Select Committee on Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Appendices to the Minutes of Evidence


Memorandum submitted by Greenpeace (A41)


  For agriculture to be truly sustainable, the aim must be to create a system of food production and distribution that provides wholesome food, does not damage the environment, protects landscape and provides social and economic benefits to farmers and rural communities.

  The requirement of the Commission's terms of reference that the Commission's advice to be consistent with "the Government's aims for CAP reform, enlargement of the EU and increased trade liberalisation" will not permit the Commission to consider all the possible scenarios for the future development of farming and the food sector.

  This constraint will prevent the development of coherent policy advice, as the creation of a sustainable farming sector that is also consistent with trade liberalisation is unlikely to be achievable. Agriculture produces commodities, but also livelihoods, cultures and ecological benefits, so the products of farming cannot simply be treated as goods whose price can be set by supply and demand. The role of farming is far more complex.

  The Commission must develop a policy that will create a genuinely sustainable future for farming and food production.


  Policy decisions on the future of farming and food should aim to limit the environmental impact of agriculture and food distribution on both the UK and the global environment.


  The intensification of farming that resulted from post-war policies to increase food production has produced more food at lower apparent costs but has changed our countryside dramatically. Hedgerows have been removed, unimproved grasslands ploughed up, wetlands drained and pesticides and fertilisers have been extensively applied with a consequent loss of landscape features, dramatic loss of biodiversity, soil degradation and contamination of water. Industrialised farming has also led to harm to human health through BSE, food poisoning and antibiotic overuse.

  The cost of remediating these environmental and health effects of conventional farming has been estimated to be in the region of £2.34 billion for 1996 alone.1 The costs of these externalities, including cleaning pesticides and nitrates out of drinking water, the clear up costs of BSE, restoration of landscape and biodiversity loss are not included in the price of food and are currently borne by the public in the form of taxes.

  To reduce environmental damage more environmentally sustainable forms of farming, including organic farming should be actively encouraged. Ultimately UK food production should be 100 per cent organic but we recognise that farmers will not be in a position to switch to organic farming in the short term. We therefore support moves to more environmentally sustainable practices in the interim. These environmentally less damaging farming methods should be promoted by switching from production based subsidies, which tend to encourage intensification, to subsidies for sustainable farming practices, which promote practices that do not damage the environment.

  This shift in subsidy should not however operate so as to assist the creation of conservation and amenity managed farmland at the expense of sustainable food production. There must be a link between subsidies for sustainable farming practice and use of the land for food production. If not, we are likely to face the situation of conserving farmland for wildlife, diminished food production in the UK and increased importation of our food, whilst destroying the environment in other parts of the world.


  Organic agricultural systems limit their impact on the environment by operating within closed cycling systems using local resources, thus minimising the use of non-renewable resources and avoiding pollution. A recent study compared the sustainability of organic, conventional and integrated crop management production systems for apple growing in the USA and found the organic system ranked first for environmental and economic sustainability, with the integrated second, and the conventional system last.2

  Organic farming is estimated to have substantially lower externalities than conventional farming (£60 to £70 per hectare compared with £208 per hectare for conventional farming).3 This alone is a powerful reason to encourage farmers to convert to organic farming.

  Whilst yields of organic crop varieties can be lower than yields from conventional varieties, a major contributor to the difference in production levels is that greater investment in research and development over a longer period has gone into conventional agriculture. For example, wheat grown organically is less productive than when grown conventionally yet oats and triticale have similar yields whether grown conventionally or organically. This is because currently used wheat varieties have short stalks and an open canopy which compete less well with weeds than the taller oats and triticale.4 More money should be channelled into research and development of organic crop varieties and into organic management systems.

  Consumer demand for organic food has increased dramatically over the past decade and now considerably exceeds current production levels in the UK. Soil Association figures show that we currently import 75 per cent of our organic produce,5 frequently by air with the consequent impact on climate caused by air transportation.6

  The size of the UK organic sector, currently about 1 per cent, should be increased to meet demand by increasing the amount of financial support available to assist farmers to convert and by supporting farmers after the conversion period with payments for environmentally sustainable management.


  All the signs so far are that genetically modified (GM) crops may have severe implications for the environment. Many of these crops have been designed to tolerate heavy doses of herbicides encouraging the continued use of environment damaging pesticides. Herbicide tolerant crops have already, after only a few generations, been shown to lead to the development of weeds resistant to three common herbicides requiring farmers to use stronger herbicides to eradicate them.7 There is evidence that insect resistant GM crops such as Bt corn can damage non-target insects.8 There are also concerns about the contamination of closely related crops and weeds by cross pollination and contamination of soils and ground water by GM pollution.9 Unlike other forms of contamination, genetic pollution cannot simply be cleaned up once released into the environment.

  GM technology is incompatible with organic farming. UK and EU organic standards do not permit the use of the technology in organically certified produce. The risk of cross-pollination of organic crops by GM crops, something which the government says is impossible to avoid10 makes the development of both GM technology and organic farming incompatible. Yet organically grown crops are what many consumers would prefer to eat and unlike farming with GM crops it is a farming method that is environmentally sustainable. The ability of farmers and consumers to choose organic food and farming should not be put at risk by continuing to develop GM technology.


  The UK should be meeting its needs for food as far as possible with as little damage as possible, not only to the UK environment, but also to the global environment. Yet current Government policy with its support for increasingly freer trade across the globe is encouraging the opposite.

  As figures for imports and exports indicate, the UK is a net importer of food and reliance on imports is increasing year on year, the deficit between exports and imports was £3.5 billion in 1980, £5.9 billion in 1990 and £8.3 billion in 1999.11 By moving to ever increasing reliance on imports for UK food supply we are simply exporting the problems of intensive chemical agriculture to other parts of the globe.

  Whilst food products can currently be brought more cheaply from other parts of the world, this is because environmental, animal health and social welfare standards are lower than in the UK. But this importation of food will be unsustainable in the long term when communities in the developing world also, quite rightly, start asking for the same levels of environmental protection and welfare standards that we expect.


  The increasing globalisation of the trade in agricultural products and the removal of tariffs and other barriers to trade means that more food is being transported across the world, frequently by air, at considerable cost to the environment, particularly the climate. International freight transport is projected to rise from 1992 levels of 29 trillion tonnes per kilometre to 49 trillion tonnes per kilometre, a 70 per cent increase, by 2004.12

  The transportation of 1kg of apples from New Zealand to the UK has been calculated to lead to the production of 1kg of CO2 emissions whereas the home delivery of locally sourced apples via a box scheme produces less than 50g of CO2. Imports now represent over three-quarters of the dessert apples consumed in the UK. This move away from self-sufficiency in apples has resulted in a 2.9 fold increase in fossil fuel energy consumption to transport apples.13 Over 60 per cent of UK apple orchards have been lost since 197014, this is mainly due to the availability of Government payments to farmers to grub up their orchards. Yet apples are well suited to the climate and the UK could easily be self sufficient in apples.

  As with apples the UK could become self sufficient in many other vegetables and fruits as well as in meat and dairy products. Over 50 per cent of imports are fruit and vegetables15, many of which could be grown in the UK. The UK capacity to grow vegetables and fruit should be increased by support for their sustainable production. This is not to say that we should not be importing produce like mangoes, coffee and bananas that cannot be grown here. Although clearly a reduction in the consumption of exotic fruits would reduce transport effects on the environment as this produce is frequently flown into the UK.

  The exchange of similar food stuffs between EU member countries highlights further the unnecessary movements of food products, with their tremendous impact on the environment. In 1997 for example, 126 million litres of liquid milk was imported into the UK and at the same time 270 million litres of milk was exported out of the UK. 23,000 tonnes of milk power was imported into the UK and 153,000 tonnes was exported out.16

  The encouragement of long distance trade by the UK government and the Common Agricultural Policy should be replaced with support for more localised food production and consumption and economic disincentives for long distance transport.

  As well as the impact of CO2 emissions on climate change, the environmental costs of global, regional and national food distribution include air pollution, loss of biodiversity through road construction and fuel extraction. All of these costs are currently externalised and the long distance transportation of food is not reflected in the price of produce to the consumer.


  The development of "just in time" retailing by the supermarkets with their complex networks of distribution centres and daily deliveries to store has a considerable impact on the environment due to extensive, mainly road, transportation of foods around the country.17

  The movement of supermarkets to the edge of towns has caused damage to the environment, due to construction on green field sites, increased road construction for access and increased vehicles movements by consumers to out of town locations.

  Out of town supermarkets development has also led to the destruction of local economies and the closure of local independent retailers and specialist food stores. The number of independent food retailers fell from 400,000 in 1986 to 200,000 in 1996.18 This destruction of local shopping opportunities has helped to deliver food poverty to those without the means or health to travel to out of town supermarkets. The few local stores remaining in many areas often have poor quality and little choice of produce together with high prices.

  Supermarkets also set standards that small producers cannot meet. For example artisanal cheese makers find it difficult to sell to supermarkets, as the supermarkets require large quantities which small producers cannot supply, they have buy back policies which small producers can't risk the potential losses of 19. Small producers are thereby excluded from mainstream markets.

Localisation of food production and distribution

  The development of local markets for locally produced food products will reap the environmental gains of reduced transportation of foods. It will also do much more for the food and farming sector in terms of providing alternative outlets for the sale of food produce allowing farmers to find an alternative to the stranglehold of the supermarket. It will strengthen the economic reasons for environment friendly farming, as produce sales will be based on relationships built up between farmers and local consumers. Rural jobs will be generated not only on farms but also in local processing and retailing and the value of local produce will be retained within the community, helping to rebuild vibrant rural communities.

  To move away from reliance on sales to supermarkets and to diversify into new markets producers will need training, support and advice in marketing and selling skills and the resources to develop their businesses.

  Support for the building of local infrastructure such as abattoirs and local food processing plants will be needed.

  The diversification of the rural sector into light industrial or telecottages, as envisaged by the Rural White paper and moves to change the planning regulations to encourage that diversification, will simply cause more farmers to leave the land. Rural planning regulations should support local sustainable food businesses like farm shops and small processors to get off the ground rather than turn over farm buildings to industrial use. Diversification away from food production will also make it impossible for new start-ups in farming as land and property prices will move even further out of the reach of small farmers and those who want to move on to the land and start farming.20 There should also be support for newcomers to help start up sustainable farming and food processing businesses.

  The plan for the revitalisation of the former market town of Faringdon, Oxfordshire as a rural hub, which will develop and apply the principles of sustainable agricultural systems, with the aim that the town and its hinterland will become self sufficient in food, fuel and fibre products is an ambitious and visionary project21. The project is supported by the South East England Development Agency, other regional development agencies should also be working with local communities to develop similar sustainable rural development plans and putting them into action.

Concentration of power in the food chain

  There is a concentration of power in the food chain, with the supermarkets wielding most of that power to the detriment of farmers, particularly small farmers with limited bargaining power.

  Supermarkets now control most of the retail food sales in the UK, with the five major supermarkets controlling more than 70 per cent of grocery sales.22 Small scale and specialist producers are at a great disadvantage within the present supply chain. Farmers have become locked into selling to the supermarkets because there are currently very few markets for produce except the supermarkets. Supermarkets are as a consequence able to dictate farm gate prices. They can force farmers into selling for less than the cost of production by threatening to import cheaper food from other parts of the world. For example, a major supermarket has told farmers in Cornwall and Jersey wishing to sell their crops of new potatoes at a price of £100 tonne that they can buy potatoes from Egypt at £70.00 tonne.23 The UK farmer then faces the prospect of selling at this lower price, or faces the prospect of loss of their whole crop as they have no other outlet to turn to which can absorb the volume of produce available. Of course they sell at the price demanded by the supermarket.

  A legally binding code of practice to ensure that farmers get a fair price for their produce should be developed, in order to tip the balance of power from retailers towards farmers and thereby increase equity and sustainability in the food chain.

  Support should be given to farmers to develop partnerships and co-operatives which will give farmers more bargaining power to help redress the balance of power between farmers and retailers and will help farmers develop new markets for regional or local produce.

Who is going to be left to farm the land?

  Current Government policy appears to favour fewer and larger farms at the expense of the small farmer. Subsidies are skewed heavily in favour of large farms (80 per cent of subsidy goes to the largest 20 per cent of farms). The "farm gate price" is set by large food processors, distributors and supermarkets. Farmers say they can't deliver landscape, nature, food safety and animal welfare at these prices. Twenty cows yield £50,000 worth of milk at retail prices yet small dairy farmers can't survive as they are paid less than the price of production for the milk as it leaves the farm, the balance of the price the consumer pays goes to the middlemen and retailers. Farmers are estimated to receive nine pence in the pound of the price paid by consumers.24 Evidence from the Canadian National Farmers Union suggest that concentration of power in the food supply chain and the consequent low farm gate prices are the main drivers of unsustainable agricultural practice.25

  The recent report by accountants Deloitte and Touche indicates that farm incomes have fallen from £80,000 in 1995-96 to £2,400 in 2001 for a 500 acre farm.26 Farmers are going out of business and committing suicide at increasing rates and most of those leaving the industry are smaller farmers.27 Forty-two thousand people have left agriculture in the last two years. There are only 155,000 farms left in the UK. Predictions are that over the next five to 15 years there will only be around eight to 15,000 people left farming the land in the UK28. This movement of smaller farmers off the land and the inevitable creation of larger farms should be reversed and quickly if we are to create a sustainable farming and food sector.

  There is a paucity of research in the UK on the benefits of small farms but in the USA, the USDA Commission on small farms concluded in their report that the policies that have favoured large corporate farms with their destructive environmental practices and damage to rural communities must be changed to favour instead smaller farms.29

  Small farms are multifunctional, producing not only food but also benefiting the environment and improving the economic and social wealth of the communities in which they are situated.30 Smaller farms are more likely to be family farms which are passed from one generation to another where long-term sustainability of the farm is relatively more important to the farmer compared with larger farms which often have absentee owners. In the United States small farmers keep 17 per cent of their land as woodland, on larger farms the figure is on five per cent. They also maintain more than twice as much land with cover crops and green manures.31

  Subsidies and other incentives should be directed preferentially to smaller farms, as they tend to be more sustainable than large farms. The EU has within the CAP given discretion to governments to direct subsidies to smaller farms (modulation), but the UK government has so far rejected this route to assisting small farmers preferring to continue subsidising the largest farmers.

The dialogue on sustainable agriculture should continue

  The time for consultation and for the preparation of the Commission's report has been far too short for a full and wide ranging consideration of this complex issue. The Commission should propose that a Standing Royal Commission bet set up to investigate and report on how sustainability in the food and farming sector can be achieved in the long-term. The setting up of a standing Royal Commission will give greater opportunity for submissions to be made, research to be carried out and in-depth evidence to be given to the Commission by all stakeholders, on how sustainability can be achieved in agriculture, the rural economy and in the food production and distribution sectors.


  The countryside should be vibrant place with the production of food key to the economy, with small farms providing fresher local produce, using environmentally benign farming methods, providing livelihoods for farmers and increased employment and services for rural communities.

  The following policy areas are key to this vision for the future of farming:

  1.  Build safeguards into international trade agreements on agriculture in order to protect the environmental, social and economic sustainability of farming.

  2.  Shift subsidies to support methods of farming which are less damaging to the environment.

  3.  Encourage greater conversion to organic farming.

  4.  Develop the infrastructure of local food systems.

  5.  Control the power of the supermarkets.

  6.  Halt the decline of the small farm by supporting small farmers.

  7.  Set up a Standing Royal Commission on Sustainable Agriculture.

October 2001


  1 J Pretty et al 2000. An assessment of the total external costs of UK agriculture. Agriculture Systems 65 (2), 113-136

  2 JP Reganold et al 2001. Sustainability of three apple production systems. Nature 410, 926-930

  3 J Pretty 2000. The real costs of modern farming. Resurgence 205, 7-9

  4 M Wolfe 2001 Recognising and realising the potential of organic farming. Paper given at Global Agriculture 2020, John Innes Centre Norwich, 19 April 2001.

  5 Soil Association. Organic Food and Farming Report, Bristol, 2000

  6 Simms et al. Collision course: free trade's ride on the global climate. New Economics Foundation, London, 2000

  7 Report for the Canadian Biotechnology Advisory Committee Project Steering Committee on the Regulation of Genetically Modified Foods—Transforming Agriculture The Benefits And Costs Of Genetically Modified Crops, March 2001 and J Leake, GM fields spread new superweeds, Sunday Times 12 August 2001

  8 LC Hanson, and J Obrycki 2000. Field deposition of Bt transgenic corn pollen: lethal effects on the monarch butterfly. Oecologia, Published online: 19 August 2000 and Losey, JE, L S Raynor and M E Carter 1999. Transgenic Pollen Harms Monarch Larvae. Nature 399, 214.

  Bt corn damages butterflies in wild. New Scientist, 11 September 2001.

  9 J Emberlin, A report on the dispersal of maize pollen, Soil Association, 1999.

  T Traavik, Horizontal Gene transfer in GM on Trial, Greenpeace, 2000.

  10 John Innes Centre, Report for the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, June 1999.

  11 C Lucas. Stopping the Great Food Swap: Relocalising Europe's Food supply, The UK Greens/European Free Alliance, European Parliament, 2001.

  12 Simms et al Collision Course: Free Trade's Ride on the Global Climate. New Economics Foundation, London, 2000.

  13 C. Lucas. Stopping the Great Food Swap: Relocalising Europe's Food supply, The UK Greens/European Free Alliance, European Parliament, 2001.

  14 Sustain, Food Miles-Still on the Road to Ruin, 1999.

  15 C Lucas. Stopping the Great Food Swap: Relocalising Europe's Food supply, The UK Greens/European Free Alliance, European Parliament, 2001.

  16 Sustain, Food Miles-Still on the Road to Ruin, 1999.

  17 R Douthwaite Short circuit: Strengthening Local Economies for Security in an Unstable World. Green Books Devon 1996 p. 283

  18 A. Cunynghame. British Cheese Makers under Threat, The Ecologist Report, June 2001.

  19 A, Cunynghame. British Cheese Makers under Threat, The Ecologist Report, June 2001.

  20 S Fairlie. The End of Agriculture ECOS 21 3/4 2001.

  21 J Rose, organic farmer, personal communication, 3 June 2001.

  22 Taylor Nelson Sofres figures, reported in the Grocer, 2 December 2000

  23 anon. Personal communication from farmer who did not want his name revealed, 2001.

  24 J Pretty 2001 New Farming for Britain-Towards a National Plan for Reconstruction, Fabian Society

  25 National Farmers Union of Canada, Report 2000.

  26 Deloitte and Touche report 2001 on farm incomes reported in the Guardian 12 October 2001.

  27 M Hart, Small and Family Farms Alliance at Corporate Watch Agriculture conference, Oxford, March 2001.

  28 M Hart, Small and Family Farms Alliance at Corporate Watch Agriculture conference, Oxford, March 2001.

  29 United States Department of Agriculture, National Commission on Small Farms Report, A Time to Act, 1998.

  30 P Rossett The Multiple Functions and Benefits of Small Farm Agriculture in the Context of Global Trade Negotiations. Policy Brief No.4 Institute for Food and Development Policy, September 1999.

  31 G D'Souza and J Ikerd 1996 Small farms and sustainable development: Is small more sustainable? Journal of Agricultural and Applied Economics 28(1), 73-83.

previous page contents next page

House of Commons home page Parliament home page House of Lords home page search page enquiries index

© Parliamentary copyright 2002
Prepared 6 November 2002