I am therefore pleased to be chairing an event on behalf of Wildlife and Countryside Link at the Labour Party Conference, in partnership with Sustain and SERA. After hearing from experts across the Link and Sustain networks, we will welcome Barry Gardiner MP, Shadow Secretary of State for International and Trade and Minister for International Climate Change to share Labour’s vision for food, farming and the countryside.
Farming affects the very character of our countryside, the condition of our natural environment and wildlife that depend on it as well as the welfare of livestock and many other public benefits. Farmland covers 69% of England. Around 50% of farmland species have declined in the last 50 years and 12% are threatened with extinction. Yet the impact of farming travels much further than the land on which it depends.
The loss of soil carbon across the UK costs us £3.21 billion annually and around one third of our water bodies are not achieving good status due to poor agriculture and land use. This affects our aquatic wildlife, can increase treatment costs and, ultimately, people’s water bills.
Sustainable food production is not just about growing as much as we can. Our current farming system mines the nutrients of our soils, damages soil and reduces biodiversity. We are destroying our own ability to produce food. We must foster management that supports the systems and processes on which farming relies. Fertile soils will maintain food production much more than fertilisers.
In this changing climate with increasing extremes, efficient and resilient food production is a necessity. We must reduce the 15 million tonnes of food wasted annually which will benefit the whole supply chain, helping to keep food affordable and ultimately leading to environmental benefits. We need to be better at growing the right crops in the right places, such as low water tolerant species in areas of high water stress. We need a diverse food market delivering a greater variety in scale and types of food production.
The farming system
Farming affects the lives of many people living in rural communities. The Labour manifesto calls for a fundamental change to the economy to work for the many, not the few and this must extend to rural communities. The percentage of the rural population living in poverty is the same as those in urban communities - around 15%.
A farming system which helps farmers to manage risk and uncertainty without relying on Government payments is essential. This can only be achieved through a resilient and healthy environment that is maintained through sensitive and intelligent land management.
Such a system can help support the wider rural community through reducing local flood risk, supporting rural businesses such as tourism and improving access to nature to reduce the disproportionately low health and well-being in rural communities.
Agriculture has drained wetlands, filled in farm ponds, reduced the populations of vital pollinators and created an increasingly homogenous landscape. It is time to reverse this trend and make the countryside rich in nature; a place people want to go to enjoy themselves; where agriculture takes responsibility for its actions and helps people and the environment adapt to climate change, reducing carbon impacts and embracing sustainable alternatives.
Let’s develop a transparent, local, fair system where people can make informed choices and understand where their food comes from. Let’s encourage the young with long term opportunities to stay in their rural community. Technology and innovation has its part to play, not to produce more but to produce better, to ensure that agriculture protects and enhances the natural resources and processes on which farming and wider society depend.
The Labour manifesto pledges to champion sustainable farming and food and to found our stewardship of the environment on sound principles and science. We want to see Labour rise to this challenge and support a system which will feed people, look after our natural assets for the long term, protect and recover nature and ensure the agricultural sector is resilient to upcoming challenges.
Our event will take place on Tuesday 25 September, 18:00 - 19:15 at Blundell Street Restaurant, Liverpool, L1 0AJ. Registration here.
Martin Spray CBE – Chief Executive, Wildfowl & Wetland Trust (WWT)
The opinions expressed in this blog are the author's and not necessarily those of the wider Link membership.
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