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27 July, 2022updated 02 Aug 2022 12:12

What has caused the decline of British farming?

British farming was suffering a decline, then along came Brexit, Covid-19 and the war in Ukraine. Can it still thrive in such circumstances?

By Marina Leiva

Clive Bailye, a second-generation farmer based near Lichfield, Staffordshire, grew up watching his dad run his small dairy farm, “working seven days a week, 365 days a year and long hours”. This is probably why he had no interest in following a career in livestock farming. He went on to study at Harpenden University to gain a degree in agriculture, but even then he was not attracted to life on the farm and gave things a try in the City of London “making tea at a hedge fund, just to learn anything else”. His experience in the Square Mile eventually had him pining for life at the farm, and so he returned to the family business. 

Bailye’s father sold his dairy herd and handed the reins over to his son. From there, Bailye turned to arable farming and expanded the business, growing all combinable crops such as wheat, oilseed rape, barley, beans, peas, “all kinds of things that work for a combine harvester”. Now, he runs one of the largest UK combinable crop farms, contracting for other people as well and applying regenerative agriculture methods that he has learned over the past few decades. 

Lately, Bailye has witnessed how the public is increasingly interested in knowing where their food comes from, whereas in previous years most people “would not give a damn, really” as long as there was food on Tesco’s shelves and “it was cheap and plentiful”. This perception has seen the UK turn “a bit of a corner”, says Bailye. 

Although Bailye has spent decades striving to make his farm better and more sustainable, he has still found the time to found and run the Farming Forum, which started in 2012 as an attempt to connect with more farmers and learn about what they were doing to grow food more sustainably. Now, the site has become the “Mumsnet of UK agriculture”, jokes Bailye, with farmers there now discussing more than sustainability, and moving on to topics such as tractor models and cattle

However, the principal trend in farming over the past few decades has not necessarily been based around sustainability, but was instead focused on an "ever-increasing intensification, with the land and soil being pushed hard to maximise crops, without much thought to the impact of that on soil health, biodiversity, waterways, climate or any other environmental concerns”, says Tim Martin, founder of Farm Wilder, a “wildlife-friendly farm” near Bristol. 

“There has been an unshakeable belief in mainstream farming that technology and chemicals can allow us to overcome any obstacles and carry on increasing yields,” he continues. 

However, Martin points out that “in the past five years that approach has really hit the buffers, and has started to be challenged by an increasing number of farmers and scientists”.  

He adds: “It has become clear that yields have plateaued and that the damage caused by intensive farming on our soils is severe.”

It has also become clear that using artificial fertilisers and pesticides will damage the health of the soil, says Martin, “drastically reducing its ability to store both carbon and water, or even to avoid being blown or washed away, and repeated deep ploughing also damages soil and leaves it prone to erosion.

“Alarming reports have described how much topsoil has been lost – more than 85% of the UK’s topsoil has been lost since 1850, and in the 1990s one field in Sussex was recorded as losing 140 tonnes of topsoil per hectare per year. Clearly something had to change."  

To subsidise or not to subsidise? That is the question

Sustainability is a big issue, but many of the key problems being faced in British farming are blamed on the fact that the industry has, for a long time, been heavily subsidised. Is such criticism fair?

Following the Second World War, the 1947 Agriculture Act was introduced, which established guaranteed prices for most farm products and deficiency payments to make up the difference between the guaranteed price and the market price, which were negotiated on an annual basis between the Ministry of Agriculture and the National Farmers’ Union. This came to be known as the Farm Prices Review.

When the UK joined the European Economic Community (which was to become the EU) in 1973, it also joined its Common Agricultural Policy (CAP), which was based on an allocated price across member states for individual commodities. The price was maintained by intervention, with products being bought and stored when the price fell below a certain level, which resulted in storing surpluses. This led to the UK media being flooded with images of 'mountains' of grain and butter and 'lakes' of wine and milk. The CAP also used import tariffs to prevent cheap imports. 

Following its exit of the EU after the referendum in 2016, the UK is now moving on to a different system. Whereas the previous subsidies were given in relation to the amount of land owned (which tended to benefit landowners more than the farmers who rent their land), the new Environmental Land Management Scheme (ELMS) will give out payments on a basis of delivering environmental benefits through farming. 

The ELMS is based on the principle of “public money for public goods”, a phrase coined by former Environment Secretary Michael Gove.

Bailye believes the transition to the ELMS will be the biggest challenge for farmers in the short to medium term, and might potentially drive people out of business in farming, as they won't be able to be as dependent on subsidies as they might have been until now. 

Doing things to offset “mankind’s use of the planet” is something Bailye feels more comfortable with, rather than the CAP subsidies.

However, eligibility for the new ELMS is limited to farmers who manage five hectares of land or more, according to Rebecca Laughton, horticulture campaigns coordinator at the Landworkers’ Alliance, a grassroots union of farmers, foresters and land-based workers in the UK. It is part of a global movement representing 200 million small-scale farmers under the umbrella group La Via Campesina.

“Agroecological farmers [who tend to have smaller-sized farms] already use many of the techniques the devolved governments [in the UK] want to see implemented, such as planting herbal leys and nitrogen-fixing plants to improve soil quality and replace the need for chemical fertilisers, so it makes no sense to exclude them from these schemes,” she says.

“Agriculture is a devolved issue, and we continue to campaign for the inclusion of small farms in payment schemes in Wales, England and Scotland, and for recognition of the environmental and social goods they are already providing," she adds. The Landworkers’ Alliance is not present in Northern Ireland.

The ups and downs of Brexit for UK farming

Like Laughton, Farm Wilder’s Martin agrees that things are looking especially grim for small upland family farms, as “right now farmers don’t know what subsidies they will get and their finances are looking very precarious”.

The opportunity to ditch the CAP and start the ELMS is “a great opportunity to make our farming more sustainable”, he says, adding that if it has “sufficient ambition and funding it could make a massive difference”.

However, Martin highlights that it is very important that the UK refrains from doing trade deals that “allow cheaper food to be imported that has been produced to much worse standards than those our farmers have to abide by, undercutting our own farmers, who will find it even harder to get a good price for their produce – that is the real downside to Brexit as far as British farming is concerned”.

Vicki Hird, head of sustainable farming campaigns at Sustain, an alliance for better food and farming in the UK, sees things similarly in terms of Brexit and farming. 

“Brexit has shaken things up hugely for farming in a good way, in terms of having a new conversation about how we support farming as taxpayers, and [also the] payment for public goods has become a strong steer and will, eventually, deliver better farm outcomes for nature, for climate, for livelihoods,” she says. 

On the other hand, Hird is also wary of the disservice Brexit might do to the UK’s food system. “The bad sides have been extremely harmful in terms of lost EU markets, added paperwork at borders and potential deregulation leading to harm to the ecosystems on which we depend,” she adds.

“Crucially, new UK free trade agreements or trade deals could either flood us with cheaper produce possibly made to lower environmental, animal and human health standards, or lead us to weaken our regulations further, meaning more intensive, unsustainable production just to compete. The cheap food Brexit agenda is hugely harmful.”

The dangers of synthetic fertilisers

The problems besetting British farming can not all be blamed on excessive subsidies or Brexit, however. Another issue is the introduction – and subsequent abuse – of synthetic fertilisers that has wreaked havoc on soils. 

“It was like crack cocaine for crops”, says Bailye, talking about his father’s generation, who witnessed the boom in synthetic fertilisers, such as synthetic nitrogen, in the 1960s.

“I talked to my father – he is in his late eighties now – and he said: 'It just was so good and it made such a difference, and you couldn't farm without it because everyone was doing it',” Bailye explains, adding that because everyone was doing it, all farmers felt forced to use such methods so that they could compete.

Looking back to his father’s farming career, Bailye sees how synthetic nitrogen acted in the same way as drugs: the more you used it, the less of a hit you would get, “so you would need to use more and more to get the same boost from it”. 

“So we kind of turned our soils into junkies,” says Bailye, who adds that he does not blame his father’s generation of farmers, as they “didn't know any better” and “they were doing what they were told by the research, the experts; the commercial agenda behind it was all pushing them in that direction”.

Continuing to draw on the drug addition comparison, Bailye says that if you go “full-on cold turkey, the consequences are disastrous. You would go bust if you just stop doing it.” 

It is a difficult process, he explains, to wean soil off synthetic fertilisers, and all the money in agriculture “is behind telling us to carry on using their things, or use this new stuff instead”. 

“It is quite hard for a farmer to navigate a way out of that,” concludes Bailye. 

It is not just fertilisers. Pesticides have also played a negative role in UK farming, according to Simon Ward, an agricultural policy analyst. 

“Over the past ten years we have had increasing levels of resistance of weeds and disease and insects to particular pesticides,” he says. 

The main problem, according to Ward, is herbicides, as “you can farm without a fungicide and insecticide, you just accept lower yields or the occasional swarm of locusts to wipe it out”. In the case of herbicides, they build up and their levels keep increasing without being able to be controlled, explains Ward.

Overuse of herbicides also leads to resistance, and an increased presence of weeds such as black-grass have led farmers to alter their crop seasons. 

“We now plant our wheat later than we used to,” explains Ward. October is now the usual start to the wheat-planting season in the UK, whereas previously it was in September. This makes the farming much more prone to weather issues.

“Because you are planting later, there is a good chance it is going to rain, and you may never plant," says Ward. "That has increased the volatility of production in this country.”

Sowing the seeds of sustainable farming

Ward believes the problem with environmental management is that it is incredibly complex, and people don't fully understand this. This, he adds, makes finding a middle ground that works for both farmers and the environment a complicated issue.

“There is a danger that sustainably produced food is becoming unaffordable for many, just a luxury product, and that farmers who are doing the right thing will struggle to sell their produce," says Martin at Farm Wilder. "Clearly, the whole system needs to change so that all our food is sustainably produced, and everyone can access high-quality, healthy food that doesn’t damage the planet.”

On a more hopeful note, Martin says that the UK is “at the beginning of a sustainable or regenerative farming revolution [but] it remains to be seen how widespread or mainstream this becomes”.

“Where farmers are starting to farm with, rather than against nature, soils are becoming healthy again, adding organic matter every year and with vital stores of carbon," he adds. "Some wildlife is starting to recover, and there is a new appreciation of how important biodiversity is to farms – the more diverse they are the more resilient they are, financially and as the climate changes.”

For Bailye, it is clear that farmers are really on the front line of climate change. “We see the seasons changing suddenly, in ways that don't really show up in stats,” he says.

“If you talk to most farmers – and particularly to the older generation – they all unanimously agree that when it rains, the rainy periods stick for longer, the hot and droughty periods stick more.”

Even if the averages are similar over the years, that is not the full story, he says, as the extremes are more pronounced. 

Bailye believes the bad press that farmers sometimes get – based around the use of chemicals, over-farming or unethical procedures – is unfair, as they are facing the consequences of climate change first-hand. Sometimes portrayed as “bad guys that want to tear up the countryside”, he says that nothing could be further from the truth: “Why would anybody who felt like that want to be involved in an occupation that was surrounded by nature, or animals?”

The vast majority of farmers are passionate about the environment, says Bailye, but “they have been squeezed down to the roots” to the point that they have had no choice but to be more efficient to survive, which may mean the use of more synthetic products or a lowering of standards when it comes to animal welfare. 

“I don’t think any of them want to do that,” says Bailye, who points to the economic pressure that British farmers are under. “To be green, first of all, your business has to be in the black, doesn’t it?” he adds.

Pricing is a big obstacle for UK farming

Being “in the black” has increasingly been a struggle for UK farmers, and Hird explains that “the majority of UK farming has been on a difficult trajectory”. Even on larger farms, farmers have to sell more for less and more uniform produce, “being squeezed always by hard contracts and an ever smaller share of the food pound”.

“This has meant many going out of business, the rest having to farm intensively to stay in business," she adds. "That has led to fewer jobs and livelihoods, a loss of landscape and features, rural cohesion lost and an ever worsening state of nature.”

Martin sees pricing as the biggest challenge for farmers and says that it is now even more of an issue with the cost of living crisis.  

“At the moment, food from intensive farms is effectively subsidised because it doesn’t reflect the environmental damage it causes – we as taxpayers have to foot the bill for that," he says. "Applying 'the polluter pays principle' would make sense, but it would be very difficult politically, especially at the moment.

“We have the crazy system where low prices drive people to only buy the most environmentally damaging food, encouraging farmers to keep working unsustainably.”

The UK’s self-sufficiency struggles

Food self-sufficiency has been declining in the UK since the 1990s and and this has become a topic of particular interest in the years since the Brexit referendum, and then the Covid-19 pandemic, both of which shone a light on the importance of smooth supply chains to UK consumers.

The production-to-supply ratio of food in the UK has been declining since a peak in the mid-1980s, both for all food and indigenous type food (that which can be commercially grown domestically in the UK).

In 2020, the production-to-supply ratio for all foods was 60%, whereas in 1989 it stood at 75%. For indigenous type food, the figures are 87% in 1989 and 74% in 2020.

However, Ward points out that while this is true – food self-sufficiency has been declining – the UK is now “far more self-sufficient than it was during the First World War or even the Second World War”. 

He adds that while the UK should be striving to become more self-sufficient, this is more of an objective for farmers than it is for the government. Also, he points out that even if the UK achieved complete self-sufficiency, this would not include popular produce such as avocados or bananas. 

Ward explains that, for example, during food supply chain disruptions caused by the Covid-19 pandemic, the UK had no problem with grains, “the problem was avocados and bananas disappeared. Self-sufficiency wasn't going to solve that problem.”

A regeneration of woods and pastures?

While food self-sufficiency in the UK seems some way off, and farming as a whole in the country is facing myriad challenges, Bailye also points out that the industry has not experienced the levels of disruption seen elsewhere. 

“Agriculture has not been disrupted for a long time," he says. "It pretty much hasn't changed throughout my life, and probably not most of my father's lifetime either. So you are talking of at least 60–70 years of it being fairly static.

“It may look like it is changing because there is always a new model, a cargo tractor or a seed variety that is better than the other one, but it is just basically more variations of the same. No one has fundamentally hit it and gone: 'right, let's just completely change the way people buy, the way people sell, the way things are growing'.”

So would farming benefit from disruption, with sustainability probably being at the centre of any such efforts? Hird says that sustainability is creating “a huge era of pressure” due to the ongoing effects of the Covid-19 pandemic, the effect on food security of the invasion of Ukraine and climate change all having a huge impact. 

Meanwhile, the future, even in the short term, seems unclear for many British farmers. William Oliver, who runs a family farm in Leicestershire, has been facing increasing costs due to the war in Ukraine. He says that “the current climate is uncertain and volatile”, which is why his family has worked over the years to make the business resilient, with diversification being essential through introducing the likes of its 'glamping' business.

Oliver explains that simple things such as ordering parts and materials for machinery have “become a challenge and input prices are huge”. 

Red diesel (used for off-road vehicles such as tractors) prices have gone from 50p to 111p per litre, says Oliver, while fertiliser came at a cost of £276 last year but this year was bought for £635.

“These price increases were not predicted of course, and the production process is so slow," says Oliver. "So the 2023 crop will cost so much more to grow when planted this autumn. We are having to fix prices now for much-needed resources, but what will we be selling that crop for? Who knows?”

Like Oliver, many farmers are facing uncertainty due to the effects of the war in Ukraine, the consequences of Brexit and the lasting effects of the Covid-19 pandemic. The next few years will likely be significant for UK farming, but hopefully they will bring prosperity to farmers and the environment alike.

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