Food, farming and countryside

A fragile balance exists between what we eat, the rural economy and the natural environment, but by choosing to look at them in isolation, we fail to see the vulnerabilities of the system

By Sue Pritchard, Director of RSA Food, Farming and Countryside Commission


It takes a certain sort of far-sighted and generous commitment to the future to plant a stand of oaks. Two hundred and sixty years ago, the newly formed RSA awarded its first Premiums to two agricultural projects: planting 23 acres of oak trees (so that the UK could have a secure supply of timber for warships) and an irrigation system to manage flooding in low-lying areas. While the need for timber warships has somewhat dissipated now those oak trees are reaching maturity, the importance of planting new broad-leaved and indigenous trees is, once again, understood.

The RSA has a rich history of focusing on the world’s intractable problems. Prue Leith’s work, when she was chair of the RSA (1995–97), helped establish the charity Focus on Food, which sends ‘kitchen’ buses round the country to teach children how to cook and teachers how to teach cooking. It is eye-catching and inspiring. Ironically, today we spend less time cooking at home, while obsessively watching cooking programmes.

Fast-forward to November 2017 and the RSA launched the Food, Farming and Countryside Commission. Its work touches profoundly important parts of our lives: what and how we eat, how we produce our food and the health of the landscapes that sustain us in so many other ways. We all have a stake in these perennial questions. And as the UK negotiates its exit from the EU, it is important that we ask them again. The RSA’s history of working across disciplines and interests enables us to take a long and broad view. So what can we learn from centuries of effort to bring fresh thinking to the big challenges of the day?

One key insight is now embedded in the RSA’s practices: ‘thinking in systems’. Complex systems are characterised by many interconnections and relationships; they are emergent, adaptive and often unpredictable. To illustrate, consider the honey fungus, rather dreaded by urban gardeners for its persistence in places it is not wanted. But the honey fungus is rather interesting. Scientists in US national parks have discovered that the mycelia of the honey fungus (the fine white fibres) extend not a few metres, but kilometres under the forest floor, making it the largest living organism on the planet. It is able to connect, communicate and coordinate itself across enormous distances. The fruiting bodies — the fungus we can see — monitor and evaluate the biochemistry of the ecosystem where it sits; and, when it notices that this part of the forest needs more (or less) of a particular nutrient, it sends for it, along the microscopic fibres, to another part of the forest, transporting what it needs to where it is needed. This extraordinary story is fascinating both as a metaphor for complex systems — showing us how they operate in ways we often cannot see, let alone understand — and as a literal description of how we have come to understand more about healthy soil ecosystems.

The soil from under us

For decades, increasingly industrialised farming practices have treated soil instrumentally, consuming its capacity for growing on a colossal scale. More and more land has been brought into production through forest clearance, ploughing and tilling, spraying and fertilising, largely to grow monoculture crops in intensive systems. New scientific insights tell us that such practices have had far-reaching, unintended, but nevertheless disastrous, consequences, depleting the structures and quality of the soils. As secretary of state for environment, food and rural affairs Michael Gove said in his speech to the Sustainable Soils Alliance, “we are only 30–40 years away from the fundamental eradication of soil fertility in some parts of the UK”. Decades of intensive agriculture, with two or even three cycles a year of ploughing, planting and cropping, applying fertilisers, herbicides and pesticides for greater yields, have had the opposite effect than was intended. The latest scientific insight into the relationships between roots, fungi and soil — mycorrhizal associations — reveals a new way of looking at soil. Until very recently, we simply did not see or understand, let alone value, what was really going on in the soil subsystem, how its structures and components work together to provide the nourishment needed for the crops to grow.

Thinking in systems means we have to adjust the quality of our attention. It is a feature of western thought that we tend to notice objects first, rather than the relationships between objects. And yet it is precisely in noticing and appreciating this ‘relational space’ that we learn more about what works and why, what needs to be supported and amplified, and what needs to be reduced or changed.

Applying ‘thinking in systems’ to how food and farming have changed over generations reveals further stories of the unforeseen consequences of strategies that were set and policies pursued without proper attention to their relational spaces and wider implications. We now spend less on food as a proportion of our household income than we ever have. We have a wider range of products on the shop shelves than we have ever known, from coffee to quinoa. Despite this, diet-related illnesses are rising dramatically; food poverty is on the rise; producers earn less for growing what we eat; and where we can go to buy food is concentrated in fewer, bigger stores.

The Sustainable Food Trust’s November 2017 The Hidden Cost of UK Food report sets out in detail the serious and far-reaching implications of what happens when you think and work in silos. It states clearly and unequivocally that for every £1 consumers spend on food, another £1 is spent by us as taxpayers on additional costs, incurred by society through the production and consumption of that food, largely in impacts on the natural environment (50p) and in effects on the public’s health (37p). In cash terms, this means we spend £44bn a year dealing with food-related health costs; and £60bn on environmental impacts. The cost to the public’s health is startling: for the first time people in wealthy countries are becoming unhealthier because the very thing that is supposed to nourish and sustain us is instead damaging us.

The public health picture alone should be cause for outcry. It is not just the cost to the NHS in treating avoidable conditions such as type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease and certain cancers, but also the impact on the quality of people’s lives. While the report identifies over £22bn in direct and indirect costs for treating these particular health conditions and tooth decay, it points out that we have no meaningful evidence to calculate the true cost to society; in days of work lost, increased care costs and mental health effects.

All of this does not come about simply because consumers are making poor choices. Changes in the nutritional quality of the food we eat is a critical influence. The ‘cheaper food’ narrative has pervaded the discourse about what we eat. In the past 20 years, every major supermarket has campaigned on price and value to some extent or another. But there is little profit to be made in today’s complex supply chains from simple, high-quality, unprocessed food. Rather, food system investment goes into increasingly elaborate products, with as much spent on marketing as the ingredients that go into them. They use largely cheap, high-calorie ingredients, with poorer nutritional value, relying on sugar, salt and flavourings to provide the taste promised. As one food justice activist said: “We are being poisoned for profit.”

However, just as thinking in systems enables us to see interconnections and interdependencies between otherwise siloed topics, it also stops us arriving at simplistic explanations or even having single villains to blame. Closer scrutiny of changes in farming practices reveals similarly complex patterns. Farms are becoming larger. The average age of farmers — currently 59 — is getting higher. Young entrants to farming are increasingly rare; barriers to entry, particularly the cost of land, are high. For all the talk of excessive farm subsidies, they account for just 2.5p in that additional £1 spent by taxpayers, or £3bn in cash terms. The pressure on farmers to scale up and intensify is strong, requiring investment in increasingly specialist equipment. Since we joined the European Union in the 1970s, the industrialisation mindset has driven growth in the farm sector towards increased specialisation, fragmentation and concentration. This has resulted in large, monoculture holdings, with highly specialised producers growing fewer, less diverse varieties of crops and livestock. Capital and resources have been concentrated into fewer hands, from the global commodity traders to agrichemical companies, supermarkets and landowners.

The foods we consume are produced by farmers for globalised markets, governed by international regulations, traded by international brokers, manufactured by globalised food processers and sold by multinational retailers. These centralising and consolidating pressures at the intersection of food production, processing and retailing — in which regions, even whole countries, differentiate and specialise in particular markets in the name of efficiency — combine to create a perfect storm of fragile, insecure, unsustainable social, economic and environmental ecosystems.

What does this mean in the UK? While we are blessed with a climate and landscape that can grow a wide range of nutritious food for home consumption, we are growing a narrower range of food and importing more of what we could otherwise grow here. In Wales, for example, twice as much land was producing vegetables 40 years ago compared with today. Defra’s trade statistics show we now grow just 52% of the food we consume in the UK; about 29% comes from the EU and the remaining 19% comes from the rest of the world, including Africa, Asia and the Americas. We import over 80% of the fruit we consume, and 45% of the fresh vegetables, including 23% of the potatoes. Transporting food across the globe brings additional costs related to fuel and refrigerants, and it adds to greenhouse gas emissions and global warming, as well as leaving us vulnerable to changing global conditions — from climate change through to changes to trade agreements.

The distance between consumers and where our food is grown means that we do not witness the environmental consequences of our eating habits. The Hidden Cost of UK Food highlights the case of palm oil, which is the most widely used vegetable oil in the world, despite being associated with deforestation, habitat destruction, loss of biodiversity and the social and ethical costs of land acquisition. As the Food Ethics Council makes plain: “We need to ask ‘who owns our food system?’ It’s clear that market and political power is concentrated in the hands of a few organisations whose dealings along the supply chain are opaque to say the least, and who are not held accountable for their actions.”

At the other end of the production-consumption spectrum, WRAP estimates that 7.3m tonnes of food is wasted annually in the UK (see page 16).

Stewarding the land

Thinking about food and farming through the lens of systems brings us to another current RSA area of research: the future of work. The RSA’s programme is underpinned by three questions essential to the considerations for a flourishing rural economy. What does work look like today? What do we want work to look like tomorrow? And how can we use policy and practice to realise that vision? The RSA’s Good Gigs report estimates there are 1.1 million people in Britain’s ‘gig’ economy. Online platforms have increasingly been used to source small, sometimes on-demand, jobs over the past five years. However, a version of the gig economy has always been a feature of country work. While this is due in part to the seasonality of rural occupations, it also reflects the nature of small communities, where there are many jobs to do and often not enough people (or a big enough market) to choose to specialise. So diversification, cooperation and collaboration works best.

Before extensive mechanisation (and where small and medium farms still predominate), the most efficient way to farm was to collaborate by sharing kit and labour, assisting neighbours when they need it, knowing that they would repay the favour. During the winter, you might be coppicing or hedge-laying; during the spring, lambing or planting; and in the autumn, harvesting. This is quite different from the industrialised practice of increasing fragmentation, differentiation and specialisation. It is also more resilient and more sustainable. People who can turn their hands to many things in company with others are likely to thrive.

In his 1990 book Human Scale, author Kirkpatrick Sale puts it this way: “I want to complexify, not simplify! It is the modern economy which is simple: whole nations given over to a single culture; cities to a single industry; farms to a single crop; factories to single product; people to single jobs; jobs to a single motion.” Human systems flourish when they diversify. When people learn many skills, can do many jobs and live many roles, they become capable of adapting to changing circumstances. This is what it means to live a rich and textured life.

This last point is reinforced by the Campaign to Protect Rural England in its August 2016 report New Model Farming: “To forge a more resilient future, the government should encourage a mix of farms that produce different foods for local people and varied, thriving landscapes … A more diverse sector — in demographics, farm size and production — offers rewards beyond food: beautiful landscapes, clean water, abundant wildlife, better flood management and improved carbon storage.” Environmental thinker David Fleming calls this the resilience of multifaceted local economies.

This last quote perfectly illustrates thinking in systems; seeing systems ‘nested’ in systems, deeply interdependent and connected. Food and farming systems nest ineluctably in the natural environment. However, our environment has borne the brunt of changes to food and farming practices, reflected in the depletion of what we now call ‘natural capital’; the stock of natural resources such as air, water, soil, minerals, forests, flora and fauna. Also in the effects of greenhouse gas emissions, contributing to global warming and climate change; pollution of watercourses and marine ecosystems; loss of biodiversity, including the dramatic loss of essential pollinators; pesticide, herbicide and antimicrobial resistances; and degraded soils unable to sustain productivity. As we noted earlier, the cost to the taxpayer to manage or mitigate these effects on the environment is huge.

No side effects

Many of the examples highlighted here shine a light on what economists call ‘externalities’: those things that are normally outside of their risk-benefit calculations, and not considered by companies when they set pricing and profit margins. But as economist Kate Raworth puts it in Doughnut Economics, what conventional economists call ‘externalities’ are in fact the “incidental effects felt by people not involved in the transactions that produced them — like toxic effluent down river of a polluting factory, or fumes inhaled by people next to roads”. She emphasises the point by quoting MIT management professor John Sterman: “There are no ‘side effects’ — just effects,” he says, the very notion of side effects is “a sign that the boundaries of our mental models are too narrow, or our time horizons too short”.

And so we get to the elephant in the room; we must face up to the moribund, even destructive economic paradigm that tacitly underpins policy debates. What we count and how we count it is a political choice. A choice made about what we value, how we share resources, who takes the risks and the rewards and, ultimately, whose voices count. Our obsession with relentless economic growth regardless of its impact on the planet’s resources has been challenged by a new generation of economists, from Donella Meadows to Johan Rockström, Kate Raworth and Tim Jackson, among others. Back in 1972, Meadows was considered ‘too radical’ when she produced her Limits to Growth report. But the questions she asked then have become more pressing: “growth for what, and why, and for whom, and who pays the cost, and how much is enough…?”

As David Fleming summarises in Surviving the Future (2016): “The claim that centralised, industrialised agriculture is the only way of feeding a large population is about as scientific as a belief in creationism — and far more damaging. The real task — to maintain a secure supply of quality, non-poisonous food and sustain an environment capable of supporting it — has been buried by an industry weighed down with [other] preoccupations.”

And so, as we negotiate our departure from the European Union, these deep questions are freshly illuminated. When we think of ourselves as consumers, it is easy to become preoccupied with price, but when we think of ourselves as citizens, our interests and responsibilities to consider the broader questions become clear. How are we, as citizens, meant to respond to them in all their nuanced, interconnected complexities? How should we frame the questions, let alone construct the path towards fresh solutions? With the rise of the turbulent forces shaping our public conversations today — a disruptive, populist and tribal discourse — how can we hope to respond to these ‘wicked issues’ for which there is no route map and no simple answer?

Creating the conditions for new civic conversations is central to the Food, Farming and Countryside Commission’s work. The antidote to siloed and fragmented thinking (and policymaking) lies in investing in local and horizontal, as well as vertical, structures, to connect people across the identity politics that characterises today’s debates. What nourishes and sustains resilient social systems are precisely the same conditions that characterise healthy natural systems. I am coming to the view that there are three critical components to leading change: maximising diversity, creating the conditions for people to meet differently, and public learning. At its most simple, this means bringing people together from different places in society, in more engaging and innovative ‘architectures for learning’ to tackle the challenges we face, for mutual learning and creative problem-solving. The Commission’s work is squarely in service of a safe, secure, sustainable food and farming system and a flourishing rural economy for all.

Where we put our attention determines what we see. On the face of it, it takes about four months to grow a good-sized beetroot from seed. But a good beetroot will only grow well in good soil. And it takes at least 200 years to make one inch of decent topsoil. If we want to carry on growing good beetroots (and other things) in the UK, in the post-Brexit future, understanding more about this simple fact may help.

This article appears in the RSA Journal Issue 4 2017–18.