Urgency of a rapid transition
In our justifiable anxiety over fossil fuels and climate change, and the loss of biodiversity, we have perhaps not paid enough attention to the unsustainability of intensive agriculture. The 2019 Sustainable Development Report from SDSN (https://www.sdgindex.org/reports/sustainable-development-report-2019) says that agriculture destroys forests and biodiversity, squanders water and releases one-quarter of global greenhouse-gas emissions. In total, 78% of world nations are failing on sustainable nitrogen management. At the same time, one-third of food is wasted, 800 million people remain undernourished, 2 billion are deficient in micronutrients, and obesity is on the rise. In addition to the impacts of intensive agriculture at home, high-income countries generate negative impacts through their imports. For example, international demand for palm oil and other commodities fuels tropical deforestation.
In the United Kingdom, the RSA Food, Farming and Countryside Commission, established in 2017, has just issued its final report "Our Future on the Land". The report's conclusions are relevant to many other countries as well, so they are worth summarising here.
The urgency is the same as for climate change. The actions taken in the next ten years, to stop ecosystems collapse, to recover and regenerate nature and to restore people’s health and wellbeing are now critical. In the UK, agriculture contributes 11 percent of GHG emissions, and is the biggest driver of wildlife loss, with 67 percent decline in the abundance of priority species since 1970 and 13 percent of them now close to extinction. The true cost of cheap, unhealthy food is a spiralling public health crisis and environmental destruction. The UK’s food and farming system must be radically transformed and become sustainable within 10 years.
Driven by poor policy and perverse incentives, the food and farming system has become one of the main drivers of the human and ecosystem crisis. From deforestation, loss of wildlife and soil degradation, to widespread pollution and spiralling diet-related ill-health, people and planet have suffered alike. Far from being the sector that nourishes us, and the land on which we all depend, the system has damaged and depleted our precious and finite resources.
Decades of policy to produce ever cheaper food has created perverse and detrimental consequences. Farm gate prices are low; and while food in the supermarkets is getting cheaper, the true cost of that policy is simply passed off elsewhere in society – in a degraded environment, spiralling ill-health and impoverished town centres. The UK has the third cheapest food amongst developed countries, but the highest food insecurity in Europe in terms of people being able to afford a healthy diet.
Many farmers are at a loss as to the best path forward: Agroecology or high-tech solutions? More intensification, extensification or diversification? And how to disinvest from investments made in good faith? Farmers are open to change but anxious, and locked into their current business models by debt, skills or circumstance.
Farmers must be enabled to shift from intensive farming to more organic and wildlife friendly production, raising livestock on grass and growing more nuts and pulses. “Agroecology” practices must be supported – such as organic farming and agroforestry, where trees are combined with crops and livestock such as pigs or egg-laying hens
A National Nature Service should be created to give opportunities for young people to work in the countryside and, for example, tackle the climate crisis by planting trees or restoring peatlands.
The Commission sets out radical and practical ways for policymakers, business and communities to respond to the challenges.
Healthier and life-enhancing diets mean more and better fresh fruit, vegetables, nuts and pulses, less and better meat and dairy, with livestock products coming from climate and nature-friendly production, with zero food waste, and rebuilding our connections with food producers and with each other. Much attention is directed towards the challenge of feeding nine billion people by 2030. But we already produce more than enough for everyone in the world to eat well. Today, it is inefficiently and unsustainably produced, profligately wasted and unfairly distributed.
The report makes fifteen recommendations in three areas:
Healthy food is every body’s business
• Levelling the playing field for a fair food system – good food must become good business
• Committing to grow the UK supply of fruit, vegetables, nuts and pulses, and products from UK sustainable agriculture, and to using them more in everyday foods
• Implementing world-leading public procurement, using this powerful tool to transform the market; schools, hospitals and prisons should buy more sustainably produced British food
• Establishing collaborative community food plans to help inform and implement national food strategies and meet the different needs of communities around the UK
• Reconnecting people and nature to boost health and wellbeing
Farming is a force for change, unleashing a fourth agricultural revolution driven by public values
• Designing a ten-year transition plan for sustainable, agroecological farming by 2030
• Backing innovation by farmers to unleash a fourth agricultural revolution
• Making sure every farmer can get trusted, independent advice by training a cadre of peer mentors and farmer support networks
• Boosting cooperation and collaboration by extending support for Producer Organisations to all sectors
• Establishing a National Agroecology Development Bank to accelerate a fair and sustainable transition
A countryside that works for all, with rural communities that are a powerhouse for a fair and green economy
• Establishing a national land use framework in England inspires cooperation based on the public value of land, mediating and encouraging multipurpose uses
• Investing in the skills and rural infrastructure to underpin the rural economy
• Creating more good work in the regenerative economy
• Developing sustainable solutions to meet rural housing needs
• Establishing a National Nature Service that employs the energy of young people to kickstart the regenerative economy
Sources: 2019 Sustainable Development Report from SDSN https://www.sdgindex.org/reports/sustainable-development-report-2019
RSA Food, Farming and Countryside Commission (2019) "Our Future on the Land" https://www.thersa.org/discover/publications-and-articles/reports/futur…
Last updated 22 July 2019