It's clear the UK's farming model is not sustainable. We need an alternative
Farming should be about producing the means for healthy diets from sustainable food systems. That’s not what we have at present, but the UK could lead a food and farming transition, says Caroline Lucas
One of the privileges of representing Brighton Pavilion is that the constituency includes part of the South Downs national park. It’s always a joy to walk my dog on the Downs at weekends, listening to the skylarks and, in the summer, seeing if I can spot a round-headed rampion – the county flower of Sussex and one of the many species now under threat.
For the terrible truth is that, just in my lifetime, half of Britain’s wildlife has been wiped out. Three-quarters of butterfly species have declined. We are losing pollinators such as bees, which are critical to crop agriculture, at a frightening rate.
There are many things to blame for this horrific decline but chemical agriculture has played a big part. The loss of hedgerows, and the heavy use of chemical fertiliser, pesticides and nitrogen, have all taken their toll.
Nor is it just wildlife. A recent UK study concluded that modern agriculture, in seeking to maximise yields, has caused the loss of soil organic carbon and compaction, leading to a real impact in productivity on arable land.
This isn’t just an issue for Britain. According to the European Commission, 45% of European soils face problems of quality with low levels of organic matter. Soil biodiversity is under threat in more than half of the EU, with intensive agriculture a key driver.
Yet still many farmers are struggling. Currently, they are protected by the EU’s common agricultural policy and the protection from imports from major producers like the US and Australia who don’t meet the same animal welfare and environmental standards as we do. That’s why all the UK’s farming unions have said to leave the EU without a deal would be “catastrophic” for UK farming.
But it’s clear that farming, as it is now carried out in many areas of Britain, is not sustainable. Our agri-industrial food system is in crisis; too often favouring consolidation at the expense of ecology and farmers’ livelihoods.
It needs to change to an alternative model, based on agroecological principles; a sustainable, resilient, nature-friendly food system which restores rather than undermines biodiversity, and makes a significant contribution to reducing emissions.
According to the Committee on Climate Change, there has been no progress in reducing agricultural emissions since 2008; they remain at about 10% of total UK greenhouse gas emissions and, worryingly, they have actually recently gone up.
There are several urgent priorities.
We need a target to bring down emissions year-on-year to reach net-zero farming in Britain as soon as possible. The NFU’s president, Minette Batters, has herself called for this and I have proposed an amendment to the agriculture bill to achieve it.
We should introduce measures to increase the level of soil organic matter so that soil can play a much bigger role in carbon sequestration and regeneration.
And we must move towards more humane and human-scale methods of livestock farming, supporting farmers to transition to less, but higher quality, livestock production. Britain’s 10 million cows are responsible for 3% of our overall greenhouse gas emissions, and 25-30% of methane.
This leads to the very sensitive subject of what people should eat. It is always going to be a personal choice, but if we are serious about tackling the climate crisis, we need to reduce unsustainable meat consumption. Public opinion and consumer taste may well be ahead of the government on this. Look at the sales of Greggs’ new vegan sausage roll.
It’s a debatable point how many vegans there are in Britain today, but all the evidence suggests that their numbers have rocketed in recent years and vegetarianism is growing too, with many changing their diets for environmental reasons.
There is no single recipe for the many diverse communities that make up our country, nor for our beautiful and varied landscape. But our food system as a whole must focus on producing more local food with far less waste, fewer or no pesticides, more attention to the welfare of animals, greater transparency about origins and a much smaller proportion of meat and dairy in our diets.
This is a bold ambition. But there is no reason why a food and farming transition to sustainability, with accountability and affordability, cannot be led by the UK.
Caroline Lucas is Green Party MP for Brighton Pavilion