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Collaborating for Agricultural Sustainability

13 June 2018

Agricultural sustainability is not a luxury, but a fundamental requirement for our society. However, attaining this has proven challenging to say the least. With the uncertainty surrounding Brexit and global politics more generally, alongside further pressures posed by climate change, food insecurity and worldwide environmental degradation, achieving agri-sustainability becomes increasingly urgent. It was in this context that we organised an interdisciplinary Workshop on ‘Agri-sustainability in a Changing Political Clime’ funded by the Centre of Law and Society at Cardiff School of Law and Politics in May 2018.

Two keynotes laid the foundations for the workshop. Firstly, Prof. Joe McMahon (School of Law, UCD, Dublin) provided insights on the future of UK agriculture post Brexit and the on-going review of the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP), including some of the competing objectives of agricultural policy. Secondly, Matthew Quinn (Sustainable Places Research Institute, Cardiff) interrogated the concept of agri-sustainability and outlined some of the ensuing challenges. The subsequent presentations built upon these issues, from a range of perspectives. (For a full list of speakers, see the programme of the workshop). Reflecting the multifunctional nature of agriculture, national and international participants included farmers, representatives from trade unions (NFU Cymru), civil society organisations (including the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB), the Game and Wildlife Conservation Trust (GWCT), the Institute for Sustainable Development and International Relations (IDDRI)), and the Welsh Government, academics (including a biologist, sociologist, geneticist and legal academics) and solicitors.

Core challenges highlighted within the presentations included governance, language, effective environmental protection, the role of technology, and the choice and weighting of policy objectives. For instance, it was felt that not enough emphasis was placed within both UK and CAP reforms on health, diet and the production of nutritious food as well as delivering (nutritious) food security. Further, a fundamental question was to ask what the purpose of farming should be and in what circumstances it merits financial support (if at all). (A brief report will shortly be available on the workshop).

Central to each of these challenges, collaboration and cooperation between different actors and at different levels emerged as a central theme to the workshop:

  • Between various levels of governance
  • Between farmers themselves
  • Between farmers and other stakeholders
  • Between different disciplines.

As a multilevel and cross-sectoral issue, agricultural policy needs to be developed at all levels, with implementation developing primarily at farm levels. Ideas of subsidiarity alongside the variations in culture, geography, climate, and beyond, make a simple, centralised, top-down approach inappropriate and ineffective. Agriculture necessitates cooperation and collaboration both across levels (i.e. local, regional, national and beyond if relevant), and within individual levels (between farmers and other farmers/other stakeholders).

To this end, multiple frameworks with varying degrees of detail and specificity may be required, as intended if not always realised by the EU’s CAP. The appropriate loci for primary responsibility for policies may vary for different objectives, e.g. trade policy, environmental protection and health standards, i.e. differing degrees of decentralisation/devolution and centralisation may be appropriate.  Indeed, the regulation of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) highlights how the different levels of governance and actors interplay in the decision-making process for such crops. In particular, the principle of subsidiarity proves crucial in enabling national, regional and local policy-making powers within the EU and the UK.

However, the debates within the UK surrounding common frameworks have become highly politicised, as essentially the EU provided a counterbalance between the UK and the four regions. With powers returning to the UK, concerns have arisen over power grabs and the relationship between broad regional agricultural or environmental policies and UK level trade policies. It is essential that the development of such policies be undertaken in a coherent and respectful manner – with input into their design from those at all levels and with scope for further individualised/localised policy development within those frameworks. The Spanish decentralised constitutional structure could provide a strong model for the future of British farming.

Nor should governments be the sole voices heard. Collaboration with and between farmers, other individuals within rural communities and other actors in the food supply chain are essential to identify what is desirable and feasible, potential implementation mechanisms and coherent approaches within individual ecosystems, catchment areas, local communities or regions, and in developing buy-in and political pressure. Not only can these actors work within broader parameters/frameworks and develop their implementation but can also feed into the development of those initially and in reviewing approaches. The potential power of these approaches can be seen in agri-food cooperatives, pilot agri-environmental schemes, and the role of consumers and public opinion in driving changes in animal welfare, single use plastic in the food supply chain (such as food packaging and plastic straws), food waste and shifts to in season produce.

In engaging these voices in partnerships, it is also essential to note that urban and rural areas and communities differ considerably – hence the significance of ensuring that the rural voice is heard and not simply having values imposed upon them. Rural areas require targeted approaches that highlight the needs of rural communities and ensure rural vitality. Issues of land abandonment, for example, must be recognised and cannot be addressed by adopting solutions that apply in cities. Further, the weaker status of rural areas and communities should be acknowledged and funds to strengthen rural development are critical to ensure the viability of the countryside. It is also necessary to bear in mind that rural communities are not internally homogenous – they do not simply comprise of one type of farmer or even purely farmers and broader engagement is required.

Through engaging the variety of actors and stakeholders substantively, it will facilitate drafting an agricultural policy that truly reflects the values of citizens, farmers and organisations, the variations and capacities of the localities, and yet responds to the broader/more globally focussed goals and considerations.

Further, the nature of agriculture – whether in its multifunctional roles or relationship with science and other disciplines – necessitates truly interdisciplinary conversations that can facilitate symbiotic developments. New agri-technologies can lead to distrust (e.g. GMOs, synthetic biology or antimicrobial resistance) or ease the tensions between the stakeholders and improve farming and its productivity (precision farming). Through collaborating across disciplines, it is possible to identify challenges and potential opportunities; through new partnerships and targeted research, innovative perspectives, tools and practices could be developed that could be part of the solution towards delivering a sustainable agriculture.

These conversations and engagements are not always easy, for instance due to resources, language/terminology barriers, distrust, lack of existing networks or fora for discussions, or power struggles, but they remain essential. This workshop highlighted some of these challenges, but also the benefits of such collaboration and the positive will to carry it further than an academic event.

Overall, what is needed for a greener and more sustainable agriculture is a better vision of what we want the future of agriculture and food systems to be. The United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) could provide a holistic approach to assess and address the issues ahead. Any future vision should handle effectively the tensions between multiple aspects and facets: environmental protection/sustainability; food production; health/diet, economic/profitability, subsidiarity/commonality. It should acknowledge the complexity of the different systems and actors of the food supply chain underpinning the future of food and farming nationally as well as internationally. Framing the issues, policies and objectives accordingly is difficult. Whilst a centralised, top-down approach imposed upon farmers or a market-driven approach may seem simpler, they are not sustainable or appropriate. The long-term feasibility and acceptability of any such vision necessitates multi-directional and interdisciplinary conversations, with considerable roles for the public and farmers in driving policy.



Ludivine Petetin is a Lecturer in Law at the School of Law and Politics, Cardiff University. Dr Petetin’s research focuses on the policy, law and regulation of food, agriculture and environmental protection.

Mary Dobbs is a Lecturer in Law at the School of Law, Queen’s University Belfast. Dr Dobbs’ research focuses on agri-environmental issues, genetically modified crops and the precautionary principle, from legal and socio-legal perspectives.