Farming the Future: Transforming the Ownership of Food Systems Research & Data

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Farming the Future: Transforming the Ownership of Food Systems Research & Data

Executive Summary

Food systems account for around a third of global greenhouse gas emissions and are a primary driver of land use change and deforestation. Further, even though sufficient calories are produced worldwide to feed everyone, the inequalities perpetuated by the food system mean that around 800 million people globally are food insecure. These dynamics are reflected by the situation in the UK, where agriculture accounts for around 10 percent of greenhouse gas emissions and represents the main driver of biodiversity loss. Further, only around 55 percent of food consumed in the UK is produced domestically, meaning that the social and environmental impact of much production is offshored. Finally, the COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated the already worrying levels of food insecurity faced by citizens.

Research published in The Lancet found that between April and July of 2020 the share of Britons unable to access healthy or nutritious food rose from 3.2 percent  to 16.3 percent.

Meanwhile, food producers themselves face a precarious and uncertain future related to changing subsidy regimes, trade deals and increasingly high costs of inputs. Clearly change is required, a fact recognised by governments, as recent legislation throughout the UK around net zero, environmental targets and agricultural subsidies shows.

However, the exact shape of the agricultural change required over the coming decades is yet to be determined. This report takes this fact as a starting point. In doing so, it highlights three processes integral to any form of food systems change:

  1. Research and Development (R&D) towards new agricultural methods and technologies
  2. The production, analysis, and ownership of agricultural data
  3. Agricultural Knowledge and Information Systems (AKIS) intended to popularise and develop food systems practices

Policies and approaches towards these aspects of agricultural change today will have significant consequences on the food systems of tomorrow. This report makes this point by exploring two future pathways for agriculture in the UK and worldwide. The first shows how existing patterns of concentrated ownership and corporate power will drive an agricultural transition that reproduces existing inequalities, and environmental injustice. It demonstrates how narrowly focused R&D, tightly policed intellectual property rights and the enclosure and commodification of agricultural data will further entrench ongoing processes of dispossession, value extraction and fossil-fuel dependence.

The alternative pathway, however, offers the potential for a future in which agricultural change is accompanied by social change. This vision takes its inspiration from the principles of the growing movement for agroecology. An agroecological approach promotes farming with nature, rather than a reliance on synthetic inputs. It also calls for a redistribution of power that puts producers and citizens, rather than agri-business, in control of food systems. As such, an agroecological approach compliments growing calls for the democratisation of local economies and the promotion of alternative models of ownership like co-operatives and community land trusts. Within an agroecological paradigm, R&D, data and knowledge exchange processes take a different form. Rather than relying on centralised corporate research programmes and opaque hoarding of data, collaborative networks of farmer-led research, participatory politics, community knowledge exchange and open, publicly facilitated agricultural data are central. This could help build a food system with economic, social, and environmental benefits to farmers, citizens, and local ecologies. These benefits would derive from shorter supply chains creating jobs in regional food systems, reduced emissions associated with processing and transport, the end of harmful synthetic inputs and the phase out of intensive animal agriculture.

Without significant policy interventions, this pathway to a socially and environmentally just food system based on resilient and diverse regional food systems and short, transparent supply chains will struggle to become a reality. Failure would be tragic given the changes Brexit requires of our food system. Departure from the European Union has created significant disruption but also serves as an opportunity to break away from European agricultural policy. The nations of the United Kingdom are uniquely positioned to forge a novel path that would make them a world leader in agricultural policy making fit for the 21st century.  As such, this report offers the following policy recommendations that would facilitate this change:

[.num-list][.num-list-num]1[.num-list-num][.num-list-text]Reorientation of public R&D spending away from efforts to ‘sustainably’ intensify farming and towards organic and agroecological farming and alternative food networks.[.num-list-text][.num-list]

[.num-list][.num-list-num]2[.num-list-num][.num-list-text]Action on Intellectual Property (IP) rights to ensure ideas developed to help transform agriculture are shared rather than enclosed.[.num-list-text][.num-list]

[.num-list][.num-list-num]3[.num-list-num][.num-list-text]Consultation and legislation on rights to agricultural data that recognises, as with other sectors involving connected devices, the need to prevent data, knowledge, and power accumulating in the hands of a small number of powerful corporations.[.num-list-text][.num-list]

[.num-list][.num-list-num]4[.num-list-num][.num-list-text]Publicly funded, free-to-use agri-environmental benchmarking services for farmers to ensure that agri-environmental data vital to improving farming systems is put to work for the common good, helping to steer a just transition in agriculture.[.num-list-text][.num-list]

[.num-list][.num-list-num]5[.num-list-num][.num-list-text]A data-driven land use strategy that pushes for greater transparency in land ownership and subsidy data, using agri-environmental data to help develop planning and policy that promotes agricultural diversity, access to land and resilient regional food systems.[.num-list-text][.num-list]

[.num-list][.num-list-num]6[.num-list-num][.num-list-text]Land reform that facilitates agricultural research, extension, and transformation by taking measures to bring parts of massive land holdings into public hands. This land should be redistributed as county farms, agricultural research centres and community land trusts. Equally, where land is already in public hands, putting it to agricultural use should be incentivised, including in urban or peri-urban areas.[.num-list-text][.num-list]

[.num-list][.num-list-num]7[.num-list-num][.num-list-text]Regional delivery bodies for research and extension that provide institutional capacity to deliver these changes whilst facilitating participatory processes that bring together and support existing networks of farmers, citizens, and third-sector organisations.[.num-list-text][.num-list]

[.num-list][.num-list-num]8[.num-list-num][.num-list-text]International investment and advocacy to ensure the capacity for socially just global agricultural change is possible. This includes working to dismantle and reimagine the existing regime of trade and IP. It is also essential that the UK offers financial and technological support, in line with its historic climate debt, to help communities worldwide adapt to and mitigate climate change through agriculture.[.num-list-text][.num-list]

Full Text
Farming the Future: Transforming the Ownership of Food Systems Research & Data