A food and farming system that’s ‘best in show’

What does a future-proof farming and food economy look like? Right now it is all too easy to get lost in the mire of wrangling over Brexit and what the latest negotiation or trade deal means for farmers, food prices and the environment, writes Vicki Hird.

Sustain has always wanted a food and farming system that really is ‘best in show’ not just a ‘bit better’. We work hard to plot a policy path to it, campaign hard for it and celebrate milestones along the way. This is crucially important now that Defra has launched its consultation on future farm policy after we leave the European Common Agriculture Policy. We have an easy action here for anyone to have their say, and I really would encourage you to do so.

A new system for supporting farmers towards more sustainable, ethical and climate resilient farming is what’s needed. For this to work we’d need different sort of rewards: in the traditional marketplace but from well-informed consumers unhampered by manipulative marketing; via new markets for ecosystems services (such as companies paying for clear water or flood prevention); and from the taxpayer paying for public ‘goods’ like wildlife and clear air. The food sector downstream will need to be transformed so it plays fair, provides less processed junk and buys global supplies based on the principles of fair trade and sustainability.

Is this a dream? Three policies priorities – on fair jobs and trade, targeted public support and better regulation – may help deliver this vision:

A fair food system
At the heart of a new food economy must be fairness – for consumers, for citizens, for farmers, for workers and for farmed animals. Crucially, more of the value of the food spend should reach primary producers and workers so that better farm livelihoods and jobs, as well as the land, will be sustained. Farmers need a choice of who to sell to and consumers a better choice of who to buy from. There is no single policy that will deliver this. Breaking up the monopolies of the food retail sector would be ideal but on current performance that’s unlikely. But we could extend the Groceries Code Adjudicator to curb unfair trading practices in the whole supply chain, and introduce a local competition test for new retail developments, so encouraging diverse retail and curbing the high street takeover. Price and costs transparency should be introduced so everyone knows who profits. Planning policy could help deliver retail diversity and a new form of farm payments and advice could help farmers cooperate to supply locally. For workers we’ll need new measures so they can collectively bargain for decent pay and conditions.

Targeted support for the public goods we need
To nurture farmers a future food system would be based on delivering specific outcomes. These would ensure that we avoid the huge costs of a damaged environment and that we protect public health and well-being via healthy, safe foods and access to nature. They would also include good animal welfare, environmental (water, soil, air) protection and rich wildlife habitats – in field as well as around the farms – and diverse landscapes. It would also help provide affordable, healthy foods including in public canteens like schools and hospitals. Future farm and land management support needs to be paid on delivery of these public goods and should support farmers in the transition out of Europe. Ensuring the prosperity and sustainability of a range of farm sizes will also help to ensure a thriving farming and rural industry, which is both available and attractive to new entrants yet producing a healthy countryside and landscape.

Political will to adequately regulate the food and farming industry
Underpinning all this will require appropriate but strong and well-enforced regulatory baselines, for all farmers and the whole supply chain. This would include environment and nature laws, health and food safety, animal welfare, and labour (global as well as local), food procurement, method of production as well as health traceability and labelling, and fair trading standards. Combined with incentives from the public purse for outcomes and fair rewards in the market place this would deliver a basis for the kind of future farming system we need.

Government needs to be held accountable for delivering this new vision and, crucially, ensuring that trade deals do not get in the way! Now is your chance to tell them what you think.

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