The Need for a Just Transition in Agriculture
By Dr Anne Chapman
The term ‘Just Transition’ has come from the trade union movement and encapsulates their demand that workers do not lose out in the move away from fossil fuels towards a zero carbon economy. Those whose jobs will be lost need to be given support and training to move into new jobs in transforming our buildings, energy system and transport. What happens when we do not attend to the future of workers in economic transitions can be seen in the devastation caused to former mining communities and industrial areas in the UK during the 1980s, many of which have still not recovered.
The culture of agricultural communities is very different from those of post-industrial areas, but like the latter, they have suffered from substantial declines in jobs over the past few decades and lost much of what formerly held them together. The industrialisation of farming, which has happened since the 1950s, but gathered pace in recent decades has involved mechanisation, new breeds of plants and animals, an arsenal of synthetic chemicals and changes to farming practices. It has produced cheap food but poor diets, devastated wildlife, polluted air and water, is a major contributor to climate change and resulted in the loss of many small farms and farming livelihoods. Much of the work that is available on the mega-farms is done by migrant labour, because working conditions are poor. There is a danger that, feeling ignored by seemingly prosperous cities, those in rural communities who have lost out turn to political extremists who seem at least to give them someone to blame for their plight: migrants and the ‘metropolitan elite’. Thus in 2016 the base of support for Trump was in rural America, and support for Brexit was highest in Lincolnshire an area of intensive arable agriculture.
Agriculture needs to change to tackle the twin crises of climate change and biodiversity loss.
Some think that the future is in further intensification of production, to produce more food on less land, perhaps using novel technologies that create plant-based or lab-grown meat, eliminating livestock. This future will enable large agro-chemical companies, food manufacturers and retailers to continue to flourish: they have grown larger and larger in recent decades increasing the imbalance in power between mega-corporations and the farmers who buy from or sell to them. It will be at the cost of jobs and livelihoods in the countryside and do little to improve biodiversity. We have seen that increased production does not necessarily free land for nature, rather we are over producing, with much food going to waste, or to fuel industrial meat production. And where land that has had a long history of agricultural use is abandoned things do not necessarily improve for nature: for example the removal of grazing animals may just allow vigorous grasses and bracken to thrive and outcompete other plants.
An alternative future for agriculture is set out in my recent report, A Just Transition for Agriculture, published by the Green European Foundation with the support of Green House Think Tank. I discuss two approaches developed by farmers and landowners trying to regain control of their costs, lives, and farming so it is better for them and for nature: regenerative agriculture and what I have called farming for nature. The aim of mainstream agriculture since the second world war has been to maximise output – to increase yields of crops and size and rate of growth of livestock. This has been achieved by increasing inputs – of artificial fertilisers, pesticides, medication and animal feed. In contrast, farmers practising regenerative agriculture have moved the focus from output to profit per hectare. Better profitability is achieved not by striving for high yields but by building the health of the soil and increasing diversity of plants, animals and enterprises on the farm, to produce good quality food while reducing inputs. In farming for nature the main aim of farming activities is the maintenance or restoration of particular species, habitats or natural processes, with food a by-product.
Farmers are often motivated to switch to more regenerative practices because of a desire to cut costs, though this can lead on to an interest in soil health and in making their land better for wildlife. For example, George Hosier of Wexcombe Manor farm in Wiltshire switched to ‘no-till’ methods for his arable land as a way to cut costs but this was just the start of a journey of learning about how full of life a healthy soil should be. This has led him to increase the diversity of his crops, grow a diverse mix of plants as cover crops and integrate Herefordshire beef cattle into his arable rotation. The cattle are grazed on a rotational system in which they are kept in a relatively small area and moved on every day, allowing time for the grass to grow fully before being grazed again. Over six years George has greatly reduced his use of pesticides and artificial fertilisers, as well as the medication normally used to treat livestock for parasites which is harmful to soil life. Wildlife on the farm has increased and he intends to plant more trees to further increase diversity.
While industrial mono-culture agriculture tends to provide only boring repetitive work, often only available in particular seasons, the diversity of enterprises on farms practicing regenerative agriculture and the continual experimentation, learning and innovation involved in this type of farming has the potential to provide more varied and interesting work all year round.
Bill and Cath Grayson studied ecology before getting into grazing livestock to manage wildlife-rich habitats. They now run Morecambe Bay Conservation Grazing Company which owns over one hundred Red Poll cattle, a hardy breed that is able to live outside all year round, grazing around 15 sites owned by a variety of landowners, many of which are conservation organisations. Cattle manage grassland by eating the more vigorous grasses so other less productive species can compete, they trample bracken and keep woody species in check, helping to slow or stop the succession of species-rich grassland to scrub and woodland. At the end of their lives – longer than those of most cattle because their diets and breed mean they grow slowly – they are slaughtered for meat. This meat is rich in micronutrients and essential oils, providing better nutrition than intensively raised animals, but is essentially a by-product of managing land for nature.
Anne Chapman, Green House Think Tank, April 2021
You can watch videos of interviews with George Hosier and with Cath and Bill Grayson at https://www.greenhousethinktank.org/a-just-transition-in-agriculture-case-studies.html
The report, A Just Transition in Agriculture is available at https://gef.eu/wp-content/uploads/2021/02/GEF-Agriculture-report-v4.pdf
Images provided by Anne Chapman.
 See https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-politics-36616028