The Prince of Wales has called on small family farmers in the UK and around the world to join together in a cooperative movement using sustainable farming methods and putting their plight at the center of environmental action.
Smallholder farmers, in the UK and the EU, are facing their biggest upheaval in more than a generation, with the loss of farm subsidies and new post-Brexit trade deals in the UK, and sweeping reforms of the EU common agricultural policy to be implemented. announced this week in Brussels.
Writing for The Guardian, Prince Charles has urged small farmers to come together to tackle the coming crises and shift to a low carbon economy: “There are small farms around the world that could come together in a committed global cooperative. with food production based on high environmental standards … With the skills of ethical entrepreneurs and the determination of farmers to make it work, I would like to think that it could provide a very real and hopeful future. “
Agriculture is undergoing a “massive transition” and the needs of family farmers must be taken into account, the prince said.
“For me, it is essential that the contribution of small family farmers is duly recognized; they must be a key part of any just, inclusive, equitable and just transition to a sustainable future. To do this, we must ensure that British family farmers have the tools and confidence to cope with the rapid transition to regenerative farming systems that our planet demands, ”he said.
Analysis of agricultural data for The Guardian has shown that small farmers were already facing an increasingly difficult future, before the impacts of Brexit and the Covid-19 pandemic. The EU has lost a large number of livestock farms in particular, with 3.4 million between 2005 and 2016, the last year for which full data was available.
At the same time, the number of head of cattle on farms has increased on average, a clear sign of intensification in the sector.
In the UK, a quarter of livestock farms, numbering 45,500 farms, were lost in 12 years between 2005 and 2016. That loss was part of a longer-term trend for all farms, with more than 110,000 farms that disappeared from the 319,000 farms in 1990.
Many farmers have warned that Brexit could accelerate the loss of smaller farms as UK markets open to lower-cost imports from outside the EU that previously faced tariffs and other barriers. The government has been phasing in new support to farmers, based on payments to provide public goods such as tree planting, wildlife protection and soil care, but it is not yet clear how these will work in practice.
The ministers also announced a query last week in giving lump sums to farmers who want to retire, accompanied by support to people who want to dedicate themselves to agriculture, but cannot afford it. However, some farmers are concerned that the plan will encourage a further exodus of small farmers.
The Prince of Wales has long been a supporter of sustainable agriculture and earlier this year launched Terra Carta, a roadmap to 2030 for businesses to move towards a low-carbon and environmentally sustainable future. He said this could provide a template for farmers to join together in cooperatives to reach consumers who are increasingly interested in buying locally and from small producers.
“These [small] farmers are some of the hardest working and most innovative small businesses and, in many ways, we depend on them far more than most of us will ever know, ”wrote the prince.
Minette Batters, president of the National Farmers Union, echoed his views: “We would not want to see a loss of the traditional family farm. We would lose the culture and heritage of this country, where 70% of the land is cultivated and the expectation is that at the end of each agricultural track there will be a family. Our national identity is based on this. “
UK small farmers are increasingly concerned about what Brexit will mean for them, and the government’s upcoming trade deal with Australia is causing widespread unrest. Many farmers told The Guardian they were alarmed at the impact the influx of cheap meat and other products could have on small farmers and the British countryside.
Liz Lewis, who with her husband, David, farms 650 hectares (1,600 acres) in North Wiltshire, including a herd of beef cattle that produces 100 calves a year, said: “This will be a backdrop for small farmers. There are already many fewer. It won’t happen overnight, it will be a slow burn, but in a few years you will see it. “
He warned that the UK landscape would be transformed, as it has in the US, into widespread factory farms with a green varnish. “It is sad for the younger generation; it’s really hard to see how they can make money unless they step up, betting on big feedlot [of the kind common in the US]”She said.” You have to imagine what the countryside will be like in 10 or 20 years, it will not be what we are used to. There will be more trees, but behind those trees there will be industrialized farms. “
Tim Ashton, in North Shropshire, said the impact of the loss of small farms was already evident, even in the most rural areas. “What we are seeing around us is a social cleansing. The local population cannot afford to live here and the small farms are disappearing. A great deal of gentrification is taking place; one hopes to see it in Cornwall or the Cotswolds, but now it will even come here. “
Consumers would also lose out from the decline of small farms, said Ruth Hancock, who describes herself as a “new entrant” who faced many barriers to establishing herself as a small farmer. She said: “We are at great risk of creating a two-tier food system similar to the one in the US, where we may end up having some smaller or organic producers catering to the concerned and well-off citizen. Meanwhile, the vast majority have to settle for imports with the lowest common denominator, because they cannot afford to buy better or they do not understand the difference ”.
A spokesman for the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs said: “Our historic plans for a renewed agricultural sector will transform the way we produce food and support farmers in England. Through these changes, instead of paying farmers and landowners for the amount of land they manage, we will pay them to provide environmental and animal health and welfare outcomes. We are eliminating the current subsidy, the basic payment scheme, gradually and progressively. This means that initially those who claim lower amounts of subsidy will receive a smaller reduction in their payments when we make the first reduction later this year ”.
Research on the data of this piece by Kunal Solanky
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George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism