Food and the Environment

A guest post from environmental campaigner and writer Miles King, who blogs on nature here.

We all need to eat and most of us want to see at least some of our food produced in Britain, if it can be. Who knows, with climate change already with us, English banana crops might not be so ridiculous an idea in 50 years.

Self sufficiency is not a realistic prospect and it should not even be considered as an appealing principle to aspire to – what is the point of Britain producing sugar beet with a higher carbon and environmental footprint than the cane sugar we import from countries who benefit from its trade?Especially when that Beet has a special subsidy and tariff system to protect its producers from competition.

Currently food production in Britain is subsidised through the Common Agricultural Policy to the tune of around £200 per hectare per annum. In addition, there are a wide range of hidden subsidies, what I would call “clear tape” (as opposed to red tape) for landowners which include inheritance tax relief, business rates exemption, family trust tax shelters, various forms of capital gains tax relief, corporation tax relief and fuel subsidies. All of these operate together to concentrate the ownership of farmland and forestry land into an ever smaller number of ownerships, where the economies of scale operate and the opportunities to maximise the benefits of the “clear tape” are most easily taken.

Farm land prices are accelerating and now approach £10,000 per hectare on average, but for arable in the east the average is now £10,000 an acre – nearly £25,000 a hectare. Like other businesses, farmers (of all kinds) borrow from the banks to increase their acreage and the pressure of repayments drives them adopt ever more intensive production systems, wringing the last drop of productivity from the land.

Yet the UK cereal farming is already the most productive and intensive of the large cereal producers in Europe, and only slightly behind the very intensive small Benelux countries. The UK is the 3rd largest dairy producer in the EU after the much larger countries of France and Germany. Incredibly we rare the 9th largest dairy producer in the world.

While the national herd and number of dairy farms has reduced substantially in recent decades, size of herd has increased, along with yield per cow, up to 7.3 tonnes of milk per cow per year in 2010. The average size of a dairy herd in the UK is now 125, one of the highest in the EU. The UK is the 4th largest producer of milk in the EU, after Germany France and Poland. Only the Netherlands and Denmark are more intensive producers of milk (using indoor systems).

Without going into further detail, the picture is clear. We have intensified our farming systems beyond any other large EU country and almost as much as small countries like Denmark and the Benelux. We produce a large quantity of food from our agricultural area, and we produce it intensively. What is the cost of this large quantity of food?

The environmental costs are well known. Wildlife has disappeared from the agricultural landscapes of Britain  – squeezed out by ultimately efficient farming systems. Soil quality has declined and this has affected water quality, as pollutants such as nitrate from excessive fertiliser use, and pesticides (eg slug killer metaldehyde) enter water courses and aquifers.

Flooding is made worse by land drainage and soil run-off, a particular problem with Maize. Soil Carbon has disappeared through intensive cultivation and this contributes to climate change, along with nitrous oxide and methane from agricultural sources.

Employment in British agriculture is minuscule, now that so much is mechanised; some farms of many hundreds of hectares have just one person running them, employing contractors to manage their crops. This is turn has altered profoundly the demographics of rural areas, where commuters live in villages formally occupied by farm labour. As fewer people work on the land, the connections between food and land become weak or disappear. Children have to learn where their food comes from, many have never seen a farm. That in turn affects all our understanding of what food quality means and how to tell high quality food from low quality food.

Thanks in part to the global recession and in part to this Government’s radical welfare reforms, food banks now provide significant amounts of food to those in food poverty. People cannot afford to buy healthy food. And yet food expenditure as a proportion of income has dropped for years – Britain now has the 2nd lowest % of household income spent on food, just above the US.We spend just 9% or 10% of our income on food, but another 4% on booze and fags. Not surprisingly they also show the lowest 20 percentile spend around 16% of their income on food – and that’s stable over a 10 year period, with surprisingly little fluctuation despite changing economic conditions. ONS Social Trends 40 shows that the proportion of household income spent on food (and non alcoholic drink) has declined from 21% in 1970, 17% in 1981, 12% in 1991, 9% 2001, 9% 2011. So the poorest 20% of households now are still spending proportionately less on food than all households did in 1981. Food is relatively cheaper, but more unaffordable. What is going on?

How can we reduce the external costs of food production to the environment, reconnect people with the food they eat, increase the number of people involved with growing and creating food, while keeping food affordable? Does our food production need to be as intensive as it is – after all there are no u-boats in the channel and starving children in Africa don’t need Cheddar cheese; and as many people in the world are now overweight as are underweight.

It does seem crazy to me that we subsidise farmers to produce food which they then sell to the highest bidder on the global market. Is there actually any reason why the taxpayer should subsidise food production in the UK? land after all has many uses and values to society (and others) not just food production, and certainly not intensive food production.

Land provides us with clean water, it provides us with other raw materials (e.g. fuel, timber, aggregates) and it provides us with more intangible things like inspiration and sensory experiences. Landscapes have economic value for tourism, and land is essential in creating “green” spaces where we can play, relax, exercise, contemplate, find peace, pray, feel well, or get better if we are ill.

When landowners provide goods to society (such as storing lots of carbon or providing clean water) then it is reasonable that those landowners should receive some form of payment for providing such goods. This could be provided through a state payment, or through a market in ecosystem services. I prefer the former. In return society would expect something in return – a farmer that produces food in a very extensive way using the minimum of agro chemicals or allowing more wildlife on their land, could be expected to receive a larger payment than a farmer who continued with “conventional” management. Those farmers wishing to grow very intensive crops which have a large environmental footprint – maize for example, could end up paying for the external costs of their crop. This could also apply to GM crops, though it would depend on the particular crop. In theory GM crops could lead to reduced externalised costs, but these would need to be developed with the specific intention of improving public environmental goods. So far, GM crops have been produced with the benefits solely returning to either the Global Agribusiness corporations or the farmers themselves, not society.

Groups of farmers working at the catchment level could work closely together and with local government and others to ensure that their farming systems did not contribute to downstream flooding and water quality issues – whether the loss in productivity associated with these types of land-use changes are compensated for, or regarded as a return to a more sustainable system from a position where the external costs were an unduly large expense to society, will probably depend on the catchment and the impacts already being experienced as a result of that intensive farming.

Farmers who are keen to work with local communities, who produce food for consumption in their local area could be expected to receive additional national support. Local producers providing food for state sector institutions such as schools, hospitals, prisons, army barracks etc seems the most obvious first place to start. And making the rules much simpler to enable those institutions to purchase their food from local producers would help enormously in this direction. Local food supply chains such as these could also foster links between groups of local schools and the farms that produce their food – helping to strengthen the connections between communities and their food suppliers and increasing understanding of the way food is grown and the choices that farmers make, in terms of the intensity of their farming system, for example.

Producers who agree to sell into local food networks should be encouraged (financially) to do so, as this is something beneficial for society at large. Conversely those wishing to supply the global market would not receive any state support, on the basis that they are not providing any social or environmental goods. Advance contracts for local supply could ensure that state support for these farmers was tied to that local provision.

Agriculture in the UK is now very polarised – the east is mainly arable and the west mainly pastoral. This has only happened in the recent past – restoring mixed farming across Britain (at least away from the Uplands) would be a social good as mixed farms provide more jobs and livestock production and arable production are complementary, with livestock manure being a good fertiliser for arable land. Mixed farms would be able to provide more types of food for the local economy than monocultures – at present communities in Lincolnshire would rarely be able to eat meat or dairy, as almost all their livestock farms have disappeared.  There would be a significant economic cost to re-modelling the agricultural production system to a new type of mixed farming though. And with Climate Change we may need to move towards housed animals when it is too hot for them to be out in the future greenhouse4 summers.

Biofuel crop production has increased massively in the UK thanks to EU subsidies and the renewable fuels obligation. This has led to land being taken out of food production to produce maize for AD plants, grain for bioethanol and oil seed rape for biodiesel. This has been shown now to be the wrong approach to reducing GHG emissions and for other consequences. All biofuel subsidies should be removed and that land returned to food production, albeit at lower intensity than had previously been the case. Solar and wind farms can be a beneficial land-use, because the grassland beneath the panels can be grazed by sheep to produce meat and wool.

Food quality is an important issue – meat produced by growing animals quickly using high protein diets is probably not as healthy as slow grown meat fed on grass all its life. Much more research is needed into this though. What is not at issue is that slow grown meat finished on pastures is far better for the environment than intensively produced meat fed high protein diets. The same is true for dairy products: grass fed dairy cows are healthier, live longer and produce higher quality milk than cows fed concentrate producing conventional milk. And pastoral systems that avoid using any (or only a little) chemical fertiliser  – such as organic systems – contribute to soil carbon sequestration and avoid releasing potent GHG nitrous oxide, released when chemical fertiliser is broken down in the soil.

Community Land Trusts are a good mechanism for helping local communities to grow their own food, but the truth is that farmers are the best people to produce food for the nation; they are the experts. What we need is a new social contract between farmers and society, where farmers are paid to produce the food society wants, and does it in such a way as to reduce the external costs of that food to society.

Perhaps the time has come to accept that efficient productive farming has very little room for wildlife and that we should be adopting a sparing approach rather than a sharing one. Farmland birds for example can happily thrive in land that is not managed for food production. While pollinators are necessary for some crops, they can be provided by honey bee colonies. The key is that efficient farming techniques do not have effects beyond the farm or field. Neonicotinoids and Nitrogen are two food production essentials that have far reaching effects on wildlife and the wider environment. whose use desperately needs curtailing.