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Climate emergency means UK must shift to sustainable farming: report

By Emily Beament, PA Environment Correspondent

The UK must have a radical 10-year plan to shift to a sustainable food and farming system in the face of the climate emergency, a report has warned.

As the UK leaves the European Union there should be a dramatic shift to "agro-ecological" farming by 2030 such as organic food production, pasture-fed livestock, wildlife protection measures and more use of trees.

There needs to be more government support for healthy produce and a co-ordinated rural policy to make the shift, the RSA Food, Farming and Countryside Commission, led by Barclay's UK chairman Sir Ian Cheshire, said.

And young people's enthusiasm for tackling the environmental and climate emergency should be harnessed through a "national nature service" for 18 to 25-year-olds.

It could recruit from disadvantaged rural communities where young people struggle to find work and from youngsters who are looking for a green, UK version of a gap year.

Farming is the cause of 11% of UK greenhouse gases, affects water quality, depletes soil, and damages natural habitats and wildlife corridors, while farmers pay high prices for inputs such as fertiliser and pesticides and get paid less for their produce at the farm gate.

But a two-year inquiry by the commission, based on consultation including an eight-month bike tour around the UK, found that most farmers thought they could make big changes in five to 10 years - with the right support.

Without a switch to a sustainable and healthy food system, there will be further "climate breakdown", loss of wildlife and increases in diet-related ill-health, the report from the commission warned.

It called for the Government to stop delays on policy and trade decisions and commit to a 10-year transition plan for sustainable farming by January 2020.

The plan needs to back innovation and make sure every farmer could get trusted, independent advice by training mentors and support networks.

Universal baseline payments should involve all farmers in gathering data on soil health, wildlife and emissions, and targeted payments should pay them to plant trees, store carbon, restore natural grasslands and hedges and implement grazing regimes that support nature.

A not-for-profit national agro-ecology development bank should be set up to bring together long-term investors to fund farmers to switch to sustainable farming.

And there needs to be a timetable for more stringent controls on the use of pesticides and antibiotics, the report urged.

More healthy British produce, particularly fruit, vegetables, nuts and pulses, and meat and dairy from sustainable livestock is needed, with more commitments by public bodies to buy sustainable, British, local food for schools, hospitals and prisons.

And there should be regulation, standards and taxes that level the playing field in favour of healthy food.

Sir Ian said: "Our planned exit from the EU creates a once-in-50-years opportunity to change our food and farming system, but we need to act now: whatever happens next, the climate emergency makes urgent, radical action on the environment essential.

"The UK has the capability to become the world-leader in healthy, sustainable food production and we set out how, in just 10 years, we could make radical change and harness farming as a force for wider economic, public health and environmental good."

Environment Secretary Michael Gove said: "We know that it is in the interests of farmers and landowners to move to a more sustainable model, which is why our Agriculture Bill sets out a new framework that will reward them for the work they do to protect and enhance the environment.

"The recently launched food review, led by Henry Dimbleby, will also look afresh at our food system to ensure everyone has access to high-quality and healthy British food."

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