How does UK Food Strategy boost food security?

A new UK Government Food Strategy confirms the direction of travel towards a net zero food and farming system.

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By Matt Williams

@mattadamw

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A new UK Government Food Strategy confirms the direction of travel towards a net zero food and farming system. Incentives will be made available for farmers to store more carbon and cut their emissions, and funding for innovation and low-carbon technology.

The Government’s new Food Strategy released in June 2022 is the first plan for the country’s food system for decades.

Food system pressures

It was published at a time of acute pressures on the food system, including a war in Ukraine, normally one of the world’s largest exporters of wheat and other crops, the weaponisation of food by President Putin (who has closed a tighter fist over the country, and Russian exports of wheat, to tamper with global food prices and availability) rises in the costs of oil and gas (used for glasshouses and tractors) and of chemical fertilisers made from fossil fuels, extreme weather events impacting harvests, and families and consumers feeling the pinch from rocketing food prices.

Gas price rise creates additional costs for farmers

Analysis by ECIU showed that in 2021 farmers may have paid an extra £160 million for fertilisers due to the rising cost of natural gas, a raw ingredient used to make fertilisers. If the cost had stuck as high as it reached in March 2022 for 12 months, the extra bill could have been up to £760 million.

Why net zero means food security

But the Government has seen through this buffeting external context, and stuck to its guns, remembering that in the long-term achieving net zero will increase food security.

Food security means having enough food (ideally at affordable prices and of nutritious and environmental quality). It can be improved by, but is not the same as, food sovereignty, which means growing a bigger proportion of food at home. The UK is especially reliant on imports for fruit and vegetables, for example, an area the Strategy picks up on.

But growing all our food in the UK may not be sensible either - the more eggs we have in one basket, so to speak, the more vulnerable our food supplies are to a single event, like heatwaves and storms.

How will new strategy achieve a net zero farming system?

One of the main ways the Government is seeking to achieve net zero from food production is through the shift to a new farming system. This change is the biggest for the farming system in generations. In England, farmers will no longer be paid based on the size of their farm (a system that saw 50% of the budget go to the largest 10% largest farms) but instead for helping to achieve net zero while producing food.

Farming is exposed to the impacts of climate change, so cutting carbon is common sense to reduce the climate change that destabilises growing conditions and harms crops. Agriculture is responsible for 10% of the UK’s greenhouse gas emissions and, unlike other sectors hasn’t managed to cut them in the last decade, while the British countryside, perhaps surprisingly, releases more emissions than it absorbs.

Three main components of the new system

The new farming system (termed Environmental Land Management) will have three components:

  1. measures farmers can take on farm, like ploughing more lightly or planting special crops that restore nutrients and carbon to soils without using chemicals (the Sustainable Farming Incentive)
  2. restoring nature on the farm, like hedges and ponds that can store carbon (Local Nature Recovery)
  3. working with other farmers to restore large areas for nature, like peatlands and forests, that can soak up vast amounts of carbon (Landscape Recovery)

The Government’s plan is that when the new system is fully in place, by 2028, the overall budget will be split between these three components - a total budget of around £2.1 billion per year, £700 million for each part.

No reversal of this commitment on land restoration

There was concern in a leaked draft of the Food Strategy that the Government had reversed this and was planning to scrap the third component, the one that could store most carbon. Instead there were suggestions they would instead use a much smaller pot of money - the Nature for Climate Fund which is around £150 million per year and doesn’t exist after 2024.

But the final and official Food Strategy confirms what was the plan all along: that Government will split the money between all three of these components, adjusting as needed to farmers’ demand but still achieving net zero goals.

However, some farming groups may remain concerned that the Strategy continues a direction of travel towards new trade deals with little indication that these will offer complete protection against imports of foods and commodities with lower environmental standards and higher emissions.

Demand from farmers for shift to net zero

The evidence so far suggests demand is healthy - the first £50 million of Landscape Recovery funding made available has received 51 bids, many from farmers.

The new Strategy goes further in supporting net zero farming:

  • It will put £270 million into farming innovation and technology;
  • It will support the development of more glasshouses to grow fruit and vegetables, which can use waste heat or renewable technologies instead of natural gas.

This is far from a reversal or u-turn. The Food Strategy confirms the direction of travel towards a farming and food system that is cutting emissions and playing its part in net zero.