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A People’s Food Policy, Environment

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A food system that works with nature[edit]

‘We need a sustainable system (one that doesn’t pollute our air, water, soil) that produces healthy food, free from harmful chemicals; that is affordable and accessible for people; that supports small-scale farms to flourish; that thinks about the long-term impact of decisions rather than profit and that does not exploit workers and the environment.’

ANNA CLAYTON LESS Lancaster (A People’s Food Policy consultation)

‘Look after the soil and the soil will look after us. The soil is like the microbiome of our bodies, fundamental to our health and depleted by wrong practices. It needs care and nurturing.’

NATASHA WILCOCK Nutritional Therapist (A People’s Food Policy consultation)

‘Agricultural holdings should be paid to manage the landscape for river catchment management, biodiversity and public amenity as well as food, fuel, fibre and timber production.’

SIMON WATKINS Gardener and Agroecologist (A People’s Food Policy consultation)

Our vision[edit]

Our vision is of a future in which our resilient food and farming system works within the finite limits of our earth; protects and regenerates natural resources and communities; builds soil; cools our planet and preserves our rich inheritance of agricultural biodiversity.

In this future, a participatory approach to agricultural science and farmer support services are helping us to adapt to a changing climate. Farmer and community organisations are thriving spaces for the development and sharing of regenerative and agroecological practices. Our farmers, food producers and land workers are supported through a mix of financial incentives and legislation.

Farmers are now incentivised to improve levels of soil organic matter, improve water storage capacity on their land, and adopt farming techniques that increase carbon sequestration and reduce GHG emissions, whilst also producing more food and timber. Farming is now integrated with ecological restoration. Forestry, agroforestry, and the use of trees generally in the farmed landscape has become commonplace: for agricultural production; for cultural activities and recreation; and for the delivery of important ecosystem services like flood reduction and carbon sequestration. Subsidies and incentives encourage the use of trees in the farmed landscape, and foresters and farmers work together much more closely.

Our food economy has moved from being a linear supply chain to being part of regional and cross-sectoral circular economies. Nutrient and material loops have been closed with wastes transformed into useful resources. Collaboration across sectors and between rural and urban areas have created new livelihoods and business opportunities, adding value, increasing health and reducing pollution.

The case for change[edit]

Agriculture is a major global land use and has a significant impact on the environment. Globally, almost 40% of land is used for agriculture. /202 In the UK, agriculture accounts for around 70% of all land use. /203 Agriculture impacts the environment through soil (erosion, nutrient loss, and loss of soil carbon, soil organic matter and biodiversity), water systems (surface and groundwater pollution), air pollution (emissions of methane, nitrous oxide and other gases and pollutants with a resulting impact on climate change) and biodiversity loss.

As wealthier people in countries around the world eat more meat and dairy, which generally has a higher environmental footprint than plant-based foods, the pressure continues to mount on the environment and its ability to satisfy this expansion.

It is critical that policy makers realise the enormously important role that farming systems and farmers play in our environment and our cultural heritage. They should therefore support agroecological and smaller-scale farming systems which ‘cool the planet’ while producing healthy food for everyone. /204

Globally, small-scale farms account for around 90% of all farms (with an average size of 2.2 hectares (5.4 acres)), and use less than 25% of the world’s farmland to produce an estimated 80% of the food consumed in non-industrial countries. /205 In the UK, small farms make up a much smaller proportion of the total, but the impacts of big farms and the advantages of small farms are still similar.

Although big farms generally consume more resources, control the best lands, receive most of the irrigation water and infrastructure, get most of the financial credit and technical assistance, and are the farms for whom most modern inputs are designed, they have lower overall productivity when compared to small farms. Much of this has to do with low levels of employment used on big farms in order to maximise return on investment.

Beyond strict productivity measurements, small farms also are much better at producing and utilising biodiversity, maintaining landscapes, contributing to local economies, providing work opportunities and promoting social cohesion, not to mention their real and potential contribution to reversing the climate crisis. /206

Climate change and GHG emissions are already having serious impacts on our environment, communities and food system. These impacts include: increased glacier melting (which could trigger ‘tipping points’ with catastrophic consequences across the world); increased species extinctions; reduced crop yields; increased incidences of extreme weather-related events; and direct impacts on people’s livelihoods (due to crop yields, food insecurity and migration). /207 The catastrophic impact of climate change has been highlighted as the biggest potential threat to the global economy. /208

Our global food system – which includes the processing, packaging and transport of food – accounts for up to one third of all global human-related GHG emissions. /209 In the UK, agriculture accounts for 10% of total GHG emissions, with emissions falling by 17% since 1990, /210 but given that roughly 50% of food and animal feed is now imported, /211 the ‘real’ figure (including import-related emissions) is substantially higher. Since 1990, other industries have cut emissions twice as quickly on average, but there is no clear plan for farming to make its fair share of the agreed 57% cuts by 2030. /212

Biodiversity loss across the world is extremely high. Indeed, it is now widely accepted that we are living within the world’s sixth mass extinction event. /213 Over half of the land surface, home to almost three-quarters of the human population, is now beyond the ‘safe limit’ for biodiversity proposed in the ‘planetary boundaries’ theory. /214 In the UK, 56% of species have declined over the last 50 years, [1] and 15% are at risk of disappearing completely. /215 In addition, 200,000 miles of hedgerow were lost between 1947 and 1990; /216 more than half of all orchards in the UK were removed between 1980 and 2005; /217 and over 44 million breeding birds were lost in the last 50 years. /218 Agricultural intensification has been identified as the most important driver of biodiversity change in the UK. /219

Protecting wildlife cannot rely simply on pockets of protected habitat in nature reserves. The surrounding land, much of which is often farmland, must also be hospitable to nature. Increasing on-farm and in-field biodiversity does not need to mean a yield reduction. The sustainability of productive crops and pastures can be improved by increasing biodiversity in-field and in adjacent areas. Multi-variety cropping and mixed species intercropping can also improve productivity and pest and disease control. /220 Use of certain pesticides has been blamed for specific species declines, for example the use of neonicotinoid seed treatments have been widely blamed for harm caused to both wild and honey bee populations as well as affecting soil biodiversity. /221

More than half of all fertile soils are degraded. Soil degradation is now as big a threat globally as climate change and is estimated to cost up to $10.6 trillion per year. /222 A 2012 Defra report estimated the annual costs of soil degradation in England and Wales to be between £0.9 and £1.4 billion. /223

Agriculture has been shown to be the main cause of air pollution. Considered a major public health concern, /224 this air pollution comes from particulate matter related to the ammonia in fertilisers and animal waste from across Europe, Russia, eastern USA and East Asia. /225 Globally, agriculture is the second largest cause of air pollution-related deaths. Last year, a cross-party committee of MPs described air pollution in the UK as a ‘public health emergency’. /226

For every two tonnes of food we eat, one tonne is wasted. /227 A combination of preventing food waste from being generated, redistributing food where there is a surplus, and diverting surplus that isn’t suitable for human consumption to animal feed could result in a 23% reduction in total food waste. /228

Farming and food production can improve soil, water and air quality, as well as increasing biodiversity. An integrated and agroecological approach to farming which recognises the importance of the food sovereignty framework and rejects high input, energy intensive systems of farming that damage the environment, needs policies that support farmers, farm workers, and food processors to restore and enhance the environment rather than exploiting or simply conserving it.

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Policy proposals[edit]

6.1 Protect natural resources[edit]

6.1.1 Maintain environmental protection laws at least at the EU level post-Brexit. These currently offer the best available legal means to protect the overexploitation and degradation of natural resources, including the Nitrates Directive, EU Water Framework Directive, Air Quality Framework Directive, Habitats Directive, and Landfill Directive. [2] /229

6.1.2 Implement incentives to reward farmers and food producers for enhancing and enriching the natural resource base and on-farm agricultural biodiversity. Equally, remove incentives that erode natural resources and biodiversity.

6.1.3 Ban GM farming and field trials in England. More than half of the 28 EU countries, including Germany and France, have banned farmers from growing GM crops. A ban is already in place in Northern Ireland /230 and Scotland. /231

6.1.4 Ban neonicotinoid pesticides. Given the substantial evidence that neonicotinoids can be harmful to bees, /232 and that the European Commission will likely issue a ban on neonicotinoids in 2017, /233 England should take the initiative and ban this damaging group of pesticides. Policies should also be generated to ban and phase-out other highly hazardous pesticides. /234

6.1.5 Enforce clearer food labelling legislation. This should include more specific details such as country of origin of all ingredients, inclusion of ingredients from production using GM organisms, chemicals used in production, and hormone and antibiotic use in animal production. From the consumer end, legislation – either through government or self-regulating organisations – could contribute to resource protection by using labelling and certification to enforce high production standards.

6.1.6 Reduce England’s overseas environmental footprint by reducing reliance on food imports. Farmers should be supported to produce food that can be farmed in England with a lower ecological impact, thereby reducing food imports and England’s overseas ecological footprint.

6.2 Improve water resource management[edit]

6.2.1 Increase coverage of the revised Nitrate Vulnerable Zones, which currently cover only 58% of land in England and should be increased further as an important means of reducing nutrient load in water system.

6.2.2 Provide grants to support farmers to improve the water storage capacity of their land. This could be achieved by improving field drainage and soil management through changing cropping patterns and land use practices, as well as reforesting degraded and marginal land. One study showed that reforesting only 5% of land reduced flood peaks by almost 30%. /235

6.3 Protect and improve soils[edit]

6.3.1 Develop legislation to enforce soil protection standards for all farmers. Currently, farms receiving subsidies through the Basic Payment Scheme are inspected by the Rural Payments Agency to ensure cross compliance of soil standards. /236 Standards include: providing minimum soil cover; minimising soil erosion from cropping practice and livestock management; and maintaining levels of organic matter in soil. All farms, regardless of the subsidy they receive, should comply with these minimum standards of soil protection. In addition, an escalating series of penalties must be imposed on land managers for persistent cases of erosion.

6.3.2 Develop incentives to reward farmers for improving soils by increasing soil organic matter (or maintaining levels if they are already high). This could include payments for increasing soil organic matter or requirements on farm tenancies to maintain or improve soil fertility over the course of the tenancy.

6.3.3 Implement a soil organic matter monitoring and reporting system. This would be a farmer-led system of voluntary reporting on soil organic matter with data feeding into a national database, to run alongside legislation to enforce soil protection and incentives rewarding farmers who improve their soil organic matter.

6.4 Reduce agriculture-related GHG emissions and pollution[edit]

6.4.1 Develop a comprehensive plan, and mandatory regulations, to reduce agriculture-related emissions. Agriculture contributes almost 10% to the UK’s total GHG emissions, and current government policy is guided by a ‘voluntary approach’ to reduce emissions in agriculture. The urgency of the matter necessitates stronger government intervention with either mandatory regulation or strong incentives for farmers to change their practices in line with commitments made in the Climate Change Act 2008.

6.4.2 Model and pilot new mechanisms to lower agriculture-related nitrogen emissions by using fiscal measures. An example would be a tax on synthetic nitrogen fertiliser.

6.5 Support carbon farming and agroforestry[edit]

6.5.1 Farmers should be incentivised to adopt farming techniques that increase carbon sequestration and reduce GHG emissions. Agroecological farming, agroforestry, /237 no-till cultivation, using plant cover crops and perennials, improving crop rotation cycles, and the use of permaculture design techniques have the potential to increase the amount of carbon sequestered by soils and contribute significantly to climate change mitigation. The emphasis of policies should be towards encouraging experimentation and innovation.

6.5.2 Incentives should be designed to encourage new or ecological farmers to take over degraded land and soils which have been damaged by industrial farming. This would help to increase soil carbon levels and reduce carbon loss into the atmosphere. [3]

6.5.3 Develop a national agroforestry strategy. This could include: /238 a target of having agroforestry on 50% of all farms by 2030; capital grants and maintenance payments; and incentives for longerterm farm tenancies. [4]

6.6 Protect and restore wilderness and biodiversity[edit]

6.6.1 Carry out a feasibility study on rewilding areas of farmland. This should be conducted on land that is currently either unproductive or currently managed by techniques causing severe natural resource degradation.

6.6.2 Redirect financial support to agricultural research that enhances biodiversity. This should be applied to ‘wild areas’ as well as on-farm and in-field. The protection and expansion of ‘wild areas’ is important but cannot substitute for the loss of diversity within the food production system. It is the level of biodiversity within a field (above and below ground, as well as in water) that underpins ecological production (see A People’s Food Policy, Knowledge).

6.6.3 Stimulate the production and availability of diverse locally-adapted seeds and livestock breeds which can be exchanged between farmers and which will support their dynamic management of agricultural biodiversity. This is particularly important given the potential negative impacts of intellectual property rights, patents and ‘plant variety protection laws’ on the availability and diversity of plant varieties and animal breeds, and therefore on small-scale ecological production (see policy recommendation 7.4.6).

6.6.4 Maintain and build on the best species-targeted agri-environment schemes. These should be tailored to halt biodiversity declines through on-farm management and by paying farmers directly for achieving benefits to wildlife.

6.6.5 Use the precautionary principle to decide which technologies and chemicals can be used in agriculture. This includes assessing the effect that new technologies such as synthetic biology and ‘gene drive’ technology may have on wildlife, agricultural biodiversity, human health and traditional livelihoods. /240

6.6.6 Instigate a ‘polluter pays’ principle. Pollution from farms that causes loss of biodiversity (or harm to people), and therefore needs cleaning up, should be paid for by the people or the company responsible.

6.6.7 Ensure a rigorous implementation of the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety. This international agreement to protect diversity was ratified by the EU in 2002 and could be threatened by Brexit.

6.7 Reduce waste and transition towards circular economies[edit]

6.7.1 Ban supermarket food waste. This could initially echo legislation in France which prevents large supermarkets throwing away edible food.

6.7.2 Allow food waste to be fed safely to pigs and chickens. This would reduce farmers’ dependence on grain/soya imports and make farming more economically viable. Evidence shows that the land use of EU pork could be reduced by one fifth (1.8 million hectares (4.4 million acres) of agricultural land) by changing EU legislation and using existing technologies to use food waste as animal feed for pigs. [5]

6.7.3 Support the wider adoption of the Courtauld Commitment 2025 to reduce waste by at least one-fifth per person in ten years. /241 This ambitious, collaborative agreement commits businesses to cut the waste and GHG emissions associated with food and drink. The government could lead by example and adopt this commitment across government departments and the public sector as a whole.

6.7.4 Introduce mandatory food waste reduction targets in line with the Sustainable Development Goal 12.3 - to reduce food waste by 33% by 2025 and 50% by 2030, from farm to fork. The government should step up its involvement and financial backing to make this possible. This will move us beyond a voluntary approach.

6.7.5 Back the introduction of EU-wide binding targets to reduce EU food waste by 50% by 2030, from farm-to-fork (part of the Circular Economy Package’s amendments to the Waste Directive). The UK still has a place in the EU trialogue negotiations in 2017, to decide on the final targets.

6.7.6 Develop and support campaigns to raise awareness about the need to reduce food waste. Waste levels need to be reduced at all points along the food chain, by both individuals and corporations. This would reduce pressure to increase food yields, thereby improving food security.

6.7.7 Enforce a reduction in the use of packaging by supermarkets by setting annual targets and penalising non-compliance.

6.7.8 Ban the production of non-compostable plastic cups, cutlery and plates. This could echo legislation recently passed in France. /242

6.7.7 Reduce materials and nutrient waste by reuse and recycling of products. By working at a local authority and city-region level, policies should emphasise food waste, by-product and nutrient recycling using a cross-sectoral approach.

See also[edit]

External links[edit]


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Notes and references

  1. From a total of almost 4,000 terrestrial and freshwater species tracked.
  2. This would be in line with the findings of the House of Commons Environmental Audit Committee’s report The Future of the Natural Environment after the EU Referendum which stated that ‘The Government must, before triggering Article 50, commit to legislating for a new Environmental Protection Act, ensuring that the UK has an equivalent or better level of environmental protection as in the EU.’ /229
  3. In Brazil, farmers are paid cash incentives to keep land forested. In California, a cap-and-trade programme requires polluting industries to offset their emissions by paying farmers who have adopted ‘carbon farming’ techniques. The system is far from perfect – many of the smaller-scale low-input farmers are not eligible for credits at the moment – but it is a model worth exploring.
  4. The French government has developed a national strategy for agroforestry until 2020 which includes tax incentives, data collection and monitoring, advice and training, and knowledge sharing. /239
  5. Campaigns such as The Pig Idea are attempting to lift the EU ban on feeding food waste to pigs. Local infrastructure funds may be required to implement safe processing of feed (see A People’s Food Policy, Finance).