Combine harvester at work in a Wiltshire field© Juice/REX/Shutterstock-

Current systems of agriculture are “deeply dysfunctional” and are failing to deliver for the environment, the economy, society and farmers.

According to Olivier De Schutter, co-chair of the International Panel of Experts on Sustainable Food Systems, modern farming, with its emphasis on low wages, economies of scale and cheap oil, is completely unsustainable.

“We have developed a low-cost food economy that was once justified, but is now having unintended impacts,” he told the Oxford Real Farming Conference – the alternative event to the Oxford Farming Conference targeted at smaller-scale, organic and ecological farmers.

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Although UK farming only accounted for 0.6% of GDP and less than 1% of the workforce, it contributed 12% of greenhouse gas emissions, especially methane and nitrous oxide.

Soil health was another major concern, with poor crop rotation, heavy machinery and overstocking leading to compaction, water run-off and poor soil biodiversity.

Crowds at the Oxford Real Farming Conference

The Oxford Real Farming Conference acts as an alternative to the Oxford Farming Conference and targets smaller-scale, organic and ecological farmers

Mr De Schutter also explained that, with the current system rewarding scale, more than 70% of agricultural land was in the hands of just 21% of farmers.

“This is inevitable given the way markets function… yet many of these farmers fail to even cover their costs.”

There were also public health consequences of the current system, with obesity rates rising rapidly in the UK. While much of this was down to lifestyle changes, the provision of cheap, subsidised cereals encouraged diets based on highly processed foods.

Solutions

Moving towards a more sustainable food and farming system would be hard to achieve.

Government had prioritised large-scale, export-led agriculture, sacrificing the need for self-reliance in food. The UK was only 65% self-sufficient, said Mr De Schutter, with fruit and vegetables especially dependent on imports.

This was the result of a failure to prioritise diversity in favour of large-scale farming. “We have replaced men and women with machines and large monocultures,” he said.

While labour efficiency had increased, land productivity had not.

Food revolution

Mr De Schutter therefore called for a “real food revolution”, based on three separate strands.

The first was a “social diversity approach”, in which urban-based “food policy councils” would encourage a much more local approach to food production and consumption.

This would include public procurement, with schools and hospitals required to source food from the local hinterland.

The second was “food democracy” to ensure local voices were heard in the formulation of food policy, rather than letting large corporate interests dominate discussions.

The third was the need for a “people’s food policy”, that encouraged more ecological farming and improved diets.

Mr De Schutter said this policy shift needed to be supported by central government to encourage local initiatives, and build an agriculture that delivered for farmers, society and the environment.

“The current Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs does not deserve its full title, with its exclusive focus on large-scale agriculture,” he added.