Expert Insights

Expert Insights

UK farming's shifting response to global crisis

Since the start of 2022 families in the UK and around the world have been experiencing rising food, fuel and energy prices, with food inflation reaching as much as 16% compared with the prices in January 2022[1]. These prices rises have been largely down to political and other global factors such as the war in Ukraine and Brexit but to name a few which have broken down the usual global supply chains we all rely on for cheap commodities.

The UK Farming sector too has experienced similar inflation-based rises in particular in respect of the industry’s input costs such as red diesel for running tractors and other machines (a 58.9% increase[2]) and chemical fertiliser for increasing crop productivity and yield, (a 139% price increase from September 2021 to September 2022[3]). These significant increases have resulted in many farmers re-assessing the way in which they farm and in some cases have resulted in some farmers stopping farming activities all together.

The problem

Since the second world war, farming has become increasingly geared towards producing the highest yield at the highest profit margin possible, using larger and more efficient machines to till and plough the land to increase productivity. This has been the only way farmers have been able to survive until now in the consumer lead global markets which have an emphasis on cheap food. Whilst these activities do increase productivity and yields in the short term due to the release of nitrogen, carbon and other nutrient stores from the soil. These farming practices can be incredibly damaging for the soil structure resulting in less soil resistance to extreme weather events such as drought and flooding. The UN Food and Agriculture Organisation now estimate that as much one third of the worlds crop producing soil is degraded. In addition, to keep productivity and yields high large amounts of artificial fertiliser are required to be applied to fields to ensure crops maintain their production efficiency. The release of the previously sequestered carbon from the soil has undoubtedly contributed towards carbon emissions.

So what are farmers doing differently?

Farmers are turning towards ‘Regenerative Farming’ methods. Estimates suggest that 15% of the worlds crop producing land is now cultivated regeneratively. The aim being to restore natural ecosystems that have been depleted by mechanised farming methods whilst producing quality food in a more sustainable way.

Regenerative farming largely relies on improving soil quality helping the soil to become more resistant to extreme flooding and drought events by increasing the microorganisms within the soil itself and sequestering more carbon.

Low input farming methods such as no or low tillage have been the focus for many arable producers with direct drilling of crops being the main way to achieve this as significantly less carbon and nitrogen is released into the atmosphere during this method of crop planting. This helps to keep more nitrogen fixed in the soil and carbon sequestered both of which assist reducing the need to apply chemical fertiliser. Farmers are also turning towards the use of historic and mixed varieties of wheat and barley crops which are more resistant to weather types and diseases.

Whilst both the above methods produce lower crop yields per acre input costs such as fertiliser, chemical sprays and red diesel used to cultivate and then apply the various chemicals and fertilisers are much lower and in some systems non-existent which helps to increase the farmers profit margin. In addition historic varieties of grain crops are also attracting higher premiums from craft millers and bakeries.

In livestock farming, selecting low input native breed animals which can be overwintered on pasture is the new focus. The benefits of native breeds being that that they are hardy to extreme weather conditions and require less soya-based feed which has large carbon emissions associated with it owing to it being imported from South America. Some varieties of native breed cattle such as Belted Galloways can exist quite happily on completely grass fed diets and are known to be 30% - 40% more efficient in converting forage (irrespective of forage quality) to meat than continental breeds. This results in significantly fewer costs for the farmer. The main drawback is that native breed cattle meat production generally takes 20% - 30% longer than continental breeds.

Government support for regenerative farming methods

Whilst the change to regenerative farming is not easy the UK government are also moving further towards these regenerative systems. The transitional change from Basic Payment Scheme to Environmental Land Management Contracts, the Sustainable Farming Incentive (England) and the Sustainable Farming Scheme (Wales) are a clear shift towards producing food in a more environmentally friendly, efficient and publicly acceptable way.


This article was written by Oliver Evans, for more information please contact him or your usual Charles Russell Speechlys contact.

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