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The National Food Strategy: rural communities, urban food and good food jobs. What can be done? A Note

9 June 2021

Terry Marsden[1]

It will be important for the National Food Strategy to explicitly address and propose a new vision for British food and farming; to outline in some detail where we should be trying to get to , what are the end goals (by 2030, and 2040); and to outline how a combination of market, state and civil society actions can be formulated to achieve these ends. There is always a danger to avoid such an approach, but now is the time to develop a truly radical and innovative food strategy in the UK, and to specify its major goals.

This was the task of equal significance to that which the ‘Scott Commission’ (1942) addressed in the depths of war in its ‘Report of the Committee on Land Utilisation in Rural Areas’ (1942), which then laid the foundations for the immediate post-war agricultural, food and rural development policies thereafter. Today, the challenges are probably even greater, but certainly more diverse as we are expecting far many more sustainable functions to be achieved from our food and rural systems, not least meeting climate change (net-zero) targets, reducing food poverty, increasing dietary health and restoring ecological biodiversity. There is also, as we shall see here the structural question of restoring a vibrant farming sector.

I will focus here upon the domestic food, farming and the rural economy, and base this note upon my recent and continuing researches in these fields.[1]  I will raise ten key points which need addressing and prioritising in the NFS.

  1. Current effects of both Covid and Brexit have only heightened the need for a radical re-formulation of domestic state policy regarding the food system, farming and rural development. This is necessary to arrest and reverse structural weaknesses in the food, farming and rural economy. The multiple and interconnected problems are now well articulated in a series of recent reports[2]. I need not dwell on these in detail here as many of the issues have already been raised in this group’s earlier meetings. However, I want to focus here on the severe need to address domestic food, farming and rural development policies, especially since we have now ‘taken back control’ from the EU in these policy realms.
  2. We are currently in, in my opinion, a policy vacuum relating to these fields, despite the ‘bare-bones’ of a new Environmental Land Management System’ (ELMS) being gradually rolled out[3]. These proposals alone, in my view, will not go far or be comprehensive enough to tackle the structural problems the rural and farming domain faces. They may turn out to be a valuable part of the mix, but they are too restricted on the necessary restoration on land-based environmental goods and services.
  3. Here we need to address both supply, demand , and particularly infrastructural factors affecting  sustainable food, farming and rural development.
  4. If nothing is proactively done in these fields the UK will further experience, inter alia, the following reductions in its economic resilience; involving: (i) further concentration and oligopolisation of markets and food firms upstream and downstream from the farm sector; (ii) the continuing fall out and amalgamation of farm holdings and the continued decline in viability of small and medium family farms; (iii) the further outward mobility of the young from rural communities and labour markets; (iv) further reductions in the capability of the UK to be more self-sufficient in its production, and capable of feeding its growing urban populations with high quality foodstuffs. In addition, with pressure to convert more land for housing (300,000 per yr target giving 3 Million in the next decade, estimated to need 600,000 acres of agricultural land)[4], there will be intensive pressure on the agricultural land base. As the UK Climate change Committee recently reported (2020 Land Use : Policies for a net zero UK Jan 2020): ‘The way land is used must change to meet the UK’s net zero target. The current approach is not sustainable. Fundamental change in the use of land across the UK is needed to maintain a strong agricultural sector that also delivers climate mitigation, adaptation and wider environmental objectives’.
  5. All of this suggests the need for a new ‘Scott-type’ strategic approach to the rural and farming economy which addresses the priority for the UK to produce more of its own high quality and nutritional foods for its population.[5] Targets need to be set to enhance national and indeed regional self-sufficiency of its foods, to re-create local and regional supply chains, and to use new innovative public procurement policies to create more sustainable and nested markets. Covid has re-enforced the need to supply growing amounts of re-localised food to consumers through a variety of new retail and food outlets, using digital communications. These new short-chains need to develop a larger share of the total retail market and be more available on the high street.
  6. Similarly farmers will need to be incentivised to participate in these re-localised markets, and to diversify their food offer by adopting a variety of more agro-ecological practices. We need to embrace the ‘circular-economy’ in farming for sustainable food, and expand it as a mainstream activity. So far ELMS is too restrictive in this regard as it tends to ignore farmers market relations. I would propose that any further government funding for the farm population should be conditional upon farmers plans to adopt agro-ecological practices as well as to deliver ‘non-market’ public goods.
  7. As in the 1940s and 50s, government needs to take the lead in promoting and supporting these transitions; then an army of agricultural committees, a public farm advisory and extension service, and a wide geographical spread of ‘experimental husbandry’ farms were established so that farmers could share and learn good practice. This infrastructure no longer exists, yet it is again much needed in the new transitions the UK public now require from its farming and rural communities.
  8. All of this suggests a strong emphasis upon building and supporting rural and food- based infrastructures, not just in a physical sense, like creating new food hubs and wholesale outlets in both rural and urban communities, or in further developing broadband access. It also requires, market promotion, local branding and more skills training for young people. This is no more such a priority than in the horticultural sector- a sector which must now deliver and expand its UK production and supply base, with new targets for growth.
  9. In our recent WWF Cymru report we set out many of these areas of policy priority: Agro-ecological farming, and skills development, horticultural expansion of land area and markets, local food procurement, fostering food cooperatives and digital markets, enhancing and monitoring nutritional dietary guidelines, quality food standards, and promoting local and regional food cultures and cuisines.[6]
  10. All of the above priorities are indeed ways in which, our research shows, significant economic as well as ecological ‘added value’ and economic and ecological productivity gains can be achieved both in individual farm and food businesses as well as for rural development more generally. Food and farming, in this new era should no longer thus be seen as a ‘declining economy’. This notion should be reversed. Rather it should be positioned by the national government as a leading and vital sector for national wellbeing and restoring the Nation’s Public and Ecological Health.[7]

[1] See Marsden, T.K (2017) Agri-food and rural development: sustainable place-making. Bloomsbury, London. Marsden, T.K, Lamine, C and Schneider, S (2020) A Research Agenda for Global Rural Development. Edward Elgar, Cheltenham UK.

[2] See for instance, The Lancet Commissions recent report’s of food, diet and health, and the The Food and Farming Commission UK reports 2019, 2020.

[3] There are of course different variants of these schemes being formulated in the devolved nations.

[4] See Central Association of Agricultural Valuers (March 2021) ‘Future Rural Land Used in the United Kingdom: A review of pressures and opportunities. CAAV Publication, NO 246.

[5] This will not only enhance the domestic farm sector and rural economy, it can also reduce global food miles and the externalisation of ecological costs and damage on sourcing regions.

[6] See A Welsh Food System for Future Generations: A report by the Sustainable Places Research Institute for WWF Cymru, Cardiff University.

[7] See the extensive analysis of the economic and labour productivity gains created with agro-ecological practices across European countries in : van der Ploeg, J,D et al (2019)The economic potential of agro-ecology: empirical evidence from Europe. Journal of Rural Studies, 71, 46-61.

[1] Terry Marsden is Emeritus Professor of Environmental Policy and Planning at Cardiff University, and is currently involved in longitudinal research on rural and farming matters in England and Wales.