UK commercial farming can be sustainable – but it needs to be given the chance

A new report examining the role of commercial agriculture in the UK has concluded that it has the potential to solve sustainability challenges, generate employment and boost the post-pandemic economy – but warns that commercial farmers are being systematically ‘written out’ of emerging policy in the rush to push environmental enhancement above all else.

‘Commercial Farming: Delivering the UK’s new Agriculture Policies’ was released by the Commercial Farmers Group to coincide with the second reading of the Agriculture Bill in the House of Lords. As well as laying out the areas farming can impact positively, it argued that UK farmers should be ready and willing to compete with food imports – provided there is clear labelling identifying differences in production standards.

The group's James Black, who runs a the family farming business producing pigs and arable crops in Suffolk, maintained that commercial farming was important as fewer than 10% of farming businesses currently produced over half the UK’s agricultural output.

“These businesses are also ideally-placed to stimulate local economies, support wider industries and address pressing problems such as use of finite resources, greenhouse gas emissions, climate change and biodiversity decline. However, they can only do this if allowed the chance,” said Mr Black.

“Unfortunately, UK history is littered with the results of so many great aspirational concepts which have been poorly delivered – because policy makers have not fully engaged with the people most involved in the implementation. We must avoid food and farming becoming a casualty of this too.”

Mr Black said commercial farmers should be seen as the solution, not ‘the enemy’. With efficiency based on 'evidence-based decision making and best practice', they structure their operations to make optimal use of their natural resources – and where they are already engaged in delivering public goods, they do so with accountability towards the outcomes.

“In short, they can quickly bring about change through capability, data, scale and technology, to meet changing market demands,” he said. “This is the thrust of our report and why our group wants to be involved as the details for implementing new agricultural policy are identified – so that real public goods can be achieved alongside the imperatives of food security and economic viability.”

The CFG report provides examples of areas where commercial farming can help to improve the success of future farming policy, such as: the ability to use resources efficiently with fewer emissions; provide land and capital to invest in renewable energy technologies; and deliver land improvement and biodiversity projects. These actions can stimulate rural development and the contribution of Gross Value Added arising from the food and drink sector.

It also outlines a list of specific ambitions, including:

• Sustainability – recognition of the positive benefits of technology and modern farming systems in improving the sustainability of food production and providing beneficial contributions to the environment;

• Regulation – smarter regulation with emphasis on earned recognition and evidenced outcomes rather than mindless compliance with process;

• Research – increased and better-directed funding for applied research, development and extension to increase productivity and mitigate changing climate.