Ask: What can government do to support farmers?

Farmers say labelling, alternative subsidies and ‘regenerative salesmen’ could fast-track a shift to sustainable farming, for this month's edition of Your Questions Answered.

Our monthly series, Your Questions Answered, collates questions from Wicked Leeks readers and puts them to our expert team of writers and contributors. Submit your question for consideration by commenting on this article

Ask: What support can government offer to support regenerative farming?

Joyce Costello via Facebook.

At Wicked Leeks, we spend a lot of time discussing and writing about the benefits of nature-friendly farming, including regenerative, organic and agroecology. But it’s sad to say these environmentally friendly approaches are still very much in the minority. So, what could the government do to propel them into the mainstream and support those who already do it?

Instead of answering this question ourselves, we put it to the farming community on Twitter and they told us what they thought would help.

Suggestions ranged from doubling the budget for farming (£3 billion was earmarked to support farmers post-Brexit), described as a “pittance” to secure healthy food and environment, to giving one-to-one advice.

Current subsidies offer money to farmers to set aside land for nature conservation and biodiversity. However, this does nothing to change the way they farm, and intensive food production can just continue alongside. Farmers recommended a ‘whole farm approach’ to reward integrating environmentally friendly practices into food production as well conservation, including reducing pesticides and fertilisers.

Beyond subsidies, farmers say research and development could play a huge role in making regenerative farming more profitable and productive, making a compelling case for farmers to switch. This has been sorely lacking to date, as corporate agrochemical companies, like Bayer and Syngenta, have replaced government-funded research, developing products to make industrial farming more efficient.

Another farmer said that the concept of ecological farming needed to be ‘sold’ to farmers and recommended that the government hire a team of salesmen to convince farmers that it’s possible and viable. That said, switching your entire farming approach is a huge change and can be financially risky, as others pointed out. They say the government needs to provide more resources and opportunities for farmers to come together and share their experiences so they can learn from each other.

However, it’s hard to convince farmers to change their methods when unregulated labelling mean that unethical producers, claiming that they’re ‘farm fresh’ and ‘grass-fed’, can undercut truly regenerative producers. Some farmers said they want government to provide more transparent labels on how food is produced, rewarding the farmers who already produce at a high standard, incentivising those who need to improve and empowering consumers to make informed purchases. Labelling can have a huge impact as the case of free-range eggs shows; purchases increased from 31 per cent to 60 per cent due to a clear labelling of ‘eggs from caged hens’.  

Greenwashing is usually possible through a lack of close relationships between producer and consumer. If we knew how our food was produced, there might be no need for labels. In a sense, this is where a lot of the problems in food and farming originate. Farmers said there is a need to develop direct links to consumers and cut the middlemen out to gain a higher price and keep a higher percentage of prices. While not something government can perhaps help with directly, they can certainly help promote or support these alternative and more farmer-focused routes to market. 

Jack Thompson, staff writer, Wicked Leeks

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8 Comments

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  1. I think the government could do an enormous amount to support farming in the UK,
    Talking to farmers (listening to what they have to say), work together for the greater good.

    Support farmers to encourage them to farm responsibly with a reward scheme.

    I know the world functions on imports and exports, but I’m stunned by how much produce is moved around the world, often same products being exported and then imported from somewhere else????

    So my question is.: Why do we export produce such as fish, butter , milk and meat around the world, then import same?

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  2. For me, the issue of food miles is just as important, although for entirely different reasons, as the issue of food quality and the farming environment. Why do we sell most of our amazing lamb to France and Spain and then bring frozen lamb halfway around the world from New Zealand? Why do we export most of the excellent fish and shellfish caught in British waters, and then fly them in from the Far East? The answer seems to be that it is more profitable to sell it abroad, which means that the Continentals are prepared to pay more, which in turn suggests that the British don’t care what their food tastes like as long as it’s cheap.

    I think we need a consistent and persistent message to be delivered to the British people. If you are what you eat, and who can deny it, then you need to eat less and better. Nobody needs to eat Peruvian asparagus and Mexican strawberries all the year round, especially as they taste nothing like the home-grown produce whose excellent flavour made them so desirable in the first place. Cattle and sheep reared on land which is unsuitable for agriculture do not harm the environment, they make use of it in the most sensible way. A small portion of well-produced meat will be much better for you than a whole plateful of plant-based meat substitute which has been treated to within an inch of its life with chemicals which no sane person would put anywhere their mouth if they knew.

    Of course we must make exceptions for foodstuffs that we cannot grow here, such as bananas and avocados, but we must also remember that the demand for them is driving the conversion of land into monoculture with all the resulting habitat loss and environmental damage that some of us are already painfully aware of.

    As always, the discussion comes back to education. If people really understood the impact of their food choices, they would make changes. Tinkering with labelling is outgunned by the advertising budgets of the people who own the ‘food industry’, an oxymoron if ever I heard one. We need to find a way to make our voices heard above the clamour of the vested interests.

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    1. Do you think education is the answer? Like you say how can education budgets compete with the marketers so skilled in persuading us to eat their products?

      I know more than most the impacts of eating a chicken in a meal deal sandwich, every so often i still give in. When I go out to a restaurant, I still order meat without asking about the provenance. I think we should put less pressure on the individual to make good choices, when quite frankly it’s very hard to and instead put more pressure on companies to sell better products.

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  3. I think we should outlaw big business being able to pay for carbon credits – it is a greenwash of the highest order and i cannot believe that it could be seen as acceptable… It also sidelines land that could be used for regenerative farming or rewilding….
    Some companies are even planting conifer plantations and then saying it is an effective carbon offset AND boosts biodiversity….. are they stupid?!

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    1. Absolutely, carbon credits and the financialisation of nature is a really interesting point, one that was raised a few months ago at the Oxford Real Farming Conference. But it seems set to go ahead, even DEFRA will use carbon credits/offsetting to fund the new environmental subsidies after 2027.

      https://wickedleeks.riverford.co.uk/news/climate-change-net-zero-biodiversity/soil-carbon-and-biodiversity-credits-solution-or-scam

      Nature accounting must be a messy affair; how much is biodiversity worth, the value of different flowers? I fear it’s dangerous to ascribe a value to these things; makes it ripe for corporate interests to take advantage.

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  4. Far from being stupid, they are profiting from the ignorance and, I’m sad to say, indifference of the bulk of the population. I come back to my point – education. We must find more and better ways of spreading our message. Recent events show us that a small group of determined individuals can take on the might of a much larger force.

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    1. I think you’re right; we have far more power as activists than consumers. When politicians think that voters care about these issues and will get them elected on taking action on them, that’s when real change starts to happen.

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