Is Defra missing the chance to integrate food, the environment and farmer livelihoods?

Despite the title ‘Health and Harmony: the future for food, farming and the environment in a Green Brexit’ Defra’s draft agricultural policy is missing just that – food and farming for the environment. Unfortunately, the omission of food in the agricultural policy presents a risk that Britain’s farmland will become further divided between environmental conservation and unsustainable intensive farming. This is a problem for Britain’s public health, rural economies and also for its environment. 

This consultation is extremely important as it is the most significant opportunity to shape the UKs agriculture policy since joining the EU. As it stands, the UK is increasingly dependent on imports for food, particularly in the case of vegetables and fruits. The prices of these imports are likely to increase when Brexit happens. This is problematic given high and increasing rates of food poverty, as well as non-communicable diseases which can be linked to low intakes of vegetables and fruits. An omission of food from the agricultural policy is likely to exacerbate these problems. However, Defra now has an opportunity to mitigate this through supporting food production that also safeguards and even enhances our environment.   

How excluding food will exacerbate our farming problems

By not including a focus on food and only honing in on certain environmental practices, the policy could encourage some land managers to focus on ecologies and landscapes (e.g. meadows and hedgerows) without necessarily producing much food. We already see this to some extent in ‘less favoured’ agricultural areas (e.g. the uplands): land is increasingly geared towards conservation and limited food is produced, despite evidence that these areas can produce a range of vegetables, fruits, nuts, eggs and other animal products. 

At the same time, other large farm businesses would be incentivised to consolidate and intensify to better compete in the global commodity market, at the expense of the environment. We already see this in lowland areas where sugarbeet, rapeseed, wheat and barley are produced in large scale monocultures, using high amounts of pesticides (upwards of 20 different pesticides per field in Sussex), inorganic fertilisers (i.e. nitrates which then need to be removed from the water at great public expense), and with practices that lead to soil erosion (i.e. lack of cover crops, large scale ploughing) which costs England and Wales an estimated £1.2 billion per year.

In both types of farming, only a minority of food produced is consumed locally. The majority is either exported or sent elsewhere in the UK. These long supply chains mean higher costs for consumers and lower prices for farmers, in addition to high food miles. If this dichotomy between conservation and intensive food production is worsened, it is likely that Britain would become increasingly dependent on food imports, which could mean that food prices increase for British consumers.   

Both types of farming tend to favour farmland consolidation. With access to land one of the top barriers for new entrants, this would make it even more difficult for people to enter the profession, thus exacerbating the already rapidly declining farmer population and therefore rural economies. 

But there is a third way – it is possible to both enrich ecosystems (e.g. build soil, enhance biodiversity) as well as produce diverse and healthy foods for consumption by people in Britain. And support from Defra can also ensure that this food is accessible by everyone in Britain.   

How can Defra integrate food, environment and livelihoods?

There are a number of simple and straightforward ways in which Defra can better support both public health and ecological outcomes:

  • Support short, local and targeted supply chain initiatives: Shorter food supply chains means fewer intermediaries between producers and consumers.  It also can mean fewer food miles, less packaging, and more freshness, so that there is less food waste. Tamar Grow Local, a Community Interest Company in Plymouth is a good example. They are able to keep prices for consumers the same or even decrease them while the prices received by farmers are higher than if they were to sell into wholesale markets. Defra could provide support for more local food initiatives across the UK that meet the needs of both producers and consumers.
  • Support small- and medium-sized farms: Different sized farms have different needs. Defra could help enable small- and medium-sized farms to thrive by offering smaller capital grants.  Currently the lower limit is £45k but some farms may only need about £5k for polytunnels for example. Another option is to provide support for small- and medium-sized farms to organise into producer groups for collective use of equipment or for collective selling which would help public procurement initiatives to truly source locally.
  • Support new entrants: England could learn a lot from Scotland about how to support new entrants to farming. The Health and Harmony paper primarily refers to technology as a way to attract new entrants. This might appeal to some young people, but the 800+ participants of the Oxford Real Farming Conference indicate that most young people are attracted to farming because of the lifestyle and an affinity to farm ecologies, not a love of high tech machinery. 
  • Label and tax harmful agrichemical inputs: The current policy fails to respond to agrichemical use (e.g. pesticides, herbicides, fungicides, etc.), yet this is a leading cause of environmental degradation from farming. Incentives for reducing agrichemical use could include taxation as well as better labelling of foods to indicate which agrichemicals have been used to produce them so that consumers have more awareness.
  • Encourage farm diversity: The current policy only refers to diversity in terms of field margins (e.g. hedgerows, wildflower boundaries) rather than within fields themselves. Defra could explicitly support farmers who have high farm diversity, so those who cultivate multiple varieties and types of crops (e.g. agroforestry).   
  • Reward good soil management: The Health and Harmony policy does mention of soil health, which is encouraging. Defra can provide incentives for farms that leave the soil on their whole farms (not just the edges) in a better state, which could be measured in terms of building organic matter, microbiology and minerals and/or through the use of recommended practices such as the use of cover crops, appropriate cropping patterns (reducing maize cultivation and using rotations for example) and reduced agrichemical usage (as this affects microbiota). 

A positive agricultural policy

Defra’s Health and Harmony paper represents the most significant opportunity since the joining of the EU to reshape the UK’s food and farming systems. Regardless of how you feel about Brexit, it would not only be a serious missed opportunity, but also potentially leave the country locked into environmentally degenerative farming which does not meet the needs of the population for access to healthy food.  What we need is a farming policy that integrates, rather than separates, our food and our ecologies. 

Defra is receiving comments on its Health and Harmony paper through an online consultation which closes on the 8th of May.  You can submit your views via an online survey or email

Elise Wach is a Researcher at Institute of Development Studies and Centre for Agroecology, Water and Resilience, and a member of the Land Workers Alliance.