Part 2 of the National Food Strategy: Making the best use of UK farmland

In this third instalment of our mini-series on Part 2 of the National Food Strategy, we consider Henry Dimbleby’s recommendations for the transition to sustainable farmland with a view to achieving the Government’s target of ‘net zero’ emissions by 2050

17 March 2022

Mini-series: introduction

As discussed in our first and second articles (‘Breaking the Junk Food Cycle’ and ‘Reducing diet-related inequality’), Part 2 of the National Food Strategy identifies four strategic objectives that are recommended for adoption by the UK Government as part of its new food and farming strategy. These are:

Objective 1: Escape the junk food cycle to protect the NHS.

Objective 2: Reduce diet-related inequality.

Objective 3: Make the best use of our land.

Objective 4:Create a long-term shift in our food culture.

In this article, we consider the NFS’s recommendations on how the majority of UK farmland should be managed for maximum food production and environmental benefit. We will consider the response from key stakeholders within the food and farming sector, and what the Government’s approach might be in their subsequent White Paper.

Objective 3: Make the best use of our land

The UK has made a legal commitment to reach ‘net zero’ emissions by 2050, which will require a huge shift in all aspects of the country’s food system - currently, agriculture, food production, distribution and retail combined release more greenhouse gases than any other sector excluding energy. In the UK, the food system accounts for approximately 20 per cent to 30 per cent of domestic emissions.

The NFS notes that the main cause of this is the release of two potent greenhouse gases, methane and nitrous oxide, from agriculture. It sets out three recommendations on how the food production industry, in particular farming, should be adapted to create a more sustainable process whilst still providing support for farmers and being productive in supplying food.

What does the NFS recommend to make the best use of our land?

Recommendation 1: Guarantee the budget for agricultural payments until at least 2029 to help farmers transition to more sustainable land use.

Following Brexit, the Government has maintained agricultural subsidies at the same levels as under the EU Common Agricultural Policy. These subsidies will gradually be replaced by payments under the new Environmental Land Management scheme (‘ELMs’). Under the new ELMs, farmers will only receive payment for activities that contribute to the ‘common good’ such as water management projects and soil improvement – not simply for owning agricultural land. ELMs is being introduced between now and 2027. However, the current subsidy is only guaranteed until the end of 2024. The NFS recommends that: (i) the current level of agricultural subsidy is guaranteed until 2029, (ii) the ELMs payments are sufficiently generous to encourage a move from conventional farming to sustainable practices, and (iii) tenant farmers and farm owners have equal access to ELMs.

Recommendation 2: Create a Rural Land Use Framework based on the ‘three compartment model’.

The ‘three compartment model’ suggests that national farm land should be managed in the following ways for maximum food production and environmental benefit:

  1. make a third of farm land as productive as possible in order to free up other land for environmental projects (‘land sparing’);
  2. consciously ‘share’ a third of national farm land with nature by cultivating traditional, lower-yield farmland – for example, small plots divided by trees and hedgerows, cultivating many different types of produce, and rotating crops and livestock for soil health (‘land sharing’); and
  3. assign a third of national farmland to conventional high-yield farming.

The NFS recommends the creation of a nationwide Rural Land Use Framework setting out which areas of land would be best suited to the each aspect of the three compartment model. This Framework would inform payments and regulations designed to incentivise farmers to move into more sustainable practices. It would be supported by a National Rural Land Map containing a detailed assessment of the uses to which any given area of land would be best suited.

Recommendation 3: Define minimum standards for trade, and a mechanism for protecting them.

In order to protect the UK’s comparatively high environmental protection, animal welfare and food standards, the NFS urgently recommends that the Government draws up a list of core minimum standards that it will defend in any future trade deals. It recommends that these should cover, among other things, animal welfare, environment and health protection, and carbon emissions. It notes that, without this core standard, any trade deals with countries that have lower animal welfare and environmental standards than our own (for example, Australia and Brazil) risks undercutting the UK’s farming sector.

What has the response been?

As anticipated, there has been a broadly positive response to the first recommendation in respect of the budget for agricultural payments and the assisted transition from conventional to sustainable farming practices. Chief executive of the Soil Associate, Helen Browning, said ‘Many farmers are up for the challenge, but will need these recommendations to be implemented to make this possible’. This echoes the general feeling in the farming industry that farmers are amenable to a move to sustainable practices, but will require financial support and more definitive guidance from the Government to do so.

The Food Farming and Countryside Commission has commended the strategic nature of a Rural Land Use Framework. However, it has questioned the risk of potentially arbitrary classification based on the three-compartment model. In a conversation piece, Dr Alison Caffyn noted that the high-level mapping approach risks suggesting that one patch of land is best used for one purpose, either nature and farming. She notes that, in reality “developments can incorporate green spaces and services, agroforestry can include agriculture, horticulture, nature and perhaps education. There are likely to be multiple win-wins that can be identified by the landowner and local community – and that need to be acknowledged and recorded for policies be truly joined-up and avoid the unintended consequences of previous generations.” Dr Caffyn also notes the key importance of identifying appropriate incentives for farmers and landowners. 

Whilst the third recommendation to define minimum core standards for trade has been well received by the food and farming industry, the Government appears to be less enthusiastic. In October 2021, when asked by the International Trade Committee whether the Government is likely to accept this recommendation, the Minister of State at DEFRA responded simply ‘no’ on the basis that the minimum standards for food safety are already set out in legislation. It seems that the Government instead proposes to rely on the tools already available to it (such as food labelling laws) to maintain environmental, animal welfare and food standards. This is likely to be an unsettling approach for the farming industry in the UK.

Next steps

The Government was required to provide its formal response to the NFS via a White Paper by the end of January 2022, however, this has not yet been issued.

Summary

As expected, there has been a very positive response to the recommendation for agricultural payments to be guaranteed until 2029. If accepted by the Government, this would be a comfort to the farming industry in this transitional time. The response to the introduction of the Rural Land Use Framework has naturally been mixed – most likely because it entails a relatively radical approach and will require careful implementation to reflect the nuanced and varied nature of the UK’s farming industry. In the meantime, the Government’s indication that it will not adopt a list of minimum core standards in future trade deals is likely to be disappointing to many in the food and farming industry.

Key contact

Sian Edmunds

Sian Edmunds Partner

  • Food and Drink
  • Partnership Disputes
  • Private Wealth Disputes

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