Agriculture in the UK is tied to complex and demanding supply chains. For British farmers, these feel like literal chains, pressuring them into practices which harm the environment.
In 2017, an independent survey revealed that farmers wanted to tell policy makers 'there is another way' – but they felt they didn’t have a voice. As a result, farmers across the UK joined together in January 2018 to form the Nature Friendly Farming Network (NFFN).
We are delighted to announce that NFFN has joined the Eating Better alliance. We spoke to Martin Lines, its UK Chair, and Tony Davies, its Wales Chair, to find out more about NFFN and what it will bring to the alliance
Martin has an arable farm in South Cambridgeshire, growing crops on 165 hectares of heavy clay soil. By using sustainable methods, he has seen pollinators and beneficials return to the fields, ending the need for insecticides.
'Martin, what does NFFN stand for and why has it joined Eating Better?'
'There are a lot of good farmers out there, but their voice gets drowned out. We’ve been listening to what Eating Better has been saying and it aligns with what we want to say. We’re looking to extend our voice.'
'I believe in supporting the tapestry of wildlife, not just on my side, but across the landscape with my neighbours. NFFN has a diverse membership of 650 farmers, ranging from 1.5 acre smallholdings, up to large estates of thousands of hectares. It’s about trying to deliver that joined-up practical approach. We’re not afraid of having those difficult conversations.'
Under pressure from the supply chain
NFFN’s message reveals that farmers are more in step with the public than many might think, and encouragingly, the 2016 British Social Attitudes survey showed that consumers trust farmers almost twice as much as other major actors in the supply chain (supermarkets, government and food manufacturers).
While the public and farmers may be seeing the need for a change, Martin says the pressure to supply demand is huge:
'It’s the supplier doing ‘2 for 1’ offers and pushing prices down. Farmers are great at producing more from less, but this leads to cutting benefits out of the operations. It can only be done for so long. The system hasn’t helped farmers to be sustainable. We need a supply chain that promotes and rewards best practice. I know farmers who are encouraged to produce 110-120% of a contract just in case they fall short, because the penalties are so large. So, they produce more and plough it back in to the ground if they don’t harvest it.'
Tony Davies is a livestock farmer, raising sheep in the mountains of Mid Wales. He has a passion for sustainable farming and sees himself as a steward of the landscape.
'Tony, you’re a livestock farmer. Why does the principle of less and better meat work for you?'
'Under the old headage payments, which ended in 2005, we were financially encouraged to keep more sheep than the farm could sustainably feed. This created a necessity for animal medicines and antibiotics, fertilisers to increase grass growth and cereals to feed the extra animals. Using fertilisers increased costs and damaged traditional hay meadows creating a monoculture of ryegrass-dominated swards. As well as increasing costs, buying in cereals meant that other land (which could grow crops for humans) was being used to feed our sheep in the mountains.'
'I am a business-minded farmer, but these practices never sat right with me. I reduced numbers of sheep by 60% to a level that balances with the natural grass growth of the farm. With no fertiliser and a very small feed bill our costs have plummeted and the business is more profitable. Less meat is produced but the pasture fed animals produce meat which is healthier for the consumers. We have also seen a huge increase in biodiversity'
We are excited to begin working with NFFN. The evidence they can provide will help bring to light the groundswell of support among farmers for a new way forward. We will do our best to ensure farmers have a place at the heart of the debate with policy makers and the public.
This was article was guest written by Daniel Knag for Eating Better.