It’s been a landmark week on the nature-friendly farming front with the release of the National Food Strategy, the IPPR Environmental Justice Commission’s final report and the North Yorkshire Rural Commission report – and the call for nature-friendly farming has never been louder.
“Conversations are moving in the right direction, but there’s still work to be done,” says Chris Clark, NFFN’s England Chair. “For these conversations to mean anything we need to have the proper framework put in place to give farmers the confidence to embrace nature-friendly farming.”
The National Food Strategy, which is the first independent review of English food policy in nearly 75 years, commissioned by the government and authored by Henry Dimbleby, offers a new way forward. Nature-friendly farming, the report argues, has the potential to transform our food system if adopted at a countrywide scale.
Dimbleby recommends measures to restore and protect our natural environment, including investing in farmer-led innovation and sustainable farming techniques. The report also suggests the creation of a Rural Land Use Framework to inform payments that are designed to help farmers in England transition to nature-friendly farming. This Framework is based on a “three-compartment model”, in which some areas are used chiefly for food production, some for nature and carbon sequestration, and some for low-intensity, nature-friendly farmland.
The report urges the Government to protect farmers by meeting its manifesto commitment on free trade and setting a core list of minimum standards for agriculture, so farmers are not undermined by unfair competition through cheaper imports with lesser environmental standards.
“The National Food Strategy makes the case for a farming system the NFFN champions: one where farmers put the nation’s health and the natural environment at the core, while still having a profitable farming business,” says NFFN UK Chair, Martin Lines.
Other key farming recommendations include guaranteeing the budget for agricultural payments until at least 2029 to help farmers transition to more sustainable land use and calling on the Government to fairly recompense farmers on the delivery of public goods, including improving soil health, restoring biodiversity and storing carbon.
On Wednesday morning, on the eve of the NFS’s launch, Prince Charles weighed in on the state of farming’s future, warning of how modern farming’s intensive practices have caused damage to our soils, watercourses and emissions. “We must put nature back at the heart of the equation,” he urged.
“With roughly half of all habitable land on earth used for agriculture, I cannot think of a sector more central to the survival of the planet. How we produce food has a direct impact on the earth’s capacity to sustain us, which has a direct impact on human health and economic prosperity. As we profit from nature, so nature must profit from us. But our current approach will lead to a dead-end, no matter how cost-effective intensive production appears to be,” says Prince Charles.
In response to Prince Charles citing small farms at risk of closing if not protected, Chris says: “What we at NFFN know is that there’s a sweet spot where nature and farming coincide to their mutual benefit, so farming is at its most profitable and nature is at its best.”
The North Yorkshire Rural Commission report says: “Contrary to the conventional approach to farm economics, which is based on the instinctive idea of scaling up the farming business in order to increase income and profits, the Commission encourages farm businesses to concentrate on driving margin rather than output in order to improve the viability of farm businesses.”
The NFFN will continue to champion this as a sound nature-friendly way of farming. For smaller farm businesses grappling with post-Brexit policy reforms and changes to subsidies, the Maximum Sustainable Output (MSO) approach can be a lifeline.
MSO is an individual farm’s volume of outputs that can be achieved before they need to be corrected with additional inputs to maintain production. The aim should be to farm to the point of MSO to get maximum returns both for nature and business.
Chris, who lead on the Farming and Land Management review in North Yorkshire’s Rural Commission report, says: “The developments of this week are all heading in the same direction, which is working with nature rather than substituting for it. Here at the NFFN, we hope this signals that more and more farmers will eventually treat nature as a shareholder in farm businesses.”
Until then, all eyes are fixed on the Government to respond to the National Food Strategy with a white paper within six months time.