(c) Rosemary Despres (rspb-images.com)

 Senior Policy Officer Lucy Bjorck reflects on the publication of the Government Food Strategy and what is means for a Nature Positive future

 

The publication of UK food Strategy was met with a lukewarm response. Whilst there are some positive elements within the document, it does not quite hit the mark. At a time of nature and climate crisis, when so many are already taking action, it feels like the UK Government is wasting time we just don't have.

 

This week saw the long-awaited publication of the Government’s response to Henry Dimbleby’s rigorous independent interrogation of the UK Food System.

 

Is the strategy fit for purpose?

Much of the despondency comes from the fact that the strategy fails to step up to the scale of change needed to address the shortcomings of our Food system, so eloquently set out by Dimbleby’s independent review. Those working on health, inequality, sustainability, climate change and nature’s recovery have long concluded that none of these issues can be tackled independently. And yet the strategy lacks coherence and a sense that there is buy in from across government to drive the transformation we need. This is despite some very clear signals from progressive elements within the food industry and nature friendly farmers that they understand the need for change and want leadership from government to catalyse joined up multi-sector action. The need for such join up is routinely recognised by the Government itself too, including in its Food Security Review of 6 months ago, which found that found ‘the biggest risk to the UK’s domestic production comes from climate change and other environmental pressures like soil degradation, water quality and biodiversity’. But is the Government meaningfully responding through its new Food Strategy?

There are some excellent analyses of the Food Strategy as a whole out there but here I want to reflect on one particular aspect - what does this mean for a transition to a Nature Positive food and farming system? The strategy itself talks about championing a Nature Positive Global food system, but what does this mean both at home and abroad?

 

What would a Nature Positive Food and Farming system look like?

Nature Positive is a concept, which relates to whole system change. What do we need to do differently to ensure we have more nature by 2030 than we do now, not just on the 30% of land we aim to protect for nature, but across the rest of UK land? Food and Farming, as the biggest land-use sector in the UK, has a crucial role to play. For example:  

  • Helping wildlife recover and increasing connectivity in our landscapes e.g. via implementing the Farm Wildlife key actions on every farm and safeguarding High nature Value farms. The evidence base for the agronomic and financial benefits of such actions – such as supporting much higher levels of beneficial insects who prey on crop pests for example – is already significant, and growing steadily.
  • Ensuring supply chains are Nature Positive, by limiting the use of harmful pesticides via Integrated Pest Management (IPM), reducing carbon emissions, and only using sustainable methods of food processing and packaging.
  • Ensuring financial decisions are working for nature, such as incentivising nature friendly farming practices and removing subsidies for practices that harm wildlife and their habitats.
  • Ultimately, making the best use of land to ensure we make space for nature both outside the farmed environment and within it. In some areas, this will mean doing farming very differently, and even shifting to alternate land uses to provide other societally needed benefits such as reduced flooding and carbon sequestration.

 

To deliver a Nature Positive food and farming system requires action at scale. This is why the lack of ambition in the strategy is so unfortunate. It requires us to collaborate across sectors and disciplines, promote the best field-tested nature friendly practices, amplify the voice of farmers who are already leading the industry to shift to sustainable practices, and ensure they are properly supported by ‘public goods’ payments and fair market returns that make this transition financially viable.

A Nature Positive approach will also be crucial in delivering the Environment Act targets which are referenced in the strategy.  Many of the pieces are there – reference to better use of data, increasing standards and creating a Land Use Strategy and yet there is a reticence to really drive change e.g. through defining core environmental standards. Whilst this government may be shy of intervening, if we have learned nothing from the Covid crisis, it is that Government leadership, backed up by action, is essential at times of crisis. For nature, climate and health we are most definitely in a time of crisis.

RSPB welcome the acknowledgement in the Strategy that ELMS – the new suite of land management schemes being developed by Defra- is needed to help deliver a suite of environmental targets and urge the government to drive forward with the design and roll out of a truly effective scheme which can deliver for farmers and nature.

 

Public goods underpin food security

There are voices which resist the support for more nature friendly farming citing food production as the key priority. But growing food is what farmers are already good at and are rewarded for by the market. There are undoubtedly improvements which should be made in the way the market operates to improve fairness for farmers, but now is the time to support the elements which will underpin our future food security. Food alone is not a public good but ensuring our food security is and nature and climate friendly farming does just that.  

Like any jigsaw with missing pieces the end result is unsatisfying. If the UK government really wants to be leader on Nature Positive Food systems we need all the pieces in place in England, to create a compelling picture for the future that we’re all united in creating.

Whilst the Food Strategy document is disappointing the fact that the President of the NFU is stressing the importance of nature and food production in tandem demonstrates that there is clearly common ground and the onus is on all of us to drive forward and harness the solutions which are out there – schemes such as Fair to Nature which provide a blueprint for integrating nature back into the farmed landscape. This strategy may not have delivered the inspiring vision we hoped for but we must use the tools it does supply to drive us forward, whilst pushing for more ambition and real leadership.

 

Nature Positive is the right direction of travel: it makes sense for our food security, it adds up for nature recovery and most of all it makes sense for good business. Without nature there is no food.

 

Further reading 

RSPB policy briefing on

8625.3542.How public goods underpin food production.pdf

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