Pete Ritchie: Building natural capital and improving farmers’ lot

There's a traditional perception that the environment and farming are competing interests. Picture: Getty
There's a traditional perception that the environment and farming are competing interests. Picture: Getty
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Green agenda can be win-win for industry facing pricing pressures, writes Pete Ritchie

While our Indian summer helped farmers bring the harvest in, challenging times still lie ahead for farming. Lower subsidies for some, along with low commodity prices and a weak euro all put pressure on farm incomes.

Scottish Environment Link brings together more than 30 organisations to protect and enhance nature and wildlife on land and water. As most of Scotland’s land is managed by farmers, Link members want to see farms working with nature to build our natural capital.

There’s a traditional perception that the environment and farming are competing interests – and that the “greener” management policies advocated by Link will make life harder for farmers. On this reading, one way to ease the pain for farmers is to go easy on the “green stuff” until better times. We think that’s shortsighted, and that the current crisis in farming is an opportunity to do some fresh thinking about what we expect of farmers – and what farmers can expect from society.

At the same time, the EU referendum will raise questions about how well the Common Agricultural Policy is working and is understood. In a recent survey, only a fifth of British young people had heard about the support provided to farmers, compared to 46 per cent on average. The public also saw the welfare of farm animals as the most important responsibility of farmers.

Cabinet secretary Richard Lochhead recently published a discussion paper on The future of Scottish Agriculture. It calls for farms to innovate and prosper, and for Scotland to become a world leader in green farming.

So is there a way forward which is a win-win for farming and for the environment? Link thinks so. We’ve pulled together a broad-based Scottish food coalition which includes trade unions Unite and Unison and organisations concerned with animal welfare and food poverty, as well as our core environmental groups.

We want to see a just transition to a new food system, with much closer connection between farmers and consumers. This is about more than individual consumers choosing Scottish labels on produce in the supermarket. It’s about making food chains shorter, with consumers knowing, understanding, liking and supporting where their food comes from. It’s about cities and local authorities supporting farmers and local food businesses.

It’s about processing more of our own food in Scotland (currently 55 per cent is processed elsewhere). It’s about farmers getting a bigger share of the retail price. It’s about workers in food being respected and getting a decent wage, and about young people who want to farm getting access to land.

Last week on World Food Day more than 45 global cities signed the urban food policy pact in Milan: here in Scotland both Glasgow and Edinburgh are committed to becoming Sustainable Food Cities and working more closely with farmers.

It’s easy to think that farming can only go one way – bigger farms, fields, sheds. But bigger isn’t always better – for the animals, the planet or the bottom line. Right now, Scotland’s organic dairy farmers are doing just fine, with rising demand not just from schools taking up the Food for Life challenge, but from McDonald’s and from the growing export market.

Higher farmgate prices and lower inputs of fertiliser and pesticides more than make up for slightly lower yields..

Organic farms also produce more jobs, more bugs and beasties in the soil, more carbon captured and stored, more birds and butterflies. They have lower greenhouse gas emissions, no pesticide residues in the food, and use less antibiotics.

Organic farming is just one way of farming with nature. There are new smart approaches to biological pest management which are used only when the plants send out a chemical distress signal that they are being attacked. There’s agro-forestry, which combines trees and crops to increase production while improving the soil and reducing flood risk.

Does this all make food dearer when people are struggling to feed their families? In the current economic model, it means higher prices at the farmgate, so we need to close the gap between what the farmer gets and what the consumer pays. But we also need to recognise that for some families even cheap food is too dear. That’s a social justice issue and making the environment poorer in Scotland or overseas is no solution.

In October, Link member Nourish hosts an international conference on the CAP – and over the next few weeks is holding a series of conversations round Scotland on the future of Scottish agriculture. To join in, go to www.nourishscotland.org

Pete Ritchie is convenor of Links agriculture taskforce and executive director of Nourish Scotland.