The launch of the National Food Strategy today makes welcome recommendations for radical changes to our food system and the way we manage land to better protect people and the environment. The report recognises the damage our current food system is doing, including pollution, biodiversity loss and greenhouse gas emissions.

One issue that is not mentioned, but that is symptomatic of the current unsustainable management of farmland and food production, is the over-reliance on artificial inputs like pesticides.

Evidence shows pesticides impact negatively on wildlife, the wider environment such as water quality, and human health, as well as impacting important biodiversity like pollinators, pest predators and soil organisms. It is in the interests of farmers and the public that we see a huge reduction in the amount of these chemicals used in our food systems.

“The environmental damage caused by intensive agriculture must also be addressed. Our exit from the European Union has already required the government to draw up a new system of agricultural subsidies. The proposed Environmental Land Management scheme (ELMs) will – if properly implemented – reward those farmers who manage their land sustainably and work to restore biodiversity. But it won’t be enough on its own.” National Food Strategy

In recognition of the fact that this issue needs to be tackled, in their recently published draft National Action Plan the Government has committed to setting reduction targets for pesticides by 2022. However so far, there has been very little demonstration of how farmers will be supported to make this transition – which will be absolutely vital in a future sustainable food system. Many farmers are demonstrating this can be done, but in order for this to happen at the scale needed, financial support, research into nature-friendly alternatives, and access to independent advice are vital.

As the UK develops post-Brexit support for farmers via new land management schemes, we must not forget the issue of pesticide use. The government have committed to increasing uptake of integrated pest management – which is a way of managing pests with minimal or no synthetic pesticides – but have not yet demonstrated to farmers how they will encourage or support this.

George Young of Fobbing Farm in Essex said “farmers care passionately about our land and soils, and want to keep them healthy, profitable and productive whilst being a haven for nature. We don’t inherently want to use pesticides, but many farmers don’t feel they are able to fully make the switch to alternatives without more support.”

The recommendations in the National Food Strategy are a good start. But the follow-up action must start now if we are to produce enough healthy food, whilst recovering biodiversity and tackling climate change.

Image by Andy Hay: Van being loaded with boxes of organic fruit & vegetables, ready for delivery. Copyright: RSPB