The Mint:

Good morning, Sue, and thank you very much for giving some of your time to talk to The Mint.

Sue Pritchard:

Good morning, Henry. I am delighted to be here.

The Mint:

Well, there seems so much going on at the moment in the land management space, in terms of now we have a food price hike, but we’ve also got the changes from Brexit, new policy, the environmental land management, carbon sequestration. So much going on. What do you think of these key drivers and more are going to make the most difference to how land management will look in 10 years’ time? Look into that crystal ball.

Sue Pritchard:

I mean, that is a really good question. I think six months ago, I would’ve talked about the green recovery following COVID, the global pandemic and how important it is to focus on recovering economies around the world through that green lens. Six month ago, I was saying this has been a conflagration of crises, Brexit and the pandemic and the climate and nature crises, that arguably are genuinely existential. Now of course, we have a whole new crisis. We have war in Europe. We have war in a part of Europe that is crucial for a whole range of sectors, the food sector particularly, but also for minerals and for other really important commodities. I wish we could say these were unforeseen crises, but of course they’re not really. All of these crises have been bubbling around and on various risk registers for a couple of decades.

So, absolutely, yes, if you look at the sorts of things that people were starting to talk about from 2014 and the anxiety around Russia’s ambitions, their own geopolitical ambitions, which are deeply rooted in their sense, or Putin’s perhaps particularly, sense of self and nationhood and influence over territory, but also it is about resource, isn’t it? It’s also about having control over parts of the world that are rich in resources.

The Mint:

Yeah.

Sue Pritchard:

I think certainly there have been conversations, and if I know about them, I’m very, very confident that there’ll be plenty of much more important people than me who knew about them, that saw that as a risk, as a particular risk to geopolitical stability, and to therefore other huge potential crises. So coming back to your question, which is a really, really good one, what will be the driver? What will be the driver that will change the way we think about land and land use in 10 years’ time?

I think we often get to tipping points, that it possibly isn’t just the one or two, or even three crises that can be seen to be the most significant, but it’s the coming together of crises that are deeply, deeply interconnected, that reveal to us how incredibly interconnected and interdependent the world is. How our global food system is absolutely connected to geopolitical security and climate, our actions, actions that we choose to undertake to respond to the climate crisis, the nature crisis, which is becoming ever more urgent. We’re two years into this decade of action, to this critical decade of action, and our ability, our collective ability around the world to really focus attention on those actions is being really dissipated.

But I think the thing that actually does make me very nervous at the moment is that we have an opportunity to radically rethink the future we want, because these crises demonstrate to us how critical it is to do that, to stop relying on fossil fuels, to stop relying on fossil fuels for energy, for food production, fertiliser heavy, agri-chem heavy methods of food production. So we have additional signals that prompt action in a particular pathway, but at the same time, we have those sectors who have much to lose, the most to lose perhaps, as we make those transitions using these moments as an argument for business as usual. We need more oil, let’s frack.

The Mint:

Well, what I was wondering as well, because I mean obviously farming is not all one thing, or land management is not all one thing by any means. So maybe to sort of focus more down, it seems obviously there’s a key difference between livestock and arable, and particularly presumably if you’re in a big arable space and you’ve got a big farm, highly capital intensive, standard industrial farming, at this point presumably you’re thinking, “Well, food prices are going up, some of the competition taken out. I could probably keep betting on broadly more of the same model, can’t I?” Rather, if you’d been thinking, “Well, should I be moving towards regenerative farming?” Well, there seems to be still some big money to be made in keeping with the basic industrial farming, isn’t there?

Sue Pritchard:

Yeah, I think there are lots of people asking that very, very question, but in my conversations with farmers in the last week or so, they’re also pointing out that whilst the commodity prices might be going up, the input prices are also going up. Fertiliser price is also going up, oil prices are also going up, so the cost of doing that business is also going skywards. There are still a fair few farmers who are weighing up a whole heap of conditions now, and that will be the cost of carrying on with highly intensive agriculture, in the face of weak government signals if I’m honest. The government strategy for ELMs and other schemes is clear, but the support they’re providing for those and the quantum of cash that’s attached to those schemes is not sufficiently incentivizing farmers to make, some farmers, to make that shift, farmers who wouldn’t have been doing it anyway. So there’s that. There’s…

The Mint:

Okay, can I come back? Because I think that’s a really good point, that input prices are shooting up, and obviously actually getting phosphates and stuff is more challenging, isn’t it? So what are the options? If you’re used to your big industrial farm with big input and so forth, what could you do to reduce your inputs significantly? What sort of change does that mean? Does that take you into agroecology space at all?

Sue Pritchard:

That is absolutely the most plausible and fair, and sustainable in the long-term direction of travel, but it’s…

The Mint:

Is it economically immediately, does it help you if you’re facing all these input prices?

Sue Pritchard:

Well, it certainly does, yeah. There absolutely are farmers who can point to massive reductions in input prices. One of our colleagues, Johnnie Balfour, in Scotland, will point to saving hundreds of thousands of pounds across his estate in taking out inputs, which absolutely pay for any transitionary costs and any initial yield losses that might occur. So there is a very, very clear and plausible transition pathway into agroecology for arable, introducing livestock into rotations to provide natural fertilisation using other farming techniques, using cover crops, no-till and so on. There’s a whole range of techniques, but I mean, let’s be realistic. As much as I am an advocate for that transition, nothing happens very quickly in farming to be honest, nothing good happens quickly in farming.

It takes time to regenerate soil fertility, it takes time to put in carbon sequestering green infrastructure, it takes time to rehabilitate biodiversity and nature for integrated natural pest management schemes. A proper planned transition to more regenerative or agroecological farming practises will take time, and that’s what we constantly bang onto government, that government needs to support the transition for the sector in exactly the same way as it supports the transition away from fossil fuels to renewables. 

The Mint:

You mentioned a role for livestock on arable, which I think is really interesting. Is that the future for livestock? If you were a livestock, medium sized, because obviously livestock farmers don’t tend to be so big, do they, as arable? What are the sort of choices you face? I mean, you’ve got a potential to change land use obviously if you’re very low quality, but what sort of thinking goes on if you’re a medium livestock farmer at this point?

Sue Pritchard:

Right now, at the moment, price are high for beef and sheep, which is a little bit of a surprise because many of us were not anticipating that at the moment. The prompts, the drivers to change livestock farming practises are not coming from market signals at the moment, unfortunately.

The Mint:

So a livestock farmer is seeing prices, but doesn’t know how they’re going to stick around in the future?

Sue Pritchard:

Yes.

The Mint:

And is faced with this possibility of taking on a more environmental management, changing land use, obviously particularly if they have lower quality land. Where do you think they’re going to land?

Sue Pritchard:

There are two issues here. There’s one issue that’s associated with market signals, and then there is another issue that is associated with government policy and government’s intentions. Now, the issue that we face at the moment is the market signals are rather different to the ones that we expected, with prices rising, but policy signals moving away from intensively produced livestock I think are growing. They’re clearly growing. So moving away from grain fed, grain fed ruminants particularly, but also grain fed pigs and poultry, has got to be really important. So when we’re thinking about pressures on land use, if we’re growing feed for animals rather than food for humans, that is arguably a very poor use of our land space.

The Mint:

Presumably those input prices are going up, so they’re also faced with if they can cut their inputs, and livestock, if you’re cutting inputs you have to reduce intensity, do you, basically?

Sue Pritchard:

Yes.

The Mint:

And use less inputs apart from grass.

Sue Pritchard:

Yes, and again, this isn’t a thing that you can quickly do overnight, because actually a lot of the breeds that farmers have become used to using more of, they require quite a lot of effort. They require quite a lot of input. The continental breeds that are very meaty, that are double muscled around their haunches, they’re very meaty, it’s the sort of cut that the supermarket buyers like, because you get a very lean, meaty cut of a single animal, they require feeding, they often lamb early in sheds that need power and lighting. They often need additional interventions, veterinary interventions quite often. The big continentals are almost too big to be born easily. So to get to a place where we’re using livestock that is better adapted for pasture fed systems, extensive pasture fed systems, it requires a bit of a shift in breeding assumptions. Native breeds by and large are much better suited for those kinds of systems.

The Mint:

So again, quite a big change to get the inputs down, but pressure presumably potentially to do that?

Sue Pritchard:

Yes.

The Mint:

Because depending on how things are looking with inputs versus the market prices.

Sue Pritchard:

Yes.

The Mint:

How does all the move to so-called nature-based solutions fit into all this? And the potential, I suppose, for getting finance to invest in carbon sequestration and into net biodiversity gain, et cetera, et cetera, is this do you think of interest or is it marginal to most farmers, or where does that sit?

Sue Pritchard:

Agroecology is a quintessential nature-based solution, which has beneficial impacts across a range of criteria. It’s sequestering carbon through careful grassland management, through integrating green infrastructure into the farm landscape, through minimising greenhouse gas emissions, through different feeding regimes and so on, and it also supports good farm livelihoods and viable farm businesses. So as a nature-based solution, agroecology, in my view, in our view, is an absolute no-brainer.

The Mint:

But it’s not what the markets are looking for, are they? They’re looking for trees and the things that are cut and dried in terms of being able to measure and market and sell.

Sue Pritchard:

You’re exactly right, and I think that there are very serious issues associated with this rush to land acquisition by corporations or private equity to offset their emissions elsewhere, for two reasons. First of all, they’re not minimising their carbon emissions elsewhere, they’re simply trying to offset. But the implications for landscapes and communities that live in those landscapes, particularly in places like Wales and Devon and Scotland, where land is relatively cheap to acquire, could be huge for communities, for ecosystems, but also for longterm food security.

Now, that’s not to say that tree planting in some parts of the country is not a really, really good thing, but I think as you’ll have heard me say before, Henry, we need a planned, open, transparent deliberative process for land use decisions. And it just is hugely dangerous for the opportunity for thinking and planning and decision making to be taken away from communities, from governments, from people, with all sorts of interconnected interests in what happens on land, to have those decisions taken away because land has been acquired for single purposes. I think that is a real crisis.

The Mint:

So, let’s think our head into your sort of carbon sequesters trying to, intermediaries trying to find the right land to make a good buck to sell on into the market. Firstly, I suppose, as you said they look for cheaper, then what’s the one thing they’d grow on that land if they were going to get the cheapest carbon hit, if you like?

Sue Pritchard:

Well, the story from the seventies was sticking fast growing Sitka spruces across the land for fast growing timber and a timber market at the end of it. Now, it’s more difficult to do that these days because you need licences to change land use, so it’s a bit more difficult to go hell for leather after those fast growing, softwood monocultures, but there aren’t yet enough frameworks in place or regulations in place to make sure that any tree planting has regard to the ecosystem of that particular place. Grasslands are really important carbon sequesters in their own, right as is peat, as is wetland. So chucking trees on ecosystems without having due regard to what they’re already good at and doing well could be just incredibly unhelpful at best, and really destructive at worst.

The Mint:

And have you seen this happen? Have you got examples of where this is happening, or is it not yet? It’s a future concern, if you like?

Sue Pritchard:

Well, certainly it’s probably still at the level of anecdotal evidence, but it’s quite strong anecdote, places in Wales that, farms in Wales that have been acquired at a really high cost, removing the opportunity for locals to buy that land in what would’ve been the kind of expected market price, and being bought by private equity and by British Airways, is another company that’s been buying up land in Wales. Now, the good news is that local communities are not taking this lying down, and so there are some good examples of local communities approaching buyers to say, “We expect you to work with us to make sure that this isn’t a destructive project.” So there is some glimpses of hope that strong and articulate communities are engaging with private finance to bring in multiple considerations and not just kind of unitary considerations.

The Mint:

But what do they need to do about this? I mean, do they protest? They have no legal basis to enforce that, do they? I mean, it’s private land,.

Sue Pritchard:

Yes. Yeah, yeah. Well, there are some regulatory arrangements that they might be able to draw on, some of which is about land use change. So they could be quite protest-y and difficult and lodge objections, but the most effective approaches come from thoughtful and respectful conversations, and inviting private equity into better conversations really, better generative conversations. There was a huge initiative in Wales a few years ago called From Summit To Sea, which was a very well known example of very well-meaning foundations buying large tracts of land or working with large tracts of land to reforest from the mountains down to the sea in West Wales. And that went very, very badly wrong in the first instance, where communities felt completely excluded from decision making, and it almost became the poster boy for how not to go about these conversations.

Now it has been recovered, thank goodness, and communities and foundations have found a better way of talking about what could happen with multiple benefits for those rural communities in West Wales, which were feeling very, very concerned about what was about to happen to them. So it’s not all bad news, but at the moment, you’ll have heard many people say, Henry, I’m sure, that it feels like the Wild West. That people are kind of crowding into territory, people with power and resources are crowding into territory, and there are absolutely insufficient frameworks to ensure that the right things are being done in the right places, in the right way, with the right longterm opportunities. Because as we start said right at the very start of this conversation, the potential for yet more crises to come and change the balance of criteria in our decision making is still there for us.

So we need approaches that are capable of being flexible and responsive in the face of so many different scenarios in front of us. The climate crisis, the nature crisis, a green and fair and just recovery, and now issues around food security and food sovereignty and being able to take responsibility for producing more of the food that we need to consume here in the UK.

The Mint:

Well, this is an interesting point, isn’t it? Just the last point I want a quick conversation, is this sort of cultural difference that I think exists between farmers, who often go in, their identity and their being is about food production, and against the conservationists who come with an environmental agenda, which I get the impression sometimes farmers don’t see as real farming. It’s not what they do, it’s not who they are. Is that realistic or is that changing, do you think?

Sue Pritchard:

I think it’s changing hugely, actually. I think it’s changing hugely. The younger farmers… I mean, you’re right. Your point is a good one, that for lots of farmers, what they do is of course about making a living, making a good enough living, but it’s also about doing a good thing. So feeding the country, and indeed feeding the world depending on what you’re producing, is a way of feeling very good about what you do when you’re wet and cold in the middle of winter.

The Mint:

It’s not an easy life, is it?

Sue Pritchard:

Or at midnight. For the vast majority of farmers and people who work in farming, it is a tough, demanding life, which is constant. You’re constantly on call for a crisis, which might be your livestock, or it might be a flood. It’s really, really all-consuming, and that’s why lots of people love it so much, because it really is deeply, deeply engaging. For older farmers, the feeding the world mantra was very much part of justifying why it was often quite hard. I think for younger farmers, I hear over and over again an absolute passion and commitment for playing their part in acting on the climate and nature crisis, and increasingly on the public health crisis. Recognising that what they produce needs to be healthy and sustainably produced, and preferably not going into a kind of anonymized food chain, commodity food chain, where they have no idea what happens to the product, but rather starts to produce more food for their local communities or their regions.

There’s lots of farmers thinking about shorter supply chains, selling direct to the public, collaborating to sell direct to anchor institutions like schools or local authorities in public procurement. So I see, thank goodness, to my great relief and hope and optimism, very, very many farmers who absolutely understand the scale of the multiple crises in front of us and want to be part of the solution across all of those different, but nonetheless really interconnected, criteria.

The Mint:

Brilliant. Well, that is a very good positive note to end. Thank you very much, Sue, for that overview of where we stand. Great bit of crystal ball gazing. I think it’s a really fascinating conversation.

Sue Pritchard:

Thank you. Thank you, Henry. It’s a pleasure to join you.

 

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