Planet friendly diets and farmers

Planet-friendly diets featuring mostly foods of plant origin and smaller amounts of better meat, dairy and eggs are often touted as a threat to our farmers. But is this true? Sofia Parente chews on the arguments.

Credit: Unsplash Christian Widell

The way our food is produced and sold to us is creating a third of greenhouse gas emissions globally and from the International Panel on Climate Change to the UK’s Committee on Climate Change, there are calls to reduce the consumption of the most climate-damaging foods. We don’t shy away from the need to shift diets towards more plants and better meat, but we believe this needs to happen in parallel with a transition to food and farming systems that simultaneously support the livelihoods of farmers and local economies. This is at the centre of our Food for the Planet campaign which aims to reduce the environmental impacts of food through local action. Our recent Sustainable Food Places (SFP) campaigns breakfast on planet-friendly diets and farmers started by looking into what ‘better’ livestock production looks like, the policy and financial instruments available for this transition, and major threats. We looked at practical examples from agroecological farmers and their stories of transition to systems that work with nature and not against it, and who work hard to connect with people and their local community, as well as experience from SFP network members in engaging with farmers. This blog reflects on the presentations and discussions at the meeting. To catch up with the recording of the meeting visit the SFP webinars page.


What is better meat and dairy?

‘Better’ means not only better for the environment, but better for multiple goals including animal welfare, environment, communities, health and wellbeing and better for economic equity and resilience. At the farm level, this means keeping animals in ways that enable them to express natural behaviours. This was illustrated by farmers Nikki Yoxall and Daniel Burdett at our meeting as well as many other livestock farmers all around the UK that are striving to make a living out of their farm as well as contributing to multiple environmental goals such as improving soil health, biodiversity, animal welfare and reducing greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.

In Nikki’s farm, in North-East Scotland, a small herd of Shetland and Galloway cattle graze all year around. This is possible because of winter focused grazing management, and because these breeds of cattle are  well adapted to the harsh Scottish winters where temperatures often drop below zero. In these conditions, a diverse landscape is essential to make this system financially viable and resilient. The resulting high nature value grazing systems ensure that grazing can happen all year around and agroforestry adds value across arrange of  priorities, from carbon sequestration to animal welfare and  biodiversity. It’s this complexity that discourages some farmers when confronted with questions around a single goal such as a reducing of GHG emissions.

The concept of agroecology is at the heart of this ‘better’ vision. A transition to agroecology offers an opportunity to drive positive change in the agri-food supply chain and give a voice to pioneers like Nikki and Dan who are leading the way in nature and climate friendly farming. Policies should ensure a diversity of farm types and sizes in the UK and deliver for climate, nature, jobs, livelihoods, new entrants, food security and affordability, public health, and many other factors. While the attention is presently on the Environmental Land Management schemes in England, we need a broader vision for the future, backed by public and private money, that moves us towards systems like organic, pasture-fed and agroforestry as well as social enterprises built on equity and local food, support for new entrants and investment in local supply chain infrastructure.

Lifting the barriers

What happens at the farm level is a direct result of policy and markets so it’s important that farmers get a fair price for their product so they are not forced to increase size or cut corners to balance their sheets. Lack of diversity in the supply chain is one of the barriers. The market is dominated by a small number of retailers that largely set the price for commodities like milk. That is why farmers like Daniel Burdett are constantly looking to diversify and add value to their product. He farms 480 cows in an organic system in the South-East of England. Grazing takes place from February to November and cows are housed for the remainder of the year and self-fed on silage. Alongside profit, diversity and simplicity drive his business. He found strategies to simplify his farm and use as few inputs as possible. By letting his cattle walk to the feed, for example, he is minimizing the use of machinery.

Lack of local infrastructure and routes to market is another huge barrier. Farmers like Nikki face difficult choices between sending their cattle further away for slaughter. We need more local abattoirs that operate to high animal welfare standards so that smaller and agroecological farmers can access local infrastructure and get a fairer price then from the larger abattoirs that are further distance away.

Another big threat looming, particularly over beef farmers, are free trade deals.  Many will be under increasing pressure from cheap imports from countries like Australia where beef cattle is raised in bare feed-lots and suffering transport times of up to 48 hours.

So much is in the balance right now as we approach the pivotal point in time when we need to stabilize the increase in global temperatures before irreversible changes to our climate take place. The impacts of climate change are not just happening in distant places but at home. In Dan’s farm in Sussex, eight months of draught resulted in less grass and silage which had to be met by buying expensive fed.    

Domestically, we are at a crossroad too. The number of farmers continues to decrease as farm sizes increase and is harder and harder for young farmers to access land and finance to enter the sector. Environmental Land Management schemes need a rethink to make them fit for purpose and support farmers that are combining productivity and environmental goals rather than creating a gulf between intensive farming and conservation. These two goals should not be mutually exclusive. We need a Food Bill that brings together standards for high quality food in procurement and fairness in supply chains. Internationally, emissions from agriculture should be included in Nationally Determined Contributions and food and farming should be at the forefront of COP27.

The role of local

At a local level, councils and food partnerships don’t often speak to local farmers. Long, complex supply chains result in few opportunities for consumers and farmers to come together. Decades of consolidation in the supply chain left us with fewer and fewer food companies controlling a growing share of the market. There are now nine supermarkets controlling 94.7% of the retail market in the UK. Nonetheless there’s a counter movement of players interested in alternatives to the sort of intensive agriculture that feeds just-in-time supply chains. Sustainable Food Places and their members are working with many other actors who believe that local food systems should be at the centre of levelling up. Investment in food production, processing and routes to local markets provides a unique opportunity to create local wealth and employment opportunities and thriving communities.

Increasingly, councils and food partnerships are interested in bringing the environmental and economic agendas together and that includes working more closely with local farmers and look for more routes to market for local sustainable food. For example, in the run up to COP26, Food4Fife, the food partnership for Fife, hosted a Fork2Farm dialogue involving the local council and several farmers. This was one of many dialogues that happened across the world aimed at bringing farmers and cities and places together starting from the premise that both care deeply about the future of our planet and climate change. In Fife, the dialogues started in August 2021 and continued every month until they culminated in several farmers attending COP26 and joining the global dialogue. They were facilitated by Nourish Scotland and were attended by farmers, NFU, Procurement and Economic development council staff members. As a result of these dialogues, two pilot projects were initiated. In the first pilot, Glen Pavilion Dunfermline, an important local events venue, will aim to provide local and seasonal food in the café and for all events. In the second project, four pilot school kitchens will provide 1,000 meals per day for 18 other primary schools with more local, climate friendly food. We eagerly await the results of these pilots and invite all food partnerships to adopt similar dialogues with local farmers and engage in the Food for the Planet campaign.

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