The Government yesterday published its long-awaited Clean Growth Strategy, setting out its plans and priorities for moving the UK to a low-carbon economy over the coming years. Unfortunately, the UK Government is still failing to reach its emissions reductions targets, in breach of the Climate Change Act. As ClientEarth have pointed out, “We need a firm commitment to say how the UK will decarbonise. Good intentions are no longer good enough”. However, the Strategy does make a number of promising statements and commitments on the future of farming and land use, many of which reflect core priorities for the Soil Association.
Chief among these is the Government’s stated intention to design a new farming system “with a strong focus on delivering better environmental outcomes, including tackling climate change”. In the UK, farming accounts for 10% of our total greenhouse gas emissions, making it the third highest emitting sector after transport and energy. Globally, the food system accounts for around a third of all greenhouse gas emissions. It is abundantly clear that we stand no hope of successfully tackling climate change without a revolutionary change to the way we farm.
We at the Soil Association also welcome the Government’s recognition of the vital role of trees in storing carbon and enhancing and protecting the natural environment. England has fallen desperately behind its target to plant 11 million trees by 2020, and this Clean Growth Strategy commits to accelerating the rate of tree planting over the coming years. We particularly welcome the Government’s commitment to introduce incentives to encourage farmers to plant trees on farms, a practice known as agroforestry. Throughout 2017, the Soil Association and others have been working hard to raise the profile of agroforestry, and we are pleased to see that the Government is taking note.
The Strategy rightly recognised the valuable role of healthy soils and the need to tackle emissions from nitrogen fertiliser. It sets out ambitions to protect and restore vulnerable, carbon-rich peat soils, to develop low carbon fertilisers, and to “overcome the decline in soil quality in the UK”.
Radical changes in the approach to farming, food and the way we manage land are needed. As part of this Strategy, the Government should put farmers themselves at the heart of their approach to innovation. The Innovative Farmers programme is leading the way in field-based, farmer-led research, and the Soil Association is calling on the Government to invest in a dedicated farmer-led innovation fund. We are also urging the Government to accept the Committee on Climate Change advice for new farm policies to 2030 to move beyond the current voluntary approach to cutting greenhouse gas emissions.
We now want to see the Government recognise and reward the major contribution that organic farming can make to achieve the goals on climate change set out in the Strategy. Organic farmers and growers up and down the country are practicing methods of farming which are known to help to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and other environmental impacts. A report published earlier this year by IFOAM EU sets out comprehensively the considerable benefits of organic farming for climate change mitigation and adaptation.
While the Strategy does make some positive noises about the direction that farming, the supply side, needs to move in, it ignores demand – the need to change what people eat, both for the sake of human health, and so that we can farm in ways which will achieve the Government’s new objectives. However, there is much to feel heartened by in the Clean Growth Strategy and we at the Soil Association will now focus our efforts on ensuring that these priorities and policies are implemented – and improved where necessary too. The forthcoming Agriculture Bill will be a big test to determine whether or not the Government remain true to its word on addressing the climate impacts of farming and food. We will also be pushing for a much greater emphasis on supporting and incentivising truly sustainable, low impact farming methods, such as organic farming. The commitments made in this Strategy represent an encouraging step forward, but there is still a great deal of work to be done to ensure that these laudable plans become a reality.
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 Vermeulen, S. J., Campbell, B. M. & Ingram, J. S. I. (2012) ‘Climate Change and Food Systems’ Annu. Rev. Environ. Resour. 37, 195–222 https://doi.org/10.1146/annurev-environ-020411-130608