The picture the bill represents is of a kind of Disneyland countryside, being managed a bit better for wildlife, soil and flood prevention, but not as the location for thriving small businesses producing the healthy, diverse foods their communities need in an increasingly food-insecure world.
The meeting on the future of sustainable farming held last week by Waveney Green Party in Beccles, Suffolk, had been planned for many months. We didn’t know it would be the day Michael Gove unveiled the long awaited Agriculture Bill, setting out the government’s plans for replacing the Common Agricultural Policy if we leave the European Union.
I was joining a panel of two farmers and a wholesaler, chaired by an agricultural journalist, to see where we could find common ground on views of the future of our food supplies. The aim was to talk philosophy and practices, rather than political detail, and I was a little concerned that the timing meant we might get derailed into the detail of the Bill rather than the broader issues.
I needn’t have been. As the National Farmers’ Union has also been pointing out, the Bill so failed to engage with the issues that it hardly featured in last night’s discussion, after general agreement was quickly reached that it didn’t represent any kind of vision for the way forward.
Some of this, it might be fairly said, isn’t Mr Gove’s fault. As Green MEP Molly Scott Cato has said, “access to market has a far greater impact on the viability of farms than the subsidies they receive”. With a total lack of clarity about what could happen if we Brexit in March, the way forward cannot be clear.
And there is some good in the bill. Moving away from payments based on area towards rewards for how the land is managed and cared for is something the Green Party has long called for, as is capping CAP payments (although something that always could have been, and still could be, achieved as a member of the EU).
There’s also value in suggestions of support for farmers getting together to research and develop new methods and practices, to provide an alternative to one agribusiness giant being the chief source of information, and of talk of providing access to new entrants to farming (although none of the reform of land ownership that is only way to genuinely open up the opportunity for a flood of new entrants into the business of farming).
But overall, the picture the Bill represents is of a kind of Disneyland countryside, being managed a bit better for wildlife, soil and flood prevention, but not as the location for thriving small businesses producing the healthy, diverse foods their communities need in an increasingly food-insecure world. It entirely fails to even acknowledge that we’re talking about a food system - in which farming practices, distribution, education and training for farmers, workers and consumers, poverty and health are all interlinked.
Sustainable and diverse
So the discussion last night quickly moved on to the issues facing farmers and food consumers (ie all of us) not covered in the Bill.
The wonderful possibilities for change towards a system producing healthy food in sustainable ways with decent rewards for its producers were on display for all to see. There were Hodmedod’s pulses and grains – reflecting the move to produce diverse vegetable proteins in the UK to replace unsustainable factory farmed meat. There was a fine selection of local fruit and vegetables (which can be delivered to locals’ door in a box scheme), high-welfare dairy products and grass-fed local meats, all supplied by small independent producers.
And there was general agreement at the meeting that making food primarily local - a word seemingly lacking in Mr Gove’s vocabulary - has to be key. That means local producers, supply chains, retailers and other distribution systems – not our food supply dominated by a handful of supermarkets wielding their market dominance against producers with a severely underpowered regulator doing her best to introduce a modicum of fairness).
There was also agreement that our food needs to be far more diverse. With more than half of the calories in the human diet coming from just four crops from an extraordinarily narrow range of varieties, as Josiah Meldrum from Hodmedod’s pointed out. We need to vastly expand that range, in the interests of human health and resilience against shocks caused by disease or crop failure. And this is also very much what the ecology of our countryside needs.
Another point of broad agreement was on the need for far better education about food – growing, cooking and eating -- for students and the general population. “Bring back home economics” was the cry – but as I pointed out that would require the pressure to be taken off schools to be exam factories, to allow them to return to providing education preparing their pupils for life.
And there was, if not always agreement about the detail, an understanding of the need to transform agricultural practices, away from a heavy reliance of pesticides and the plough, towards approaches such as agroecology, permaculture and no- or minimum-till, that rely on nature, and particularly healthy soil, to produce the healthy food we need.
Those are the foundations the Green Party believes are needed for a proper Agricultural Bill – or perhaps more properly for clarity, a Food, Health and Agriculture Bill.
And then we need to make sure that everyone in our society has the income to buy high quality food at a decent return to the producer – and to have the time to cook it.
Natalie Bennett is a member of Sheffield Green Party and former Green Party leader.