Balancing the agricultural need

Chief Land Use Adviser Susan Twining examines how the current Covid-19 pandemic has highlighted risks to the food supply chain and why the Agriculture Bill is important.

The public health crisis has highlighted the potential fragility of our food system. Although the problems were more about demand than supply, markets have had to adapt to a higher retail demand as the food service closed down. 

But it is a good time to pause and consider what might have been and some of the other risks to the supply chain, such as international market disruption and how the UK might cope. 

We do need to start thinking through how resilient we might be in other extraordinary circumstances. For example, what can be done to increase consumption of British grown crops and livestock alongside support for the emerging direct marketing and local home delivery services that have been born out of Covid-19. The delay in the UK Food Strategy is understandable, but it should not be paused for long.

However, when the Covid-19 public health crisis is over, there will still be a climate emergency and a nature crisis that equally threaten the future of the planet and people who live here.

Producing crops and livestock for food and other markets must be done in an environmentally sustainable way; special habitats, landscape and heritage must be protected; and land use changed to support climate action.

The Agriculture Bill lays the groundwork for that to happen through payments for public goods that recognises the value of the way land is managed for the benefit of society. This is a more rational way to support farming and land use than income support through direct payments or through paying more at the farmgate (which is just wishful thinking). 

The Bill also goes beyond the payment for public goods and includes support for productivity improvements, incentives for high animal welfare, support for plant health, recognition on native livestock breeds and heritage crops, market interventions for disruptions, legislation to address fairness in the supply chain, and a duty to report on food security.

So, we should look at the food supply chain and address its weaknesses. But the Agriculture Bill is part of that solution, recognising the need to balance food, farming and the environment.