Consumers need to understand how they can directly help British farmers

Brexit, food waste, allergies...the way we eat is changing and agriculture has to keep pace. But farmer Martin Lines says shoppers need stronger links with where their food comes from

We all need to stand up and be responsible for what our actions are and how we treat our countryside.

We all need to engage society in how we manage our landscapes in the UK and also globally because what we don’t want to do is just export our environmental footprint over to somewhere else just to have a cheaper product.

Over many decades, farm support payments have mainly focused on food production. This has not always helped the environment and we know that our soil’s health has been decreasing, some of the water quality isn’t great and many species numbers have really plummeted.

However, many farmers have been leading the recovery with some species and wildlife numbers increasing. I am quite excited about the prospect of a new agricultural bill and the hope of an environmental land management plan that encourages and rewards farmers for looking after their landscape at the same time as producing food.

As an industry, the way that we have been supported has not always helped us. We have been overruled and over-regulated and had lots of red tape to deal with, the current system is not really working for farmers. Hopefully going forward this new system will remove some of the rules that are stopping farmers from being able to deliver environmental benefits on productive farms.

Farmers are told that we have to produce cheap food and the supply chain pushes down prices so they are finding ever-increasing ways to get more out of less

We need the public to understand where their food comes from – many are quite disconnected from that – as well as how it is produced and what they can change through their purchasing power. Because if they are willing to pay a very small amount extra for their food, farmers will be able to produce products to higher welfare standards.

Farmers are told that we have to produce cheap food and the supply chain pushes down prices so they are finding ever-increasing ways to get more out of less. But it means we have to crop harder and sometimes use a lot more products to grow those crops to try to earn money. We need to step back a little bit so we can have a process of improving our landscape.

It has been the case for many years of conservationists versus farmers. Farmers manage 70 per cent of this UK landscape. We are the ones who can deliver the biggest improvement to our environment. If we encourage change and are supported in different ways then we can make rapid changes.

There are some easy things that we can introduce and with consumers’ support through their shopping we can really make a difference. What we really want is for people to engage using the pound in their pocket and get the shop and supply chain to deliver exactly what they want. If you want higher welfare products, if you want fewer food miles, the consumer has that choice in the products they buy. And if we want less food waste then we should buy in season, buy wonky veg, and avoid two-for-one offers if you’re going to throw it away. Over 40 per cent of what we produce gets thrown away. We need to find better ways to make use of the food we already produce, not just produce more food.

Going forward we’ve got Brexit to get through. Most farmers are working to five to 10-year planning cycles but the future depends on what deal we get when we leave, what the trade barriers are. There is huge uncertainty at the moment.

Although I am a conventional farmer I try to farm using as few chemicals as possible. We need to find smart answers to deliver a high-quality level of food without some of the products we currently use. At the moment, we haven’t got that research knowledge in place – I would like to see funding move towards a sustainable delivery of food and research on how we can farm smarter.

Diet-wise, we have seen huge increases in allergies to certain products, things like gluten intolerance and nut allergies. We also have social choices, dairy-free or meat-free for example. I think that sometimes they are built on seeing stories of how low-cost food is produced. If people were able to visit farms and actually had a connection back to where their food comes from I think they would understand that most food is high-welfare and high-standard.

We’ve all got to come to a centre ground and start a debate – some elements of Chris Packham’s People’s Manifesto for Wildlife for me could cause division between farmers and environmental groups when we need to drive engagement to provide better food and a better environment. The Nature Friendly Farming Network is bringing together like-minded farmers, and the public too, who are leading the way in improving our environment.

Martin Lines is Chair of the Nature Friendly Farming Network.

He was speaking to Liam Geraghty