Can farming be sustainable?


Walking my way to Camber from Rye the other day I noticed the swifts darting and dodging their way in front of the passing cars. Pockets of wild flowers lined the verges, and the skylarks were up high, gracing the sky with their infamous trills. Yet I couldn’t help but feel that such bucolic scenes betrayed the reality of the British countryside.

It has been well broadcast that British wildlife has long been in decline. Urbanisation, noise and chemical pollution, global warming and intensive agriculture have all combined to drive what ecologists have coined the “crash” of British wildlife.

The National Biodiversity Network announced in their 2019 State of Nature report that since the 1970s, 41% of species studied have been in remission. Insects and invertebrates have been hit hard with populations dropping at a precipitous 2.5% each year, which has driven decline further up the food chain.

The report also purported a 28% reduction of seabird numbers, and a halving of farmland bird populations, including the grey partridge, starling, tree sparrow and corn bunting. Species such as the lapwing have been put on to the conservation red list, whereas the once familiar turtle dove is in danger of disappearing from the UK altogether.

A recent State of Nature study that pooled knowledge from 53 wildlife organisations pointed the biggest finger at the farming industry:

“Our review of the factors driving changes to the UK’s wildlife found that the intensive management of agricultural land had by far the largest negative impact on nature, across all habitats and species. In one sense, it is no surprise that changes to our farmed environment have had more impact than any other, simply because the habitat covers so much of the UK.”

Rooted in Conflict

When the second world war came to an end, food was a precious commodity; five years of attrition had disrupted production and supply, so rationing was introduced to spread what little was available fairly amongst the population. Subsequently, increasing agrarian yields became a national priority. The 1947 Agriculture Act brought in supportive measures to bump production, and farmers were unified in a national effort to nourish Britain out of destitution.

Wild land was turned over to the plough – the South Downs being a notable example, and resources were invested in finding ways to increase and secure food production. The use of pesticides and fertilizers became cardinal components of the post war farming methodology, and have since been blamed as the single biggest factor in driving biodiversity loss. Yields rose dramatically, helping to feed the many young mouths of the Baby Boomer generation.

The rapacious trend continued apace, buoyed with the adoption of the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) in 1973. The system rewarded farmers for both land ownership and yield, so farmers intensified their efforts to extract ever more produce from the soil. Large scale “legacy” farmers were well remunerated for their inherited estates, whilst few provisions where ring fenced to encourage new comers into the fold. A lack of new ideas and approaches left the status quo unchallenged, and agriculture, broadly speaking, has experienced stagnation and entrenchment ever since.

Farming’s dependency on subsidies

Farmers are known for their fatalistic dispositions. This is little wonder as the industry has long been accountable to a myriad of factors well beyond their influence. The relentless supermarket price wars of the last 30 years coupled with cheaper food imports has steadily driven down the value of UK grown produce. Low net income has led to an industry reliance on an expensive subsidy system (about £2.4 billion annually) that further hand ties farmers to a parochial criteria.

Tenant farmers, who farm approximately a third of UK farmland, are subject to the whim of their landlords with few prospects beyond arbitration, and of course there is the weather; fluctuations and shifting patterns playing their part in the industry’s volatility.

For its misgivings, intensive farming has proven to be remarkably successful in fulfilling its purpose. Artificial inputs, together with the mechanisation of farming practices and genetic engineering of crops have produced yields that have provided UK consumers with some of the cheapest food in the world. British families spend an average 8% of their income on food they eat at home, compared with 33% 60 years ago, leaving more income available to drive up standards of living.

Though once a national priority, many now feel that food yields should not be given such precedence. Global warming has brought the state of the natural world into sharp focus, and a farming system that prioritises high yields over ecological stability is under more pressure then ever to realise and respond to the broader implications of its practices. This also brings into question the economics and ethos of the UK food industry as a whole.

Winds of Change

Wind turbines

Proposals for reform have been enshrined in the long anticipated Agricultural Bill. Following the UK’s departure from the EU and the CAP, the paper sets out how the taxpayer will subsidise farmers for the their land and services. It has been lauded by many environmental groups as an opportunity to reverse biodiversity loss, whilst guaranteeing higher standards of produce for consumers and better deals for farmers. Indeed, these tenets have been put at the very centre of the new policy.

According to the website, “This new system will replace the poorly targeted Basic Payment Scheme subsidy system, which largely pays farmers for the total amount of land farmed and has skewed payments towards the largest landowners, rather than rewarding farmers for any specific public benefits.”

“The funds released as a result of the phasing out of the legacy Basic Payment Scheme (BPS) will be re-invested into a roll out of our future farming policy, which will be centred around support aimed at incentivising sustainable farming practices, creating habitats for nature recovery and supporting the establishment of new woodland and other ecosystem services to help tackle challenges like climate change” – George Eustice, environment secretary.

Progress has been frustratingly slow. The bill has been debated, revoked, delayed and amended for nearly three years. As such there is still little clue as to what the final piece will look like, and many unanswered questions remain from all sectors of the agriculture industry. Will British produce be secured against cheaper imports? What funding and advice will be available to assist the transitions to more sustainable practices, and fundamentally, will the bill deliver on it’s pledge to secure biodiversity for future generations?

A Marsh farmer’s views

I had a chat with Romney Marsh farmer Frank Langrish to see what he made of sustainability in farming, the Agriculture Bill and the future of the industry.

Question: Since the 1970’s, 41% of British wildlife species have been in decline. A recent State of Nature report pointed the biggest finger at intensive farming. Is this fair?

Answer: “I believe the report said that 52% of farmland birds declined but 48% increased. Churchill once said “There are lies, damned lies and statistics”! Yes intensive arable farming has caused wildlife declines in the last 50 years, however over the last 20 years efforts have been made through greening (planting crops for wildlife and leaving large headlands). This was an EU directive and was paid for by subsidy.

“Flying predators were kept under control by gamekeepers and farmers concerned about conservation and looked after their interests of shooting. Nowadays there are crows and magpies everywhere as well as newer ravens. We have buzzards which were unknown in this area ten years ago. Marsh harriers have appeared in the last five years. We now see kites, both black and red, almost unseen in this area until the last couple of years.”

Question: The new Agriculture Bill seeks to reverse this trend and will be “aimed and incentivising sustainable farming practices”. What are your thoughts on the bill?

Answer: “The bill will have to remunerate farmers for more than loss of profit. Much is being pinned on ELMS (Environmental Land Management Scheme), however, no one yet knows what this will pay for – taking land out of production or storing water or whatever you might like to call a “public good”! What is sustainable farming practice? My interpretation of sustainable is where a farmer produces healthy, nutritious food and leaves the land in good condition to be able to continue to do this in perpetuity. Crop rotation and the use of livestock are essential in good farming systems.”

Question: Would you like to see more sustainable farming practices, such as organic, more commonplace?

Answer: “Over the last 50 years some farming practices have become less
sustainable and the land has been flogged to death, often using up years of
good husbandry that had been built up. Mono cropping has been possible using
artificial fertilizer and chemicals, but that is now coming to an end.
Organic is no more sustainable than conventional. Organic farming will not feed the world. Selective use of chemicals and other inputs alongside more natural products can achieve good results.”

Question: What are the barriers to entry for farmers looking to convert to more sustainable farming?

Answer: “The barriers to more sustainable practices are the profitability of farming. Without additional subsidy then virtually all farming is unprofitable and unsustainable. Farms have been forced to become ever larger to benefit from economies of scale. A move to more sustainable practices would require a higher labour input – many farmers already work 80 plus hours a week. Finding additional labour with no access to cheaper eastern European labour will be difficult if not impossible.”

Question: Are there opportunities for farmers to get a better deal in adopting alternative agrarian methods?

Answer: “There are possible opportunities for farmers to adopt different practices, such as pasture for life in livestock (grass fed all their life). The markets though are small and probably only local. Alternatively crops are a possibility with climate changing – vines or soft and hard fruit. However at present these need additional labour.”

Question: Does this bill provide an opportunity to encourage more into farming?

Answer: “There will need to be more people in farming, but unless there is enough profit this will not happen. At present whenever a farm worker leaves full time employment, often the employer will not replace them and uses contractors or takes out the area of work where the extra labour was needed. Livestock farming has changed to operate on much lower labour input by changes to genetics in the animals and a lower level of care.

“When I started one man looked after 600 sheep and it was a full time job, now one person looks after 1,500 and it is part time. One man milked 50 cows with an assistant, today a team of three will milk over a thousand. One man managed 150 acres of arable land, now it is 1,500 acres.”

Question: The UK has some of the lowest food prices in the world, with an average of 8% of income spent on groceries. Should the public pay more money for their food?

Answer: “Yes. People don’t appreciate food, so they should pay more for it. Lockdown has shown that some people who can afford it will pay more for better food, especially locally produced. There has been a “cheap food policy” ever since the end of the second world war and successive governments and the EU have unwittingly continued with it. The various subsidy systems have meant that the public have never had to pay the real cost of food.

“It will be very difficult to get them to change and unless shortages of staple products come into play then it is unlikely to happen. Potatoes are a classic example – they went to costing £5.00 for a 25kg sack in 1976, and they are still the same today. However yields have increased and people eat far more rice and pasta, so they are no longer a staple.”

Question: Does the public need to be better educated on food production?

Answer:  “Yes. This needs to happen from primary school, but health & safety has stopped farm visits. I used to host school visits go into schools and take sheep and wool and a sheep dog. None of this is now permissible. The NFU and other organisations do spend a lot of money on education but it is difficult to make much progress.

“I helped a large Lincolnshire farmer who used to pay for all the children in the top two years at primary school to come to the farm, some 1,000 children – he paid and organised all the buses and all the neighbouring farmers supplied machines and animals for them to come and see and learn about. The Kent Show does a similar thing. There is however a disconnect between food production and most of the public.”

Question: What role have supermarkets played in creating the present situation, and what difference can they make going forward?

Answer: “The supermarkets have been the cause and could be the solution to improving the situation – some already are as they are getting concerned about the supply chain. Lockdown has created supply problems and they are keener to tie farmers into supply contracts. However, it could be argued that the margins they take on food from farmers is disproportionate to what the farmer gets.

“There is a lack of transparency in the supermarket supply chains and this makes farmers suspicious. The difficulty is that what the farmer sells is not the same item the supermarket sells. A farmer sells a sheep, but the supermarket only wants the legs of lamb – the rest of it has to be sold to other outlets. A farmer sells a beef animal, but all McDonalds want is mince to make burgers, the steaks go to restaurants and pubs normally.”

Question: What would be your Utopian agriculture system?

Answer: “Many years ago as a young farmer I sat on the National Livestock Board of the NFU. Much time was spent on how to best get the government to pay the maximum amount of subsidy. I suggested that we would be better spending time looking at the market place rather than the level of subsidy. I was told in no uncertain terms by an elderly Welsh farmer that, “Lad you’ll be living in bloody Utopia for that to happen!” That was 40 years ago and little has changed.”

Food For Thought

Such is the complexity of farming that there are no simple answers to the industry’s problems. The Agriculture Bill is viewed as a once in a generation chance to overhaul decades of industry and ecological decline – the devil will be in the detail. Speaking with farmers it would seem there is little confidence that policy alone will be enough to reverse trends. The other half of the solution lies with changing consumer behaviour; to encourage a holistic understanding of the food industry by raising public awareness, and for the supermarkets to listen and respond to changing consumer trends.

For the next long read I will be discussing organic farming, and speaking with a practising farmer to get their perspective on sustainability in farming.

Image Credits: Richard Bell, Abby Anaday

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  1. Interesting read. The way farming has changed – the good and bad – is brilliantly covered in James Rebanks book An English Pastoral. (And yes, he is a farmer!)


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