A new era for farming and the environment: the challenges, opportunities and triumphs
British farming has entered a new era. The effects of Brexit with new trade deals and changes to support payments, coupled with the challenges of the Covid-19 pandemic and the ongoing effects of the climate crisis have caused a seismic shift in farming. This is farming’s ‘time’. Now is the opportunity for us to demonstrate how we are protecting and enhancing nature and biodiversity, while producing safe, nutritious food. In 2021, we spoke to the late Caroline Drummond MBE, Chief Executive of LEAF (Linking Environment And Farming), for her views on these developments and what they meant for farmers.
“The debate is no longer about whether we should be farming more sustainably, but how we are going to make these transformations happen and how fast,” said Caroline. “The UK is a world leader in the production of safe and nutritious food with some of the highest animal welfare and environmental standards in the world. Our industry is pushing forward the innovations and technologies to tackle issues around carbon sequestration, supporting and enhancing biodiversity and improving public access.”
“The political scene is changing,” explained Caroline. “We have moved a long way from the post-war era of maximising production. Our ‘ask’ of farmers is now about balancing multiple requirements, from producing safe, quality food and fibre to carbon capture, enhanced biodiversity alongside energy conservation through to clean air, healthy soil and water.”
Sustainable farming across the board
There are encouraging opportunities ahead for farmers who are committed to more sustainable, nature-based farming, Caroline believed. Indeed, there are thousands of examples of farmers working sustainably already, managing livestock pastures to absorb carbon, producing renewable energy, enhancing soil organic matter, boosting biodiversity and farming smarter to reduce emissions. “The challenge is effectively demonstrating all the benefits that the sector delivers – for our climate, nature, economy and society.”
“There are positive signals from UK Government that they are committed to working with farmers and other stakeholders to create an approach delivering food security in nature-friendly, regenerative and agroecological ways,” continued Caroline. “The new Environmental Land Management Schemes (ELMS), and recommendations set out in the new National Food Strategy, are centred around driving forward more sustainable farming practices. They promote the creation of habitats for nature recovery and support a range of ecosystem services to help us achieve the goals of the Government’s 25 year Environment Plan and its commitment to reaching net zero emissions by 2050.”
“Inevitably, the carbon agenda will act as a ‘golden thread’ throughout any future policy, but it should not be seen as a one-dimensional issue. Delivering more climate-positive farming which supports food security and reduces waste and farm inputs requires the right policies to support farmers in developing new skills, harnessing innovative technologies, driving knowledge transfer and investing in new regenerative approaches,” she added.
This has to start at a grass roots level, firmly rooted in what is practical out in the field to equip farmers with the right management tools, resources and practical on-farming training to make the transitions Caroline suggested. Robust, science-based research that can be applied on farm is another important driver of change. LEAF’s Network of Demonstration Farmers and Innovation Centres leads the way in generating sustainable farming knowledge and uptake, putting science into practice.
“Consumer priorities are also changing with a greater focus on the link between what we eat and its environmental impacts,” explained Caroline. “We see these shifting priorities reflected in the increasing uptake of LEAF Marque produce, demonstrating sustainable environmental management, by retailers, processors, food brands and on-farm initiatives. Added to this, our education and public engagement is focused on building deeper and richer connections between farming and the general public, feeding into the consumer demand for more sustainably produced food.”
Challenges and opportunities ahead for UK farmers
Luckily, farmers are not starting from scratch. There are many organisations supporting them to become more sustainable, with LEAF pioneering and promoting Integrated Farm Management for the last 30 years. It’s an approach centred on the farm’s economic viability, as well as environmental considerations and societal issues, adding value to the farmer at all levels. LEAF’s commitment to more integrated, regenerative, agroecological farming systems is helping to drive a more ‘circular’ approach, increasing productivity and profitability while also protecting valuable natural resources.
“Farmers are uniquely placed to benefit from a greater focus on the environment,” Caroline concluded. “Without a doubt, we face enormous challenges over the next 5 to 10 years but they come with exciting opportunities. As the sector navigates a post-Brexit future, farmers are looking for ways to strengthen their markets, demonstrate their environmental credentials and build public trust. What is clear is that farmers who plan and build their businesses around sustainable, nature-based approaches will emerge stronger and more resilient.”
Find out more about LEAF at www.leafuk.org
About Caroline Drummond MBE
Caroline was Chief Executive of LEAF (Linking Environment and Farming) for 30 years. Her work was dedicated to securing more sustainable farming practices and addressing climate change through the regenerative, nature-based solutions of Integrated Farm Management (IFM). Caroline was actively involved in many industry partnerships and initiatives, including the Government’s Trade and Agriculture Commission.
Caroline was awarded an MBE for services to sustainable agriculture in 2009. She also held an honorary doctorate from Harper Adams University, an honorary fellowship from the Royal Agricultural University and is a Nuffield Scholar. Other awards included a Farmers Weekly Lifetime Achievement Award and a Women Economic Forum’s Women of the Decade award for sustainable farming.
Farmers are currently seeing the biggest changes in agriculture for more than 50 years. As a mutual insurer, we’ve stood by South West farmers since 1903 and through our Future Farming Programme, we are helping our Members and the wider farming community navigate the changes ahead in this transformative time.Future Farming Programme