland landscapes and pest management. We present a vision for the entire food chain, focusing on local food production and supporting small food retail businesses that emphasise localism, whilst accepting the key role that the international fair trade of food plays in fighting poverty across the world. We also argue that food education should be embedded within the school curriculum and that every child should have the opportunity to visit a farm to learn about where and how their food is produced, who produces it and how farming and wildlife conservation can work hand in hand.
Our main recommendation in the report is that all agricultural payments should incentivise management of farmland that benefits wildlife. We should move away from a subsidy system that pays simply for owning land but at the same time doesn’t return to a system that encourages the ‘wine lakes’ and ‘butter mountains’ of the past. Those farmers that do more for wildlife and quantifiably increase biodiversity or improve habitat value on their farms should expect to receive more support from the taxpayer than those farmers who do not achieve the same results.
Another recommendation is to fully integrate food and farming into the curriculum, including compulsory visits to farms. As future food purchasers, children should fully understand the food system and the various benefits of buying local food as well as supporting small producers in poorer countries. If children grow up not knowing how their food is produced or whether it is produced sustainably on farms that are ‘wildlife friendly’ how can we expect the system to change?
Food waste is a key and complex issue and we favour a progressive fining system for supermarkets that waste food. The revenue generated from this will go into supporting habitat schemes on farms.
Finally, we favour setting specific targets to aid farmland species recovery and boost pollinator numbers. If we don’t have targets to aim for then it is far more difficult to gauge how we are doing in terms of our expectations for improvement. These targets could be integrated into the proposed new subsidy system, with farmers who meet their targets receiving greater financial reward.
There are other recommendations in the report, some of which may be unwelcome by some in the food and farming sector, but I will let you wait until the report is out to read them. As with any report it is difficult to present a complete diversity of views but the recommendations in the food and farming section (and other sections) hopefully achieve this. The aim is to kick start a conversation, not necessarily present a single way forward. We are very fortunate in AFON to have members from a wide spectrum of backgrounds and ages and with a wide variety of interests and expertise. This means that debates can be held that offer a plethora of views but at the same time often result in suggestions for nuanced ways forward.
Conservation policy on farms has, since the beginnings of the old countryside stewardship scheme in the 1990s, drawn supporters and opponents. It would be easy to brandish all farmers as being driven by nothing but profit and yield. However, this is quite simply not the case. Farmers are motivated by many things and in reality you would struggle to find a farmer who doesn’t appreciate the wildlife on his or her farm. Over the past couple of decades, many farmers have embraced the challenge of boosting biodiversity and improving habitat on their farms whilst maintaining or increasing production. Despite this, recent reports have shown that farmland biodiversity continues to plummet and drastic action needs to be taken to reverse the trends. The challenge is to engage all farmers, upland and lowland, in conservation practice and to change the policy agenda from supporting large scale land ownership to supporting producers who create ‘higher yields’ of wildlife. Conservationists should engage with farmers on more of a partnership basis, understand the challenges of farming in the 21st century more fully than many of us perhaps do at present, understand what farmers need to do on farm to improve the plight for farmland species and explain this to them in a way that is practical and beneficial for all. We need radical action but action that is inclusive and partnership led.