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A renewed social contract with UK farming to help secure a healthy environment for all

Marcus Nyman, Senior Policy Officer (Future Nature) at the RSPB outlines the needs of farmers, nature & climate for a successful agricultural transition period after launching the new IPPR report he co-authored titled ‘A Fair Transition for Farmers’.

May 2021

For the past year or so, the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR) has been convening the Environmental Justice Commission (EJC) – a cross-party, cross-sector initiative, examining how to deliver a fair transition to net zero and the recovery of nature in the UK. A key concern for the EJC is not only how to avoid exacerbating existing inequalities in the process of tackling the climate and ecological crises, but how to use such a transformation to also deal with a range socio-economic challenges, from health to transport to jobs.

A critical area for action is around our food and farming system and changes we need to see there. A fair transition in farming will look different to other sectors. Unlike industries such as oil and gas, which will have no place in the long-term future of clean economy, we cannot simply “do without” food and farming – and nor would we want to. Over the past year, agri-food sectors have risen to the challenge of the pandemic, kept food on our shelves and our plates, and shown just how “key” they are to the UK’s success. Farming is critical to three vital areas of national life – our food system, our land and landscapes, and our rural economies. It is a stretch to imagine these issues without farming at their centre and likewise to envision farming without these core components.

Today sees the launch of an EJC report looking at 'A Fair Transition for Farming', examining the conditions, policies and investments needed to see responsible farmers able to navigate the many changes and challenges they face. Farming faces not one transition but several: new environmental payment schemes, new post-Brexit trading arrangements, an ageing workforce and challenges accessing labour, and an increased role for technology, as well as facing up to the impacts of a changing climate and recovery from Covid. The report therefore proposes a “renewed social contract” for farming. As we change and increase our expectations of the farming sector to help deliver net zero and nature’s recovery, it is only right that we clearly articulate the long-term roles and responsibilities all will play – from farmers to government to business, and to the general public as both citizens and consumers.

Such a social contract will involve a clear vision for food and farming, as well as clear articulation of the ambition we expect farmers to meet. It also means setting out a roadmap over time so that farmers can understand the changing rules and expectations they must meet and plan for the long-term. Defra have made some welcome steps to define this pathway through their Agricultural Transition Plan (2020) but this needs both more detail and join-up across departments, such as International Trade, BEIS, and Treasury to provide the certainty land managers need to take action for nature and climate. New Environmental Land Management (ELM) schemes are one critical part of this equation but not the complete picture. The report suggests the need to work proactively in other areas:

  • A trusted regulatory floor, raising over time to meet the level of ambition needed to deliver environmental recovery and incorporating recommendations from the Stacey review
  • The right levels and type of support, advice and guidance, alongside new payment schemes to meet the needs of different farmers
  • A better understanding of who is farming - and where - to inform more strategic approaches to land-use across the UK
  • Enabling new entrants and approaches into the sector, including addressing problems of accessing land for and the providing opportunities for people from all backgrounds to farm
  • Supporting farmers into retirement, without having to break-up or sell-off farms
  • Providing better access to finance to cover capital costs of starting up or upgrading farming operations fit for a net zero and nature positive future
  • Investing in rural areas, such as transport and high-speed broadband, in order to support farm businesses in an increasingly digital and connected market
  • Considered approaches to introducing and promoting new technologies to farming, including assessing their social and economic impacts
  • Developing trading relationships that uphold and promote the UK’s high environmental standards and avoid exporting our environmental impact elsewhere
It is critical that the ambition Government has stated for the sector are maintained through scheme design and implementation. There is a clear need to involve farmers in these designs and ensure they are open and accessible to most farmers but environmental ambition, commensurate with challenges we face and the role farming needs to play, must be built in, including providing pathways to progress through the schemes over time. Without such measures, there is the danger that schemes serve to maintain the status quo and fail to deliver the change we need.

Setting farming on the right path is first and foremost a job for Government. Recent reports suggest it does not yet have a plan in place for farming to meet the UK’s carbon budgets (Wright, 2021), in a year of key international summits and at a time when we are in urgent need of action. If the UK is to rise to meet the ambition of being a global leader on the environment, a clear, long-term and ambitious plan is needed for farming – one that puts farmers at its centre and enables them also to deal with the many other challenges faced.

Marcus Nyman is Senior Policy Officer, Future Nature, at RSPB, and co-authored the IPPR report ‘A Fair Transition for Farmers’

The IPPR Environmental Justice Commission report 'A Fair Transition for Farming' can be accessed here:

To find out more about the EJC, please visit the website here:

Follow: @RSPBNews and @IPPR

The opinions expressed in this blog are the author's and not necessarily those of the wider Link membership.