UK | Chapter 1: Robust Food Production Systems

 

Robust Farming Systems and Enhancing British Food Security (Key Objective One)

After more than 15 years living and working in Eastern Europe, the former USSR and the Middle East. Stuart Meikle returned westwards. A sabbatical followed to re-orientate himself back to North West European agriculture, food and policy issues. After the Brexit referendum, the possibilities of a UK-only policy was too interesting to pass on. A period of convalescence then allowed him the time to bring his ideas together and to write them up, thus this UK agri-food policy paper. It is an attempt to address the many relevant but complex issues at the same time. The book was written before his soils-first policy paper published in ARC2020  and it is best considered within the context of evolutionary thinking that is seeking to find definitive policy solutions.

Here we present chapter 1 and the first of 12 policy objectives for the UK by Stuart Meikle.


The food security of the British population and its following generations cannot be simplified into a policy founded on the erroneous principle that the global market will always provide. Economic theory pronounces that comparative advantage is the solution and as there are no immediate security threats to supply routes from overseas, there are proponents for a post-EU, low-cost, imported-food policy. Such a policy, nevertheless, overlooks several critical factors that go beyond economics or logistics.

That the global population will reach nine billion by 2050 is an often-quoted projection. This will be accompanied by a growth in the economic power of others and a rise in their purchasing power. China provides an obvious example; it is a country that now has a major influence on global trade in, for instance, milk powder and soybeans. Any import-based policy will mean that British food security will rely on global availability, access in the face of competing demands, and the financial resources to fund food purchases. Food security is about the long-term, not just the immediate post-EU-exit years.

Global food security itself is far from guaranteed. The food supply consequences of a warming planet are still to be fully comprehended and they are unlikely to be positive. Worldwide soil degradation is cited as a major threat with some projecting that we have only 60 to 100 harvests left. That is the lifetime of some being born today. Fresh water availability is yet another threat to global food supplies. It is naïve to believe that multi-generational British food security can be left in the control of others.

A less frequently mentioned threat to global and British food security is the decline in the efficacy of the food production solutions developed in the agricultural revolution of the last sixty years. It should be seen by all as great a food security threat as climate change, soil degradation and water shortages. Efficacy decline will not be resolved through a deregulated approval process as caution is still required over long-term exposure at point-of-use and/or by consumption in food. For a common-sense marker, just consider the unforeseen health implications of long-term exposure to eating far too much sugar.

What is required to address efficacy decline is the adoption of farming systems that rely on husbandry first and ‘scientific solutions second. It is a change that is already being driven by Nature’s ability to adapt and withstand the latest man-made solutions through target organisms evolving resistance. An acceptance that this will be the de facto, long-term scenario will make food security easier to address.

It is vital for the food security of the British people that a sizeable proportion of the nation’s food comes from accessible and reliable sources operating regenerative food systems. Ultimately, the degree of self-sufficiency is a political decision, but it is not one that should be based on ideology alone. Although it is likely that the EU [Ireland especially] will continue to be a major food supplier to the UK, it is in the food security interests of the UK, that all suppliers are encouraged to operate robust food systems.

Robust food systems must be regenerative and resilient and founded upon humus-rich and water retentive soils. They must be cyclical, replacing what is extracted with manures and composts, and the reliance on fossil-fuel-based fertilisers must fall. Grazing livestock on biodiverse grasslands are a valuable food provider, and on arable land they also provide fertility for food crops. All farmed livestock must be raised in conditions that reduce the need for disease-control interventions. They, themselves, must be robust. And all should follow practices that minimise food production’s net GHG emissions.

A1. RESTORING OUR SOILS AND NATURAL FOOD-PRODUCING CAPACITY

A1.1 Government to map both current organic matter levels and available historic data

The magnitude of soil organic matter loss in Britain will only be fully appreciated if an extensive survey of the country’s soil is undertaken. Ideally, this should be compared with any available historic data. The survey should demonstrate how degraded British soils are and how much must be done to restore their natural productive capacity. The alternative, high-risk approach, is to rely on artificial fertilisers.

A1.2 Government to target restoring the organic matter in arable soils to historic levels

If, as is likely, there has been extensive soil organic matter loss over recent decades, restoration targets should be established. These targets may be based upon historical levels. Annual targets as per the 4 per 1000 [or 0.4%] should be set for the rebuilding of soil organic matter and, hence, soil carbon levels.

A2. EXTENDING THE USE OF HERBAL LEYS IN BRITISH CROP ROTATIONS

A2.1 Government to identify and support grazing practices that can increase soil humus

There are now recognised zero- and low-tillage arable farming systems that aim to reduce soil carbon loss. To rebuild soil humus and carbon will require the return of organic matter to the soil as compost or the use of grazing practices designed to accumulate organic matter in the soil. Compost creation and application will probably be prohibitively expensive over large tracts of arable land. It is likely that adapted grazing may be more successful on arable soils than on existing permanent pastures. Much of the research being done into increasing soil humus is non-mainstream and the Government needs to ensure that such research is now properly funded. The climate-change timeframe means that the present knowledge base needs rapidly consolidating and farming methods identified and employed.

A2.2 Government to promote humus-building herbal-ley usage on depleted arable soils

Historically, mixed farming systems were used to ensure that soil fertility could be built up to support the growth of cash-crops that exploited the soil store of nutrients. For this reason, mixed farming was the pillar of pre-1950s British agricultural policy. As mixed farming was labour intensive, rotational ley farming was only briefly in vogue before soil fertility ceased to be a key concern when planning food systems. As soil fertility is now of rising concern, rotational herbal leys and mixed farming must return.

A2.3 Government to have a cohesive policy on soil-humus-building and C-sequestration

Rotational herbal leys within arable-farming systems must be central to rebuilding soil humus levels and sequestering carbon into soils (also see B3). To achieve this, grazing practices must be developed for rotational [and permanent] pastures. These will include mob-grazing variants of rotational grazing. The use of multi-animal-species grazing should be encouraged. The implementation of such systems will mean major changes that will require cohesive policy-making that includes grants to create a new animal-farming infrastructure on arable-only farms. The policy proposals are elsewhere in this paper.

A3. SWAPPING NATURALLY-FIXED NITROGEN FOR ARTIFICIAL FERTILISER

A3.1 Government to establish targets for a year-on-year reduction in N-fertiliser usage

Nitrogen fertilisers require fossil fuels to create and transport them so they should not be used within a sustainable and resilient food production system. Their relationship with the health of soil biology is also not fully understood. Whilst recognising that moving to organic-from-a-fertiliser perspective is not going to happen in the short-term, the Government should establish targets to reduce artificial N fertiliser use. Conservative targets are 3% year-on-year reduction on arable land and 5% on grasslands. This equates to a 25% and 40% decrease over 10 years. Targets may be set per crop. See also see B8.

A3.2 Government to promote nitrogen-fixing and soil-fertility-building farming systems

Within the context of reduce farming’s reliance on fossil-fuel-intensive, artificial nitrogen-fertilisers, the Government should actively support research into farming systems which naturally fix nitrogen and build soil fertility. This should include re-visiting past research and writings and the consolidation of non-mainstream research. The Government should encourage these sustainable farming systems.

A4. RECYCLING FOOD-SYSTEM ORGANIC MATTERS BACK INTO THE SOIL

A4.1 Government to back projects that recycle food wastes to soils via local composting

Food waste must be recycled back onto the land. The Government must support initiatives aimed at enabling this to happen. Larger projects may be linked to farms and small ones to community gardens.

A4.2 Government to back initiatives that recycle food waste to soils via farm-omnivores

Human food waste must again be used for feeding farmed omnivores and the food safety regulatory framework needs adapting accordingly. Ideally, these should be localised to ensure that there is the minimum time between wasting and feeding. This should reduce waste quality deterioration, waste processing costs and the environmental costs associated with transportation. An example of a food- waste recycling system would be a restaurant that grows its own vegetables keeping pigs to consume some waste whilst composting the rest to improve the soil. Pig and chicken keeping on allotments and community gardens is another. The Government must support these types of food-waste recycling.

A4.3 Government to encourage those farming systems that locally-cycle organic matter

When livestock are housed for significant periods, they should be kept close to land capable of utilising the manures created. Ideally, they should also be close to their feed sources. The objective should be to cycle all organic matters locally. Planning authorities must be required to fully assess the feed and manure situation when considering planning applications for large, confined-animal production-units.

A4.4 Government to examine farm-animal housing systems that compost animal ‘waste’

How animal manures are spread on land and their interaction with soil life should be investigated. This should include further assessment of the impact of artificial fertilisers on soil health. The conclusions may provide a hierarchy of a) compost, b) farm-yard manure and c) slurry. The latter may be injected into the soil, but is it beneficial to soil health? Manure and biogas systems may have to be installed to improve the organic matter residues. Compost barns should be assessed as a possible solution. All the housing systems need to be assessed for organic-matter residual-quality and their GHG emissions.

A5. DECREASING FARMING’S USE OF RESISTANCE-BUILDING ‘ANSWERS’

A5.1 Government to reduce farming’s reliance on antimicrobial use in livestock systems

The use of antimicrobials must be reduced in agriculture. Excessive use and the consequential increase in resistance is having a direct impact upon human and animal health care. This may require significant livestock farming changes to move away from intensive farming reliant on animal health treatments. It may also require a re-evaluation of the livestock themselves and a shift to keeping breeds that are known as more robust. The Government may need to offer funds to encourage the necessary changes.

A5.2 Government to support initiatives to combat the increasing resistance to wormers

The Government must be proactive in helping initiatives to combat the rising resistance of parasites to widely used treatments. Alternatives must be sought. They may relate to breed choice, different grazing systems or the inclusion of plants in the diet that can provide natural parasitic worm control.

A5.3 Government to promote alternatives to pesticides to minimise efficacy-decline risk

Weeds are becoming resistant to herbicides and fungal diseases resistant to fungicides. This a clear and unequivocal statement. It is unlikely that those who provide agriculture with the solutions to weed infestations and plant diseases can move fast enough to keep ahead of the target organisms’ ability to adapt and survive. This has serious food security implications. It is likely that combating resistance will also have economic cost implications that will affect food prices and/or farm incomes. It must be an absolute priority for Government to support initiatives that seek alternatives to failing ‘solutions’.

A6. INTEGRATING NEW TECHNOLOGY WITH TRADITIONAL HUSBANDRY

A6.1 Government to promote technology that improves the utilisation of bought inputs

Precision agriculture can play an important role in reducing the impact of rising farm input costs by minimising input usage relative to yields. It can also play an environmental role by reducing the inputs needed to produce a given quantity of food. Further, by reducing brought onto the farm inputs, it can increase the resilience of farming systems. There is ample justification to support precision farming.

A6.2 Government to encourage technologies that focus on farmer-controlled resources

Resilient farms are those that are less reliant on external resources. If this is an accepted statement, it is important that innovation and technological development focuses on enhancing and supporting the employment of those resources that farmers have under their direct control. Technology should support husbandry and not be deployed as a substitute for it. Government policy must recognise this.

A7. EXPANDING UPON EXPERIENCE GAINED FROM ORGANIC FARMING

A7.1 Government to re-visit research on farming systems that principally use husbandry

In the last sixty years, research has focused more upon using artificially-provided fertility and science-made pest and disease control. This has been to the detriment of husbandry-focused research that emphasises using within-the-farm-gate resources and farm management skills. Sources of the former from both the UK and overseas need to be re-visited. This may include historic research. It is likely that the organic movement will be a primary source of information even though it has often been seen as operating in parallel to conventional farming. The term conventional farming itself must be discarded.

A7.2 Government to document on-farm and informal research and farmers’ experience

There has always been a tradition of farmer-led research in agriculture and that will have continued over the last few decades. As much of this will not have been mainstream it, or at least the experience gained by farmers, needs to be documented. It is likely that it will be more farming-husbandry focused.

A7.3 Government to emphasis research that uses husbandry and not purchased inputs

Going forwards, Government needs to consider its research funding emphasis. As a truly resilient food system will have to be more husbandry intensive, research funding and methodology must reflect this.

A8. UTILISING PRODUCTIVE CAPACITY BY USING INTEGRATED SYSTEMS

A8.1 Government to ensure balanced approach to food and alternative land-use choices

Alternative land use policies like biofuels can impact upon how much land is used for food production, the price of food and the need to intensify production on remaining land. Getting such policy wrong can have a detrimental impact upon food affordability and unforeseen environmental consequences. Thorough investigation should underpin any strategy that shifts land use away from food production.

A8.2 Government to balance food and biodiversity in the uplands and mountain regions

Land use policy in the uplands is complicated by their multi-functional nature. They are now seen by many as having a role that goes well beyond food. Uplands’ policy must now be about farming and food, landscape and environmental stewardship, rural employment, tourism and recreation, water catchment and flood prevention. This is explored in more depth in Chapter J on Disadvantaged Areas.

A8.3 Government to facilitate mixed food-woodland-environmental land-using methods

Over recent decades farming has become specialised. It has allowed management and capital to focus and it has become the best finance-focused model. It is, however, questionable whether this has been the most productive for total food production. It is debatable in terms of soil, animal and plant health and it has led to a reliance on external-to-the-farm resources. Specialisation has affected farming and food sector employment by creating seasonality. Near monocultures have had detrimental impacts upon British farmland flora and fauna. All of these can be reversed by reverting to multi-enterprise farming, rotations and mixed land use.  The latter must include agro-forestry and silvo-pastoralism.

A9. IMPROVING THE WATER MANAGEMENT WITHIN BRITISH FARMING

A9.1 Government to recognise water catchment for flood prevention as a public service

With a significant proportion of houses sited on flood plains, changing land-use practices to hold water upstream and to reduce flooding risks must be recognized as a public-service provision. Therefore, payment must be made based upon estimated profits forgone and grants provided for capital works.

A9.2 Government to fund research into the link between water retention and soil humus

Increasing the soil’s organic matter will improve its capacity to absorb and retain water. The potential needs to be fully understood as per soil type, farming practices and topography. Such information will inform decisions about how to utilise soil improvement within a longer-term, water-holding strategy.

A9.3 Government to discourage practices that increase water run-off and top-soil losses

Cropping systems and farming practices that leave top soil exposed to degradation by rainfall should be discouraged. Without a direct agricultural payment system and possible cross-compliance penalties to resort to, alternative ways to discourage poor agricultural practices need to be identified. Widely used, farm-assurance schemes may provide a reward/penalty framework, especially if they provide farmers with a market-derived premium. The link between rainfall-holding capacity and soil quality means that flood prevention strategies should also be associated with good carbon-farming practices.

A9.4 Government to expect farmers to be rewarded from farm sales for soil improvement

Improving soil organic matter should be seen as the return of a traditional, good agricultural practice and it has been addressed elsewhere in this policy paper in the context of reversing soil degradation. Nevertheless, motivating change may need transitional support. Into the medium-term, implementing good agricultural practices to improve and maintain soils should be rewarded via farming profitability.

A9.5 Government to discourage practices that impact upon water quality and waterways

Penalising farming practices that lead to water pollution will be difficult without cross-compliance to allow farm support payments deduction. As said above, an alternative cross-compliance system will need to be developed. Such a system needs to be outside a draconian legal framework but retain the weight to be effective. Linking good farming practices to the market via farm assurance schemes is the way forwards as they also offer the chance to differentiate British produce from imports. By using the schemes, positive actions can also be rewarded by the consumer. These schemes are discussed later.

A9.6 Government to develop a series of water-retention techniques to retain flood waters

In conjunction with a system to inhibit practices that cause the pollution of water catchments, a suite of actions focused towards flood prevention should be developed. These may have direct farming implications like the reinstatement of flood meadows and the construction of features like ponds. The majority will have the dual role of retaining waters upstream and enhancing the habitats available to farmland flora and fauna. Farmers and landowners should be compensated for lost profitability and/or remunerated against deliverable targets. Grants to fund works should be a part of the suite of actions.

A9.7 Government to encourage practices that reduce farmers and growers’ water usage

Within the context of, for example, supporting the expansion of vegetable and fruit production, the Government should consider direct grant support for water systems that ensure efficient water usage. It should also encourage the implementation of practices that lead to more resilient rain-fed farming.

Book Serialisation | Creating a New British Farming Food and Rural Policy

 

Stuart Meikle
About Stuart Meikle 17 Articles
Stuart Meikle is an agricultural management and policy specialist, an economist, a writer and an advisor. He was brought up with agriculture and studied at the University of London. He joined the faculty on graduating and spent several years teaching, researching and consulting. His last 25 years have seen him advising governments, the World Bank and the IFC, NGOs, universities and private businesses in places as far afield as SE and Central Asia, the Caucuses, the Levant, SE Europe and the UK. Over the years he has developed a particular focus on agricultural and food sector strategy at the national and regional levels and linking rural development initiatives with the consumer through the food supply chains. He first arrived in Romania to work on a Commission project in 1997 and he lived in Transylvania for more than a decade from 2002; a location to which he was appointed as the United Kingdom's first Honorary Consul. Nowadays he and his family live in the Republic of Ireland.