The first two horsemen have bolted – can Boris’s food strategy stop the third?

Nick Glaves
2 years ago

Good news has been in short supply over recent years.

Pestilence rode in from the east a little more than two years ago, trampling the vulnerable and frail in its pan-continental gallop, and War, blazing red with sword thrusting forth – albeit the rusting sword of a dying ideology – followed in its wake, just a few short months ago.

Now, as a result of that war and biblical-scale droughts and floods in other major grain producing nations, Famine bays impartially at the stable door ready to wreak his wrath upon an enfeebled world.

Few will escape the fallout. From TV dinners on the couches of Britain to beneath the tin shed roofs of the developing world, the pale rider will take his due. We’re in for a rough time, again, to greater or lesser degrees.

But not if Boris Johnson has anything to do with it.

Whereas there may have been little he could have done to prevent COVID reaching our shores, or the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the PM does seem determined to try to prevent the third horseman from getting out the starting gate, at least in response to future global catastrophes.

In a move ostensibly echoing post-WWII agricultural policy, the government’s new food strategy promises to ‘back farmers’ in increasing food production, ensuring the country is able to feed itself in the face of further turmoil.

It aims to achieve this in a variety of ways.

“Our Food Strategy sets out a blueprint for how we will back farmers, boost British industry and help protect people against the impacts of future economic shocks by safeguarding our food security,” Mr Johnson said.

“Harnessing new technologies and innovation, we will grow and eat more of our own food – unlocking jobs across the country and growing the economy, which in turn will ultimately help to reduce pressure on prices.”

Lord Sidcup couldn’t have put it better himself.

On the ground, this equates to an investment of £270m in farming innovation programmes to unearth technologies that will drive sustainability in the sector while increasing productivity and profitability for individual farmers.

The entire strategy is available online and the details have been published on countless news websites, so there’s no need for a deep dive into the contents here, but some particular highlights include:

  • Consult on an ambition for 50% of public sector expenditure on food procurement to be on food either produced locally or to higher standards.
  • Consult on how to improve on and expand animal welfare labelling, to help consumers identify when products meet or exceed the UK’s high welfare standards.
  • Extend the Seasonal Worker visa route to the poultry sector, following a pilot last year.
  • Explore how to make the most of innovative feed additives that can reduce methane emissions from livestock, to support sustainable farming.
  • Launch a new partnership between the public and private sector to provide consumers with more information about the food they eat while incentivising industry to produce healthier, more ethical and sustainable goods.

The food strategy will come as great news to an industry that itself is in a state of turmoil, although some might see it as a cynical way for the Tories regain ground with farmers in the light of last month’s news reports that suggested many were considering placing their vote elsewhere.

And given that Johnson himself only narrowly survived a vote of no confidence earlier this month, winning back the countryside – traditionally a heartland of Tory support – might go along way to persuading his colleagues he remains an election asset.

Nevertheless, putting food production firmly back at the centre of farming should ease farmers’ minds amid fears too much emphasis was being placed on environmental stewardship under the introduction of ELM scheme.

It will perhaps bring a greater sense of longevity too, to farmers suffering unprecedented input costs which put tremendous pressure on cash flow. And as anyone who is involved in business knows, cash is king. Without it, we’re all dead.

Of course, this does not mean the strategy is perfect. Indeed, at this stage it is only a strategy and as Minette Batters said, it is just the start of the journey and its success will depend on the policies put in place to deliver it.

Let us hope Mr Johnson listens to the right people when making those critical policy decisions, as the sentiment unpinning the strategy is fragile, and could so easily shatter.

And unsurprisingly, the whitepaper has attracted its fair share of critics on a range of issues including not levying a tax on unhealthy foods, not expanding free school meals, and not delivering on the rewilding agenda.

But perhaps rather than view this as a negative, it should be turned into an opportunity.

On paper, rewilding is hard to disagree with. After all, who doesn’t want to see greater biodiversity in our countryside? Who doesn’t want to repair environmental damage? Who doesn’t want to leave the world in a better place than that in which it was bequeathed to us? No one I know.

But rewilding appears a binary concept – all or nothing.

Feeding a growing population on a diminishing amount of land while delivering for the environment requires a much more nuanced approach than planting trees and telling people to eat less meat.

And as it progresses, agricultural is developing the answers to that too.

We work with a range of schemes that demonstrate farmers can be the solution to environmental degradation, rather than constantly being branded the problem. One such is the Sustainable Futures initiative which helps decarbonise food supply chains by working with farmers to sequester atmospheric CO2 and restore soil health by growing cover crops.

The cover crops provide a haven for pollinators and birdlife, and what is more, don’t require land to be taken out of the food crop rotation to work their magic. They work in balance with farming and with nature, enhancing both without impacting yields.

Research demonstrates that by increasing soil organic matter (SOM) by as little as one percent in the world’s soils would remove enough carbon from the atmosphere to take atmospheric greenhouse gas levels back to pre-industrial levels.

The Sustainable Futures programme has achieved SOM increases above three per cent.

In livestock, our client the Stabiliser Cattle Company is helping beef farmers dramatically reduce the carbon footprint of their suckler herds, with one such farmer in the Cotswolds on course to be carbon neutral within two years due to the way he manages his herd and his pasture.

There are many, many more schemes out there like these, as well as countless individual farmers making a difference on their own land. Sadly, their efforts are lost among the noise of a debate which is so often dominated by those with a bone to pick with conventional agriculture.

We know UK farmers can deliver on the government’s food strategy. They will step up to the plate and produce what is needed to fill our plates.

But with the focus of agriculture now back on feeding a nation, perhaps this is the time heads came in from the clouds in regard to the environment and we create solutions that work for everyone.

With such a commitment – from all sides of the farm fence – we would have the beginnings of a plan that might just save us from all the future turmoil the world will undoubtedly throw at us.

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