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Trade deals could kill UK government’s sustainable food vision

Brexit must herald a “step change” in farming practice in which environmental standards are raised and food production better protects nature.

The recommendations are in a new report published by the Green Alliance, which noted the “danger that the UK could be heading towards oases of nature surrounded by intensively farmed deserts”.

The think tank also warned that any efforts to make UK food production truly sustainable would “wither on the wine” if future trade deals flood the market with cheap food produced to lower environmental standards.

The Green Alliance argues that DEFRA’s recent proposals to replace EU agriculture subsidies with a scheme that pays for public goods are “absolutely right”.

However, farmers will need better advice, as well as rewards and incentives, if they are to build their businesses around high quality sustainable food.

“There is considerable good practice amongst farmers, the food and drink industry and retailers, but it is not sufficient to change the overall picture of an industry not yet working in harmony with nature,” the Alliance said.

The report highlighted that agriculture accounts for 10% of the UK’s carbon emissions – efforts to reduce emissions have ground to a halt of late – whilst the “dominant modes of food production are causing degraded soils, biodiversity loss and water contamination”.

Angela Francis, the organisation’s chief economist and author of the report, said farms are becoming commercially as well as environmentally unsustainable. “A step change is needed in farming practice if the UK is to reverse environmental declines overall,” she said.

“If the farming industry maintains and builds on the UK’s existing environmental standards – which, although high in global terms, are clearly not high enough to reverse natural decline – it has the potential to turn these trends around,” she added.

Francis called for more detail from the government on how its future policies will encourage more sustainable food production. She also warned of the impact that future trade deals could have on sustainable food production in the UK.

“A successful domestic policy for sustainable food production is contingent on trade strategy,” she wrote. “A vision of farms with high welfare standards and precision agriculture, growing high quality, sustainable, low carbon food would wither on the vine faced with a trade policy that opened up market access to food produced under lower environmental standards. Farms are businesses, and no business can thrive if it is undercut in its home market.”

In February, the government published its proposals for a new agricultural subsidy system that will see payments based on the provision of public goods rather than the amount of land farmed. The consultation runs until May 8th 2018.