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Feeding Britain sustainably

Published on: 1st September 2022
Published By Graham Brookes

31 August 2022 – UK agricultural policies must follow the science and evidence, says agricultural economist

A UK agricultural economist says the best way to provide the UK population with access to adequate supplies of food, at reasonable prices, whilst not destroying the Earth’s climate and many species of plant and animal life, is to recognise the need for a combination of high yield farming, natural habitat and lower intensity farming systems – reflecting the three-compartment approach set out in Henry Dimbleby’s National Food Strategy document and inspired by the work of conservation scientists, Professors Andrew Balmford and Rhys Green at the University of Cambridge.    
Writing on the Science For Sustainable Agriculture website, Graham Brookes of PG Economics said the science points to a need for sensible combining of production methods and techniques used in both high and lower intensity (including organic) production systems, and to embrace (not reject) the adoption of new innovations and technologies like plant genetics, digital agriculture and precision farming.

Turning to the allocation of UK land under the three-compartment approach, Mr Brookes pointed to detailed research, focused on two regions of England (The Fens and Salisbury Plain) as a starting point.  Based on, and interpreting this research, he suggested an allocation of land of about 60% in high yielding/intensity farming, 25% as natural habitat (no agriculture) and 15% in lower yielding, extensive farming for the country might be appropriate.

Against this background, Mr Brookes said it was extremely disappointing to see the Sustainable Food Trust (SFT) advocating in its recent report, ‘Feeding Britain from the Ground Up’, that UK agriculture should adopt a two-compartment vision based solely on a lower intensity (largely organic) production base coupled with some land reverting to natural habitat, as the most suitable model for domestic production.  

“Unfortunately, the science and the evidence does not support the SFT’s blueprint because it is built on flawed and unrealistic assumptions - where the mix and volumes of future domestic organic-based production are overstated and then matched to a changed and reduced demand for food in the UK,” observed Mr Brookes in his article Feeding Britain sustainably. 

“The SFT also champions its own whole farm or area-based metric for measuring farm level sustainability – referred to as the Global Farm Metric (GFM) - as a benchmark for measuring both future performance against sustainability standards and as a basis for regulating imports of food products,” said Mr Brookes. 

“Here again the thinking does not reflect the science and evidence in the field.  The GFM’s approach to measuring sustainability parameters like greenhouse gas emissions and resource use is flawed and skewed to favour lower-yield farming systems when the most appropriate way to measure sustainability outcomes is in terms of resource use and environmental impact per functional unit of output, such as tonnes, litres or bio-available calories.” 

Mr Brookes added that it was extremely unlikely that major agricultural producing and exporting nations would buy into an area-based metric and as a consequence, a system of regulating UK imports based on this metric would be unlikely to comply with World Trade Organisation rules relating to non-tariff barriers.  

Noting that the UK Government has promised to publish a land-use strategy by 2023, Mr Brookes said the post-Brexit re-set for UK farm policy should have begun by developing a coherent land use strategy based on an evidence-based assessment of the competing demands and priorities placed on the UK’s land resource.  

And while this exercise should also have preceded the development of policy options under the Environmental Land Management Schemes (ELMs) in England and its equivalents in Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales, Mr Brookes said it was not too late to re-evaluate and fine-tune the options and resource allocation in these schemes to reflect what the science and evidence tells us.   Not to do so would be a missed opportunity to implement a truly sustainable agricultural system in the UK, he said. 


Graham Brookes: 1st Sep 2022 11:18:00

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