The Future of Food

Thu, 29/06/2023 - 11:12am

It came as a surprise to be invited to sit on an advisory group to the UK’s Climate Change Committee. I was asked to take part as a representative of small food businesses in Scotland. I wondered, ‘had everyone else declined?’ While I felt we did have something to contribute, this was well outside my comfort zone.

A quick check of the other members of the group highlighted the fact that they were all professionals heading up net zero/sustainability departments of national and global organisations. This was their full-time job and here I was, a farmer, being added into a high-powered melting pot.

What I also noticed was a lack of a rural/land use voice and that the ambition for the contribution from agriculture and land use to the transition to net zero was, to put it mildly, pretty modest.

As much out of curiosity as anything, I signed up and late November 2022 found us in London, me with a 2-hour initial meeting with the Climate Change Advisory Group and Wilma with a list of cheese customers to visit.

The meeting was about introducing ourselves, setting the scene and outlining the expectations of the Climate Change Committee from the group. It quickly became apparent at this first meeting that I would struggle to get a word in. These were people whose career it is to talk passionately about their various businesses and what they were going to do to transition to net zero. Apart from introducing myself, I just sat and listened. Was this a complete waste of time? It began to feel like it.

A second meeting was arranged for mid-January, but this would be online. Well, my online performance is even poorer than when in person, so I made my excuses, awaited the minutes and fed in my comments retrospectively.

A third meeting, in person, was arranged for late February. I felt I really should attend this one as I’d noticed that some of my suggestions were starting to be picked up and featured in the beginnings of an action plan.

Back down to London and this time we’d also meet up with one of our best customers, a London-based, organic box-scheme. They are good people and great supporters of what we are trying to do with cow-with-calf dairying. We also met up with a butcher based in Twickenham who sells only organic, pasture fed meat. He’d been taking our beef and lamb but that had slowed as he was finding resistance to the food price rises from his well-heeled Twickenham customers.

I was astonished that six-figure salaried customers would even notice a food price rise. But he explained that with school fees rocketing, mortgages predicted to double, the rising cost of heating the extensive home and swimming pool and a low-emissions zone being extended to the area – which means buying a Tesla - something had to give, and that something, it seemed, was food.

It shouldn’t, therefore, have been a surprise to find that after the Covid boom years for home delivery, the organic box-scheme company was also feeling the draught. We are not a nation with a strong food culture.

In our third advisory group meeting I detected a change of tone from the professionals. ‘Business would not risk taking any serious steps to cutting carbon emissions unless these contributed to increased profit,’ they said. Until government set out clear targets and timetables there was risk of what they called ‘first mover disadvantage’.

This was particularly so in a time of austerity when their customers were unmotivated to be sympathetic to any price increase and would take flight. Echoing the findings of our organic customers in London, everyone was nervous about anything that might spell a cost or price increase.

After a fourth and online meeting, the committee put together a draft final document which we commented on. It was something of a surprise to find that our farming model - minus the cow-with-calf bit - was featured as a case study in the final version which went public earlier this month.

I know for sure that had I been sitting in on a rural land use advisory group my ideas and model would have been well and truly sidelined. That this group really listened was heartening.

I’m continuing to write this blog as I travel to London to an Ellen Macarthur Foundation Climate Action Summit which is showcasing our cheese, straight from a mini conference in Edinburgh organised by the Nature Friendly Farming Network featuring Rethinking the (broken) Food System. I can’t help getting a sense of déjà vu.

These regenerative agriculture / agroecological / food community discussions are the same discussions we were having 25 years ago, sure, much has changed, but at a glacial pace.

Most folk now know there are problems and want them sorted, but they want them sorted without having to suffer any kind of disruption to their lifestyles or business profitability. Our political leaders know this and realise that as this is wholly unrealistic within the political cycle, they can just kick that can further down the road for someone else to deal with. This means there is no leadership at a time when we desperately need it. How can we square that circle?

The Nature Friendly Farming Network conference featured an excellent line-up of speakers, one of which was the charismatic Dane, Mads Fischer-Moller. His message came from the Danish experience of addressing these very issues. 

Our public procurement system isn’t designed to deliver the impacts that the government says it wants.

Farmers are being asked to deliver a plethora of public benefits alongside food production. However, the public purse is only sourcing the cheapest. Which means, almost by design, it will exclude goods produced to high environmental and social (ESG) standards. This feeds back to the farmers who wonder where the market is for their high ESG goods? Right now, there really isn’t one. So why bother? It’s a downward spiral.

In Denmark, despite initial widespread resistance, the public sector was funded to create that market for high ESG goods. Very soon the private sector stepped up. Now 30% of the land in Denmark is farmed organically and up to 80% of some commodities purchased in Denmark are organic.

Another inspirational speaker was Robin Gourlay, champion of the forward thinking East Ayrshire Council’s local food for schools programme. A pilot for Scotland? Well perhaps. But not the way things stand.

The big plus in Robin’s system was guaranteed payment, but the minuses were the horrendous bureaucracy and a supply infrastructure that only favoured big players. With a bit of political will and vision this could be transformed.

The public procurement bill for food in Scotland is £160m. What if we transitioned the public sector to 100% high ESG food over a 10-year period? The premium over the basic market price for suppliers meeting the high standards might be 50% higher. This would be a sufficient premium to incentivise farmers and growers to meet these standards.

What might that cost? Well, if it is, say, 10% in the first year and a 50% premium that would come to about £8m. But in addition, the access to the public sector must be streamlined bureaucratically and physically. Delivery/collection centres, sorting, testing and distribution infrastructure needs to be put in place. Producers at all scales need assistance to transition their businesses - not grants, but soft loans based on sound business plans.

Where is this money coming from? Half a billion comes into the rural economy in Scotland based on how big the farm is. This is just a waste of taxpayers’ money.

What if we used a chunk of that half a billion to educate school kids about the value and preparation of quality food and also deliver that quality food to our children, the sick and aged and our prisoners through changes to procurement priorities.

It would incentivise good social, environmental and welfare practices on any scale of farm by creating a powerful market reward. It would create the political and economic environment which would de-risk the market and motivate business to move in.

It would be transformative.

Just a pipe dream? Maybe. But it is a plan. Right now we just have a mess.

Cows and calves at Rainton farm in June 2023
Cows and calves on the farm a few days ago

Postscript. At the Ellen Macarthur summit in London there were 300 business delegates seated round the central stage in the Roundhouse Conference Centre. We were asked to hold up one of two coloured cards in response to three questions posed by the compere. I can’t remember the first two questions which received pretty even responses, but the third was very interesting.

The question was, ‘What do you believe is the best way to achieve our net zero targets?’ The options were, 1. Through market forces or, 2. Through legislation. Remember these were all businesspeople.

Over 99% voted for option 2. Through legislation. This pretty well summed up all the indicators I have been seeing in recent months. In terms of climate change, biodiversity loss and the rest, until government take a proactive lead, nothing is going to change.

David Finlay