The United Nations Food Systems Summit (UNFSS) has thrust food systems transformation onto the main stage of international discourse in 2021. As recognised by UN Secretary-General, António Guterres, food systems are at the heart of delivering on all 17 Sustainable Development Goals for people, planet and prosperity. There has been a growing recognition that the global food systems, as currently constructed, are flawed due to the high levels of food and nutrition insecurity, food losses and waste, rising levels of inequalities, health-related challenges, and high levels of environmental degradation arising from unsustainable production systems. This article provides reflections from my own experience as Special Envoy of the UN Secretary-General for the 2021 Food Systems Summit. It articulates the key drivers behind the conceptual shift towards systems thinking to addressing the world’s food challenges. The article discusses some of the challenges faced by the global food systems and highlights why a paradigm shift from the traditional narrow focus on production and self-sufficiency to a more holistic and integrated approach is urgently required. The article provides an African perspective to the food systems discourse, highlighting some of the priority actions identified by African stakeholders and articulated in the Africa Common Position to the UNFSS, which sets out Africa’s opportunity to turn adversity into opportunity through food systems transformation. The paper outlines some highlights of the Summit, with a view to emphasising the key transformative pathways and crucial next steps that are required at country and regional levels.
And the horizon stooping smiles/O’er treeless fens of many miles.1
To see the tidal defences and inland channels regulating water and protecting farms and communities is to marvel at the monumental task of transforming 1,500 square miles of wetland into the country’s best arable acres. With a habitat and history quite distinct from the rest of the country, we call this huge area the Fens: drained from the early 17th to the mid-19th centuries, at some cost to wildlife, nature and to a distinctive way of life for its people.
For Daniel Defoe, it was ‘all covered in water like a sea … the soak of no less than 13 counties’:2 a giant sponge absorbing the water flowing into a landscape, once one of Europe’s great deltas and ‘most diverse environments’.3 Today it is interlaced by a network of straightened rivers, parallel channels, small reservoirs, endless long and high embankments, several hundred pumping stations and sluices to hold back water; all this to protect vulnerable and drained farmland, semi-rural communities and, further upstream, Cambridge itself.
Now these flatlands, a food bowl for Britain, often below sea level and leaching carbon into the atmosphere, are degrading as the ground sinks – and the country faces tough choices. Should part of them be returned to a natural state of meadow, marsh, meres (lakes) and meandering rivers – in short, ‘rewetting’, to contain carbon – with the remainder reinforced to protect farmland at a cost of billions over the 21st century? Will the government, when it finally considers the issue, authorize limited funding and make do and mend as best it can? Or are the Fens destined to eventually become a wetland once again, by default if not by design? As we shall see, tentative signs of action are emerging, with a new government task force charged with addressing the challenges in our lowland peatlands – none bigger than the Fens.4
‘My people will abide in peaceful habitation in secure dwellings…’.1
To renew our land, and rework the countryside, we need thriving villages and small towns: at their best, inclusive places with schools, shops, a post office, ideally a health centre-cum-neighbourhood hub and, of course, a pub. Most of all we need affordable, secure homes for those on low and middle incomes who underpin communities. Think of health and social care staff, shop assistants, those creating local food networks, land managers and farm hands – in greater demand to replace departing EU workers – and teachers, for a start. To achieve all this, as Scotland and Wales demonstrate, we need above all a functioning planning system at the heart of local democracy to assess and deliver community needs – none more important than affordable housing – and meet aspirations.
Behind the enduring images of timeless villages with period homes around manicured village greens – and of more remote spots offering solitude and spectacular scenery by the mountains and the sea – lies a hidden crisis. Rural Britain has, in large part, become the preserve of a moneyed elite, abandoning larger cities – an exodus intensified by the COVID-19 pandemic – while younger people, born in the countryside, are travelling in the opposite direction, often reluctantly, because they can’t find affordable homes.
This is economically illogical. It represents a failure by successive governments to truly value the foundational ‘worth’ of people to communities in a country – deregulating England, in this case – more attuned to asset wealth and perceptions of status, than to strengthening the base on which to build houses, communities and a good rural society – in short, valuing the low-paid people, in jobs we take for granted, who kept the country running during a year and more of a pandemic.
See how the farmer waits for the precious fruit of the earth. Be patient …1
Amid sunflowers and grasses wafting gently in the Lincolnshire breeze, the man who invented the bagless vacuum cleaner gestures around surrounding fields to highlight the latest in farming technology. On a bright summer’s day, Sir James Dyson barely stops for breath: the future of farming, he enthuses, will centre on research, science and “developing new ways of doing things, [creating] new machines”. As such, expertise built around consumer durables, and the new world of artificial intelligence (AI), will prove transformative in reworking the land to achieve a goal central to the country’s resilience, yet side-lined by successive governments: greater self-sufficiency in food.2
“We should be growing our own food; we shouldn’t be importing it … terribly important,” insists Dyson, warming to a theme which you might think is – but, alarmingly, is not – a top priority for government. ‘We shouldn’t give up …’3 Yet, up to now, it seems that – shamefully – governments have. We grow barely 60% of our own food.
The engineer-turned-inventor and multi-billionaire points over a hedgerow, in a short film, to 15 acres of six-metre-high glasshouses stretching as far as the eye can see: protection for the first strawberries, with other fruit to follow, bucking the seasons with a crop ready for market in November and March. Nearby, two power plants, known as anaerobic digesters – fed on maize from surrounding fields, rather than from organic waste – provide the energy for one of the country’s largest farming operations.
A flock of sheep that leisurely pass by/One after one the sound of rain and bees/Murmuring, the fall of rivers, winds and seas/Smooth fields, white sheets of water and pure sky.1
In a magnificent sweep of uplands, unequalled in England, the Lake District meets the Yorkshire Dales along the winding Lune Gorge on a far-northern stretch of the M6 in Cumbria: two National Parks, joined at the hip, with England’s highest peaks to the west and its finest natural limestone upland ‘pavements’ eastwards.
The six-lane highway meanders between steep, brooding hills scattered with sheep scrambling over fells and grazing on the valley floor, before rising and then rolling down northwards to the rich pastures of the Eden valley and, thence, to Scotland.
For some hill farmers, the arrival of the M6 in 1970 – and the disruption of the preceding construction work – would have been the ultimate threat to a way of life stretching back generations. For John Dunning, schooled in agriculture, and his resourceful wife, Barbara, it became an opportunity beyond their wildest dreams, although not without financial challenges and risks along the way.
Their story is a case study of how the economy of a depressed, forgotten corner of rural England, dominated by hill farming – an industry, John correctly predicted, with limited prospects – has been transformed, employing hundreds and creating local food supply chains to serve a seemingly unglamorous new venture: motorway services, which later accommodated farm shops selling local produce.
From the doorstep we can hear sheep bleating over the garden wall. An array of beef cattle and calves are pounding nearby fields. Beside them, the barley and wheat have been ripening alongside tall batches of broad beans – doubtless heading for livestock feed – while the remnants of an insurgent called oil-seed rape, yellowing the landscape in late spring, has morphed into a sickly tangle ready for harvesting.
If it rains heavily – early 2020 was particularly wet – we can be sure that torrents of water will tumble down nearby hillsides, rolling onto road and pasture sometimes hardened by livestock, rather than being absorbed into cultivated land or tree plantations. Drainage – good land management – sometimes seems an afterthought.
Within a semi-circle of, say, ten miles around our house, many of the challenges and opportunities present on our land can be found in microcosm: plenty of cattle, sheep and cultivated acres. But why so many arable acres devoted to grain and crops for feeding livestock? Why so relatively few woods – and we’re luckier than many in our small corner of Britain – in a country with a lower tree cover than elsewhere in Europe? Why so little attention paid to land drainage – and, hence, to addressing the climate emergency? So many questions left hanging in the air. And so little time to address what amounts to a looming crisis: feeding Britain and preparing for the impact of global heating. These twin issues, inextricably linked, must be addressed holistically.
Walking countless country miles during three COVID-19-induced lockdowns in 2020–21 provided time for reflection: across cultivated field, hardened pasture, river banks and flood plain; through deciduous woodland and magnificently restored ‘hills’ of industrial waste, planted with birch and rowan; along stretches of the long-distance Hadrian’s Wall path barely half a mile from our front door, and, hence, gingerly into the Northumberland National Park.
For the upright will inhabit the land, and those with integrity will remain in it …1
Around the gentle, rounded Cheviot hills, evidence of once thriving, self-sustaining settlements punctuate the landscape. Steep terraces for growing crops contour the hillsides. Ridges and furrows from ploughing are etched into valleys. Large, circular mounds provide evidence of hill forts alongside outlines of timber roundhouses in faint circles. In these magnificent uplands, amid the tumbling lapwings and ascending skylarks, agriculture survived and prospered, albeit in a near-Mediterranean climate.
In a small museum near the 11th-century St Michael’s church in the village of Ingram, vivid displays of another life give a sense of the effort involved in preparing the land for relatively sophisticated farming and creating the capacity for storing food for hundreds of people, maybe more. So rich is the archaeological treasure trove in this part of the Northumberland National Park – the fertile valley of the River Breamish and the varied uplands rich in prehistory, amid later signs of Roman occupation – that five Iron Age hill forts, collectively one of the country’s largest ancient monuments, are linked in a spectacular 4.5-mile upland trail. It is a testament to the earliest agriculture.
With polished axes, aspiring farmers created patches large enough to sow cereals such as wheat, oats and barley. Domestic animals, maybe sheep, cattle and pigs, were probably introduced from the Bronze Age and into the Iron Age, roaming the uplands in a setting doubtless beloved by some of today’s re-wilding enthusiasts – more on them later – until the Romans subsequently cleared the remaining woodlands.2
Feeding Britain while preparing for the ravages of climate change are two key issues – yet there’s no strategy for managing and enhancing that most precious resource: our land. This book explores how the pressures of leaving the EU, recovering from the COVID-19 pandemic, and addressing global heating present unparalleled opportunities to re-work the countryside for the benefit of all.
Incorporating personal, inspiring stories of people and places, Peter Hetherington sets out the innovative measures needed for nature’s recovery while protecting our most valuable farmland, encouraging local food production and ‘re-peopling’ remote areas. In the first book to tackle these issues holistically, he argues that we need to re-shape the countryside with an adventurous new agenda at the heart of government.
In nature there are neither rewards nor punishments; there are consequences.1
What keeps people working the land: growing crops, raising and trading livestock, enriching the countryside, nurturing nature, hoping to make a living from improving ‘natural capital’ – in plain English, embracing key resources such as soils, peatlands, water supplies, geology, wildlife and living organisms?
And how to assess the cost of renewing that most basic resource – our land – by reworking the countryside for the benefit of all to provide the food we need, enhance the landscape we love and address the climate emergency which threatens us all?
The average farmer’s simple answer to the first question might well be “That’s the only life I know”. This invariably boils down to sentiment, comfort on home turf, being rooted to place, sometimes to language – certainly for farmers in the Fferm Ifan CIC. Their response to that question would be an emphatic “Because it’s where we belong”.2
The answer to the second question is more complex. It depends on a range of factors. Not least among these is the role of government in delivering an integrated land use strategy for England, learning – dare one suggest? – from the differing, and more coordinated, approaches of Scotland and Wales.
In this context, the argument from a former secretary of state for the Environment, John Gummer (Lord Deben), for a new department of land use to coordinate strategy across Whitehall is compelling. There’s “no hope” of sensible land use in England, he maintains, when planning is “imprisoned” within the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government (MHCLG), agriculture within the Defra, infrastructure within the Department of Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, and transport within the Department for Transport (DfT).3