It is a poorly hidden secret that England’s food system isn’t about producing healthy, affordable and ecologically sustainable foods. It’s about creating profits. In 2022 the food and drink industry contributed £30bn to the British economy, making it the UK’s largest manufacturing sector. One might imagine this revenue would be evenly distributed across the supply chain, but they are heavily concentrated at its end. Last year, for instance, supermarkets announced record profits while on average farmers received less than 1p for every block of cheese or loaf of bread sold, and a shocking 29 per cent of British farms failed to make any money at all.
Such narrow margins encourage farmers to use cheaper but ecologically damaging land management practices. Britain’s farming sector is responsible for extensive waterway pollution, dangerous levels of greenhouse gas emissions, and catastrophic declines in biodiversity. Farmers don’t create these outcomes because they don’t care about their lands and communities. They create them because the economics of food production and England’s regulatory landscape encourages them.
In principle all of this is about to change. After several years of deliberation, the Department for Food, Environment and Rural Affairs (Defra) has unveiled the funding details of England’s post-Brexit agricultural subsidy system, known as the environmental land management scheme (Elms). The scheme will be phased in over six years and is due to replace the European Union’s Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) in 2027. According to the government, Elms will transform England’s food system, ushering in a new green era of food production and ecologically regenerative land management that will help Britain achieve net zero by 2050. Yet in practice Elms is likely to force farmers out of the industry, consolidate land in the hands of a small landowning elite, and do little to mitigate global heating, while guaranteeing that Britain misses an historic opportunity to create a socially and ecologically just food system.
CAP needed replacing. Under the EU-directed scheme, large-scale wealthier farmers unjustly received more financial support than smallholders. The schemes also didn’t go far enough when encouraging ecologically sound land management. Today, the majority of the UK’s domestically grown food is produced through environmentally damaging farming practices. Many of these require substances such as synthetic fertiliser and pesticides and are derived directly from fossil fuels. In contrast, under Elms, the government says land managers will receive “public money for public goods” including “ecosystem services”. Payments will be linked to ecologically regenerative practices including creating wildlife habitats, planting trees, improving soils and improving nitrogen management. Defra says the system is designed to be easily accessible for farmers, and that it will serve as a keystone in Britain’s net zero ambitions.
In reality, Elms is a superficial change to policy that favours some farmers over others and which will put some out of business altogether. In part this is because Elms adopts an “income foregone plus costs” approach to payments, which will see lowland farmers paid more than upland farmers for the same land management practices. Ecologically sensitive grassland management systems, for example, will be paid 35 per cent less per hectare in the uplands than in the lowlands. Not only is this unjust but it runs against ecological common sense: it is better to encourage producers on the less productive uplands to focus on ecosystem repair than it is to encourage producers in the more productive lowlands.
These regional discrepancies have received sharp criticism from producers. James Rebanks, a shepherd and the author of English Pastoral (2020), has called Elms a “catastrophe”. According to Rebanks, after being reassured in consultations that Elms would empower upland farmers to reduce livestock numbers and shift towards environmentally regenerative practices, many upland producers now feel betrayed. They are right to. The University of Cumbria environmental professor Julia Aglionby calculated that the annual farm business income of upland farms will decline by two thirds, to as low as £16,000. This would see the hourly wage of some upland producers drop below minimum wage. Faced with such low payments, many upland farmers will be tempted to opt out of Elms altogether and intensify current ecologically detrimental farming practices in a desperate bid to stay in business.
If producers still can’t turn a profit, they’ll be forced to sell their farms. And that might be part of the plan. When considered alongside England’s extortionate land costs, Elms seems almost designed to ensure that the most likely purchasers of newly available land won’t be a new generation of green farmers or community-led rewilding projects but hedge funds and corporations hoping to secure rental incomes, profit from carbon credit schemes, or offset emissions. Evidence suggests that far from mitigating global heating, carbon credits may exacerbate it by greenwashing ongoing emissions. Nevertheless, Elms encourages corporate offsetting schemes such as “rewilding” projects and tree-planting initiatives. The result could easily lead to a green grab, and an extension of what the geographer Brett Christophers calls “the new enclosures”, or the consolidation of landownership in the hands of an increasingly powerful minority. An amazing two thirds of the UK is already owned by just 0.36 per cent of the population, who can undemocratically decide how the country’s land is used. This makes a national land management plan capable of tackling the UK’s ongoing contributions to ecological collapse almost impossible to deliver.
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These negative outcomes are a product of Elms’s combination of neoliberal market interventions and a “land-sparing” approach to land management. The former involves shifting responsibility for land management on to individual farmers and private markets. The latter is the idea that land in some areas ought to be “set aside” for nature, while land elsewhere should be worked for maximal yields and at great environmental cost.
It doesn’t have to be this way. CAP was an unfair system, but Elms could be otherwise. Brexit gives England the opportunity to break decisively with past agricultural policy and lay the groundwork for a new era of ecologically sustainable food production. This will require democratising food systems and transitioning towards a “land sharing” approach to food production that integrates food systems and ecosystem restoration through agroecological farming.
Agroecology produces culturally sensitive, ecologically regenerative, high-yielding foods and fibres without relying on energy intensive, and often fossil fuel-derived inputs produced off-farm. Unlike land-sparing approaches to food production, it maximises biodiversity and promotes wildlife conservation by farming with rather than against natural systems. This means it can replace externally produced synthetic fertiliser or imported animal feeds with local or on-farm-produced ones. Not only is this better for Britain’s ecosystems but it offers a chance to address the “unequal exchange” between the Global North and Global South that sees animal feed flown to the UK from the Americas, causing soil degradation, habitat destruction and the murder of indigenous peoples there.
The world’s food chains are increasingly vulnerable to the effects of global heating, international conflict and manipulation by an ever-dwindling and yet ever-more powerful set of corporations. Just two companies, Syngenta Group and Bayer, control more than 40 per cent of the global seed markets and just four companies control around 70-90 per cent of the global grain trade. As communities in the UK and beyond struggle under a cost-of-living crisis, these companies are recording unprecedented profits. There is an urgent need to assert a more effective and democratic vision of our food system’s future that secures a living wage for Britain’s farmers and encourages them to create good-quality, nutritious and ecologically regenerative foods. This will require public investment in food and farming infrastructure up and down the food system’s supply chain.
Government should support and expand existing movements, such as Land in Our Names which encourages black communities in Britain to reconnect with the land, and policy proposals that seek to implement a socially and ecologically just food system. Public-common partnerships in food production and rebuilding England’s county farm estates would provide an alternative to exorbitant and insecure private rents that prevent farmers from planning for the future. A “right to food” combined with actions such as an improved public procurement strategy, could also be used to increase domestic demand and improve access to healthy foods if facilitated by investment in cooperative processing and retailing infrastructure. Ideas such as these must be encouraged by future agricultural policy. Otherwise instead of delivering a greener and more just food system, governments may end up doing just the opposite.