Tanglewest Douglas, an undergraduate ecology student at Lancaster University, reflects on a film showing organised by the Lancaster University node and the Landworkers’ Alliance, and what both the film and the debate that followed tell us about current questions around the future of food and farming.
Cut the CAP
The Lancaster POLLEN node recently organised a viewing of ‘In Our Hands: Seeding Change’, a film about small scale farms and land working operations in the UK, and the challenges they face in their establishment and running. Many of these seem obvious, though they often go unstated or unconsidered. But, once they had been highlighted at a recent film showing, the possible causes and solutions sparked much debate amongst the audience members as we will discuss. This was particularly evident during a following Skype interview with a representative member of a land worker’s union: The Landworker’s Alliance (the LWA). The LWA is a union that was not only involved in the production of the film, but also took the starring role, as they provided the small farmers, belonging to the Alliance, that were the subjects.
The key point in the narrative of the film was that it can be very hard for these often organic, unindustrialized farms to turn a profit. This may be due to competition with supermarkets, providing cheap, readily available food; difficulty moving produce; or simply due to a limited season of production. Though these farms are often incredibly productive relative to their land area, getting the capital necessary to employ farm workers, buy machinery and even maintain infrastructure can be very challenging. Many smaller farms rely on the help of volunteers, keen to gain experience or even just hoping for a temporary escape from the drudgery of a 9 to 5 life by working the land (LWA, 2017).
The European Union’s Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) also contributes significantly to these problems. It is designed to reward beneficiaries merely for owning land that is used for agriculture, but many of the smaller farms are disadvantaged by this, as they don’t have enough land to qualify for the Basic Payment Scheme (BPS). The BSP is the system through which a large majority of the money available as subsidies is paid out. A farm needs to consist of at least 5 hectares of land to qualify for CAP payments and due to the nature of the LWA many of their members’ farms do not meet this requirement (Rural Payments Agency, 2018). Some farms of the LWA even consist of less than one hectare of land, though these are the smallest of small farms. While small hold farmers may be eligible for other funding through the rural development scheme (RDS), this receives a much smaller proportion of the EU budget and a wider range of rural businesses and projects, including tourism projects, for funding through the RDS (Rural Payments Agency, 2017). At the same time, the focus of subsidies is changing, moving more towards reducing environmental degradation on agricultural land. ‘Green payments’ have been introduced to incentivise farmers to improve the quality of their land through their agricultural practices, and farmers can now fail to qualify for CAP payments if they do not meet certain standards of animal welfare and low environmental impact. Though these are criteria in which small farms often excel, still the farmers of these small plots are not often rewarded by the government for their beneficial impact on the land they occupy.
Despite most of the food in the world being produced on small farms and for local communities, this is not how most food is supplied in the UK (FAO, 2017). Half of our food is sourced internationally, as the UK lacks the climate to grow the fruits and vegetables we consume daily, other than potatoes – though we do grow an abundance of potatoes grown on very large farms. Meanwhile, we also import considerable amounts of other agricultural products, for example, the 3 million tons a year of soy we use for feeding livestock (DEFRA, 2017). This leads to very high carbon emissions from transport, and to food being sourced from huge industrial farms from around the world. But even within the UK, agriculture is dominated by a system of fewer larger farms, rather than many small ones. Due to the inherent size of small farms, they often receive no subsidies at all. Because of this lack of governmental support, and as it is dished out to the larger industrial farms, many farmers must also work outside of their farms to supplement their income with other work. They often earn more than 50% of their income this way, to be able to financially maintain their farms and lifestyles (LWA, 2017).
There are numerous obvious problems with the industrialized, monoculture farms that dominate the food markets of the UK, such as:
- The food security risks that stem from the lack of genetic diversity on monoculture farms.
- Considerable soil degradation from the use of heavy machinery and choice of crops
- The misuse of fertilizers causing hyper-eutrophication in surrounding systems.
- The removal of hedgerows and other important bridges and spaces for local wildlife to make way for the farms.
- The uses of pesticides and herbicides – particularly in relation to GM crops – further damaging local wildlife and creating resistant strains of weed and pest species’.
All of these are raised as serious concerns in much of the publicity that the LWA puts out, and the list could go on. However, we must still face the fact that despite all these seemingly blatant problems, avoided by the small, organic farms that were the subject of the film, huge farms are still the dominant source of food in Western markets.
Because the cost of production on small farms is higher, their produce often comes at a premium. This means such farms are very dependent on a local community that is willing to pay more for their food. This dependency could be considered an advantage, as it can help build stronger links with the community that they operate in, but it is also a vulnerability. Though there are examples of food being produced at a competitive price, often this is not a plausible way to make enough money to keep the farm running. If the farm cannot find a niche where it can be competitive in the market, it is likely to fail. Small farms employ many more workers per acre of land than industrialized farms, which are predominantly designed around efficiency, and labour is expensive. To make a profit, the money made from produce must be maximised, and though for small farms this can be done through models such as Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) schemes, most often this is done through selling goods at prices above what you would expect in a supermarket (LWA, 2017).
The money we spend on food has changed dramatically over the past 100 years. The proportion of a household’s weekly budget being spent on food has gone down enormously. While this may reflect increases in rent and the cost of utilities, this change is facilitated by the unethically and consistently low prices of food in supermarkets made possible in many instances by the CAP. Major reforms to the CAP in 2005 were aimed at reducing the overproduction caused by insuring the price of agricultural products for farmers against the market, a problem that also had large ramifications outside of the EU. But the current system still has drawbacks. The BPS could be considered a subsidy for farmers that allows the prices of agricultural products drop, but this price cannot be matched by those who do not receive such funding. As the financial cost of food has gone down, the environmental cost of food has gone up, a change that is greatly implicated in the struggle that these small farmers now face. But, this is not something that we can change overnight.
This brings us to one of the biggest objections levelled at the narrative the film presented of small farms: that their produce is inaccessible for many people. The story of ground-roots operations bringing healthy, green food to the people around them did not resonate with the experiences of many audience members. These farms cater to what was considered to be a very middle class and privileged section of society, people with the money and time to favour what seemed to be viewed as the more moral, but exclusive choice for food. Not only were the prices deemed as exclusionary, but it was suggested that the kind of products that were being displayed in the film, outside of simply fruit and vegetables, were aimed squarely at wealthy, middle-class consumers, for example breads made from heritage wheat grains sold at twice the price of the equivalent bread from Sainsbury’s. The members of the LWA identify as staunchly working class, on the basis that they have manual labour jobs, and they refuted what they seemed to take as an accusation of elitism. In fact, as members of La Via Campesina they identify as a part of the peasantry.
This disconnect between how the members of the LWA perceive themselves, and how the audience viewed them, was quite striking. But, no matter the disjunction in perception of class, the point still stands: with a rising dependency for even those who are employed on food banks and food clubs, ever increasing childhood obesity linked to food prices and poverty, and the inaccessibility of food produced on small farms in large cities, their produce cannot be the immediate answer for everyone. While the highest earning households spend approximately 10% of their budget on food, the lowest income households spend 23% of their budget on food meaning that increased food prices will have a disproportionately higher exclusionary effect on the poorest members of society (Levell, 2017).
There are obvious steps that could be taken to start to mitigate and change this situation. Some of the many suggestions by the audience members to end the plight of small farms included changing government regulations to help small businesses, like farms, by providing subsidies without a minimum land requirement, and not encouraging accumulation of land, as well as helping entrants through education in farming and practical skills to make it a more viable lifestyle for workers. Many in the LWA are viewing Brexit as an opportunity to renegotiate these systems of payment. But whether we are capable of this is another question entirely. Our society is built on capitalist principles. These farms operate as businesses and are trying to turn a profit, despite the lack of certain protections. And competition is immense.
It was also suggested that the contention between these small farms and supermarkets, viewing them almost as the opposition, may be one of the reasons that they become so inaccessible to many people. If the farmers in the LWA viewed supermarkets as an opportunity rather than as their adversaries in a highly competitive market and could strike deals to supply supermarkets for a ‘local produce’ section, for example, this could be beneficial for all. Not only could this lead to much greater job security and stability for farmers with less land, or farmers producing seasonally, it could also make prices more competitive and local organic food more accessible for people, particularly in large cities. Some of the operations presented in the film were limited simply by the distance they could drive from their farms, an issue that could easily be overcome working with larger supermarkets. This seems unlikely to happen, however, due to the differences in ethos of the LWA and most supermarket chains.
The absolute nature of the LWA’s opinions was particularly apparent in their attitudes towards GM crops. This is largely irrelevant in Europe, due to the very limited market for GM crops, but some audience members seemed concerned by the statements of the LWA’s representative regarding genetic modification, when she said that they were not used by any members and that the LWA were totally against their use. This opposition was not directed only at the worst case of corporations selling sterile seeds, or at selling them to unprotected farmers at very inflated prices. They seemed opposed to the actual scientific process behind their creation. GM was compared the process of plant breeding, a process that can be considered a slower version of genetic modification, which has of course been used for as long as humans have had agriculture, as an objection to this stance.
Despite there being some questioning of the narrative presented in the film, in general the audience all seemed in favour of more organic and locally grown food. This may have been influenced by the fact that this event was organised by a university Geography department, and so the majority of the audience were students, a notoriously liberal subsection of society. The disadvantages faced by the small farms were acknowledged, and condemnation was levelled at the government, especially the Tories. Eventually the discussion reached its conclusion, as it always seems to do: everyone present agreed ‘Capitalism is bad’, at least in its current form. Unfortunately, no one in the group has yet found a solution.
- Laughton, R (2017). A Matter of Scale. The Landworker’s Alliance, The Centre for Agroecology, Water and Resilience at Coventry University
- Rural Payments Agency (2018). Basic Payment Scheme: rules for 2018.
- Rural Payments Agency (2017). Rural Development Programme for England
- FAO (2017). The future of food and Agriculture- Trends and Challenges. Rome.
- DEFRA (2017). Food Statistics in your pocket 2017
- Levell, P. et al. (2017) The exposure of households’ food spending to tariff changes and exchange rate movements, The Institute for Fiscal Studies.