Tractor farmer farming countryside

The report called for an ‘ambitious 10-year transition plan to switch to sustainable agro-ecological farming by 2030’

The UK faces further climate breakdown and diet-related ill health unless it completely transitions to a sustainable and healthy food system by 2030, a study has warned.

Further ‘deforestation, loss of wildlife, soil degradation, widespread pollution and rocketing ill health’ were serious risks without urgent action, warned the RSA Food, Farming & Countryside Commission’s new report, Our Future in the Land, published today.

Instead of being the sector that ‘nourished people and the land’, the current food and farming system and its emphasis on cheap, mass-produced food had ‘damaged and depleted our precious and finite resources’, said the RSA report. It has been backed by environment secretary Michael Gove and a cross-party group of MPs.

Echoing warnings by the Eat-Lancet Commission in January and the recent bout of Extinction Rebellion protests around the world, it called for a drastic change in global diets, and proposed an ambitious 10-year transition plan to switch to sustainable agro-ecological farming by 2030.

This could be achieved by a shift away from intensive farming to organic systems alongside a bigger emphasis on pasture-fed livestock, growing more fruit & veg, nuts and pulses.

But it would also need a commitment from government to ‘stop delays on policy and trade decisions’. It would also need to commit to the essential elements of a transition plan by January 2020, the report warned. 

A National Agro-ecology Development Bank should also be launched to bring together long-term investors to fund farmers to transition, it suggested, while a National Nature Service should be introduced to give opportunities to young people to work in the countryside.

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‘Global farming and food businesses argue that they have improved global health and prosperity by making more food available, more cheaply, in more places than ever before,’ the report said.

‘But the evidence is now clear this strategy has come at too high a price. The food system has become geared towards selling cheap, ultra-processed convenience food at the lowest prices, with serious implications for people’s health and wellbeing.’

Brexit brought a “once-in-50-years opportunity to change our food and farming system,” said commission chair Ian Cheshire. “But we need to act now: whatever happens next, the climate emergency makes urgent, radical action on the environment essential.”

The report raised issues that were “hugely important for changing the way we produce food in this country when we are outside of the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy”, added Michael Gove.

“We know that it is in the interests of farmers and landowners to move to a more sustainable model, which is why our Agriculture Bill sets out a new framework that will reward them for the work they do to protect and enhance the environment,” he said. “The recently launched Food Review, led by Henry Dimbleby, will also look afresh at our food system to ensure everyone has access to high-quality and healthy British food.” 

However, the NFU’s vice president Stuart Roberts cautioned it was important policy makers recognised the difference between the way food is produced in Britain - “with the animal welfare and environmental standards that goes with British farming” - compared to food and environmental standards delivered elsewhere.

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It comes as the Eating Better alliance, which is made up of more than 60 NGOs and food industry bodies, this week launched a roadmap designed to achieve a 50% drop in meat and dairy consumption in the UK by 2030, and for a transition to ‘better’ meat and dairy as standard.

The alliance has identified 24 actions targeted at government, food service and retail, food producers and investors to achieve the goal, including more emphasis on plant-based diets and the creation of higher quality meat sourcing policies.

It said its approach was designeed to “support people to make good food decisions”, while “not telling people what they can and can’t eat”.