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Can farmers trust Keir Starmer? Britain needs a radical new vision for the land

A New Deal for Farmers may not go far enough. (Photo by HENRY NICHOLLS/AFP via Getty Images)

A New Deal for Farmers may not go far enough. (Photo by HENRY NICHOLLS/AFP via Getty Images)


July 10, 2024   7 mins

We sheared our sheep today, beneath a sky full of gloomy grey clouds. There were hours of chasing sheep up the ramp to the men on the trailer. The radio blared out country songs and an occasional news bulletin informing us who was charged with doing what in our new government. We finished and got the wool bulging bags safely in the barn before it started raining. The lads on the clipping trailer weren’t sure what this new government meant for their lives, and frankly neither am I.

During the election campaign, Keir Starmer promised there would be a “New Deal for Farming”, but, as with so much else about his campaign, he was fairly vague about the details. The Labour manifesto had 87 words about farming in it.

The vagueness kind of worked. But in truth, most of us would have voted for a lettuce rather than subject ourselves to five more years of Tory incompetence.

The post-Brexit Conservatives saw farming as something to be “disrupted”. Every time they were given the chance to choose to support farming, they chose the wrong way. In his book Politics on the Edge, Rory Stewart recalls his first meeting with his new boss Liz Truss — remember her? — when he was a junior minister at the Department for Environment, Farming and Rural Affairs. She told him to stop being “interesting”.

The Conservatives of the past idealised farming and rural places; the new ones wanted to unleash a culture war on it — taking on the European Union’s Common Agricultural Policy and its legacy. The problem was that it was stupid politics. It set the Conservatives at odds with its core constituency — rural areas — turning them from protector to threat, from ally to enemy. They cared more about traders and bankers than farmers, and it was always felt as a betrayal. Now, huge swathes of rural England are no longer blue. In politics, as in farming, you reap what you sow.

“In politics, as in farming, you reap what you sow.”

So now we have a new government, what will its New Deal look like? Truthfully, there isn’t one yet.

The current, unwritten policy is that we can largely allow the market to sort out what happens on the land — a massive food and land-based economy that turns over way beyond £130 billion a year. Then we try to mend any damage that economy does by matching the agriculture budget we had when we left the EU — about £3.7 billion (some of which isn’t being spent on mending anything). It’s like trying to pull a half-mile-long super-tanker backwards with one of those daft paddle boards you can hire on beaches on holiday. The government intervention is massively overwhelmed by the huge commercial realities making things worse. We know the farming landscapes the free market gives you — and it is ugly.

If I had the ear of the new Defra team, I’d tell them to first work out what they want to see in the British countryside: what is the big progressive vision? Until you have that, there is only drift, contradictions and confusion.

You can throw money at farming and the environment and deliver not much; your policies need to be coherent and aligned. And yes, that’s a massive thing to wrap your head around, but that vision will affect everything about how we live.

Do we want our landscapes to be the product of global industrial systems — sterile, monocultural, ugly and poisoned — or do we want something different? I’m convinced that the vast majority of British people want something different — and that this crosses political tribes and demographics. Most of us want a beautiful countryside that feeds us and is full of nature and beauty.

We need a staggering amount of food to feed our growing population, and we only produce about half of what we eat now. We need amazing farmers, loads of them, because we live in a volatile world. Do you trust Vladimir Putin, Donald Trump, the Chinese or the EU to feed us in an emergency? I don’t.

Every other nation is securing their future food supplies, making sure that in a future world of scarcity, they’ll have what they need. In Britain, much of our future food is going to have to be grown from our own land. Masses more food needs to come from horticulture and orchards, so we produce a whole healthy diet of real foods. The just-in-time globally distributed food systems we have come to rely on are massively risky. We need a food system that is robust enough to cope with worse global disasters than Covid, when our shelves were empty at times.

That means you need some basic food production within walking distance of where you live — wherever you live. Local food systems need to be developed, protected, supported, nudged to change and regulated to create a different outcome from, say, the American Midwest. You can’t just “leave it to Tesco”, the NFU or single-issue campaigning groups. And you then have to help the poorest people in our society to access and afford nutritious food, as they do in civilised countries. This should be a basic human right in modern Britain; no one need go hungry. And then there is the powerful link between our health and what we spend on the NHS. A healthy food system would massively reduce the cost of the NHS.

The world will be saved, or destroyed, by what we consume — so a major part of the battle is what appears on our supermarket shelves, and what doesn’t. But the government can’t put all this on the “consumer”. Contrary to the mantra, the consumer isn’t always right. Processed foods are designed to make us crave their sugars and fats — to make us zombies.

And the consumer, more often than not, is still a mum, and she’s juggling her career and parenting, so she’s knackered and feeling broke, and she’s often distracted by kids hanging from her arm. That consumer doesn’t have the time, food knowledge or money to make perfect food and environmental choices. People need government, retailers, farmers and environmentalists to work together and do a heap of environmental and healthy diet thinking, and legislating, for them.

We need tougher regulation to ensure higher environmental and welfare standards. And we need to enforce fair dealing between supermarkets and farmers. That relationship often seems to be bullying and exploitative. A powerful Groceries Code Adjudicator is needed — one our over-powerful supermarkets are scared of. We need to ban “loss leaders”, where the supermarket gives away the farmer’s product, inflicting the loss on them. And we need to end the deeply misleading labels often found in British supermarkets, usually in the form of British flags above shelves of imported products. Does the Red Tractor logo even mean anything, anymore?

Our island is crowded and imperfect and we need lots of different things from land, ranging from dinner to renewable energy, carbon capture, commercial forestry, and healthy populations of insects and birds. Our landscapes are going to have to become much better at delivering multiple outcomes. Having a national “land use framework”, a plan for how we fit our disparate needs into our landmass, would be a good start. Navigating these choices is the work of grown-ups who know their stuff and who can find compromises.

The worrying news is that the messaging from the new government is that there will be “no significant change from current policies” in Defra. It is part of the “don’t scare the horses” strategy that won the election. But that isn’t a position you can hold for more than a few weeks. We’ve been drifting too long already; we need this government to be brave and bold.

The truth is you have to grapple with and manipulate things across the whole rural economy if you want our landscapes to be more progressive. Either you make this a priority and work across departments to get things done or you have to spend massively more on the farming and environment budget to mend the damage, probably both.

One of the key jobs is to grow the emerging Environmental Land Management (ELM) system for supporting farmers to deliver more nature. In England, we no longer have agricultural “subsidies” (unlike most of our commercial rivals and other devolved nations within the UK whom we compete with). The government doesn’t pay farmers to keep sheep or cows — they pay for environmental outcomes: buying woodland, wildflower meadows, or the flooding of fields by the hectare. If we want more nature, we have to buy it through this system. You now get exactly as much, or as little, as you pay for. But the budget was set at the moment we left the EU, years ago, and through inflation is declining rapidly in real terms. We are going backwards. So, there will be no “nature recovery” until this government commits to spending more.

A simple first step, that would cost nothing, would be publishing the latest numbers for the ELMs scheme. We simply don’t know if the post-Brexit agri-environmental schemes have the farmer take-up and reach to create the change that’s needed. Let the light into Defra and let the numbers out. Every farmer who can’t access such a scheme is an opportunity lost for change to more sustainable or regenerative practices.

Defra ministers need to get down to the Treasury and win the arguments about where money is needed and why. The NFU estimates that raising the agriculture budget from about £3.7 billion to £5.5 billion could bring about the transformation we need to see, and, though I might spend the money differently from them, it is probably not a bad estimate of what’s needed: £2 billion of new money. Raise that, when possible, to £4 billion in new money and you could radically transform our food system and our landscapes. For context, that’s how much was spent on unused PPE in the first year of the pandemic.

And, please Defra, avoid the same mistakes many previous governments have made. No new websites. No new schemes. No new abbreviations. No lengthy “consultations”.

“Let the light into Defra and let the numbers out.”

The basic infrastructure for what is needed exists already. The knowledge for making the countryside better already exists. So focus on the resources and the delivery process. Make sure the existing schemes are open to as many farmers as possible, and ensure there are skilled staff at Natural England to process farmer’s applications: progress can die in those bottlenecks, as I suspect Liz Truss and others long ago realised.

We also need strict planning and emissions laws that make it impossible to create monster chicken, pig or dairy farms. And yes, when we stop our farmers doing that, the quid pro quo is we can’t then allow them to be displaced on the shelf by less ethical imports. When we do better than the global race to the bottom, we have to support the more ethical system we’ve created with our trade policies, something every prime minister says they’ll do then renege on.

On top of this, we must stop land being a tax dodge for the super wealthy. Nature-friendly small farms need support to continue, but the wealthy descendants of Norman warlords from 1,000 years ago don’t. Cap any farming support payments for vast estates, wealthy NGOs and pension funds. And while we are at it, land reform would be great in England — with a community right-to-buy of the biggest estates. It may sound like I’ve gone fully communist but fuck it… Imagine communities up and down Britain having their own food systems: their own orchards, their own horticulture, their own regenerative herds of cattle and sheep, their own eggs. Imagine how healthy, robust and resilient such communities could be. Imagine how green and pleasant that England could be.

We all really need that “New Deal” for farmers. I just hope that Keir Starmer has worked out what that means, and how bold he now needs to be.


James Rebanks is a fell farmer and the best-selling author of The Shepherd’s Life. His new book, English Pastoral, came out in September 2020.

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David McKee
David McKee
7 days ago

Fascinating article.

For nearly everyone reading this, it is an utterly unfamiliar terrain. Townies have lost touch with farming (and fishing). We don’t know what goes on.

But then, for 40 years, we didn’t need to. The Common Agricultural Policy handled everything. We just grumbled about butter mountains and wine lakes.

So James asks a fair question. What do we want from the countryside? There’s a long-overdue debate wanted here.

Stephen Walsh
Stephen Walsh
7 days ago
Reply to  David McKee

Rather we have lost touch with what malnutrition and the threat of starvation mean. The author points out we only produce about half of what we eat, yet everything he demands – heavy subsidisation of small scale producers like himself, even heavier regulation, curbs on private investment in agriculture, bans on intensive chicken, pig and dairy farms, restrictions on “less ethical” food imports (which would also make other things more expensive, because it would make comprehensive trade deals with food exporting countries impossible), subsidies for “delivering nature” – would reduce yields and increase the price of food. Affordable food, and particularly affordable meat, is directly linked to increased heights, and closely correlated with rising life expectancy and higher IQs. There is nothing ethical about making food far more expensive, particularly in a society with low economic growth where families are struggling to make ends meet. The author would complete the transformation of farmers into yet another client group of the state, producing what the government dictates, rather than what customers need.

Last edited 6 days ago by Stephen Walsh
Dr E C
Dr E C
7 days ago
Reply to  Stephen Walsh

He said the opposite of passing the cost on to the consumer. He rightly pointed to the bullying & exploitative role played by supermarkets which profit while farmers go bust.

As for the health benefits of food, especially meat: consuming animals full of the antibiotics & other drugs needed to keep them alive in utterly unnatural conditions, along with all the stress hormones those animals produce living in such conditions, is a surefire way to a health disaster.

Last edited 7 days ago by Dr E C
Stephen Walsh
Stephen Walsh
6 days ago
Reply to  Dr E C

Tesco’s operating margin is 4%. And if you eliminated that, people would end up paying a lot more. Plenty of folk don’t have that luxury of being able to afford that.

Last edited 6 days ago by Stephen Walsh
Richard Calhoun
Richard Calhoun
7 days ago
Reply to  Stephen Walsh

Mr Rebanks I suspect is a confirmed socialist when it comes to farming!

Dylan Blackhurst
Dylan Blackhurst
7 days ago

With a stonking great majority and a fragmented opposition Starmer & Co could really implement a grand vision for Britain.

Food grown closer to the communities that eat it would be great idea. But he won’t do that. Instead he’ll spend money on expanding ULEZ cameras across our major cities. And that way they can charge owners of older cars frankly ridiculous money to drive on potholed roads they are unwilling to fix.

We need a quiet revolution. Not one that saves the Ukraine or Gaza or the planet. One that saves the UK (do that and then do the other stuff). Labour should do that. But they won’t.

Jim Veenbaas
Jim Veenbaas
7 days ago

“That means you need some basic food production within walking distance of where you live — wherever you live. Local food systems need to be developed, protected, supported, nudged to change and regulated to create a different outcome…”

You lost me after this comment. It sounds very naive, very expensive and almost completely unrealistic.

Last edited 7 days ago by Jim Veenbaas
Dr E C
Dr E C
7 days ago
Reply to  Jim Veenbaas

Yes I agreed with every word up to this point. As if today’s mixed communities would or could pull together on any such project.

Saul D
Saul D
7 days ago
Reply to  Jim Veenbaas

It sounds like a traditional local market (with stalls and fat blokes shouting ‘apples one quid a bag’) to me. Why not have supermarkets closed on a Sunday morning (or two mornings a week) so a local market, and bakers, and butchers get some time without corporate competition?

Brendan O'Leary
Brendan O'Leary
7 days ago
Reply to  Jim Veenbaas

Up here we’d have to get through the winter on pickled neeps and salt fish once a month. “Localism” is a restaurant trend, not a sustainable food policy for the masses.

Anthony Roe
Anthony Roe
7 days ago

We could always get in some experts on land redistribution from Zimbabwe.

John Murray
John Murray
7 days ago

” a community right-to-buy of the biggest estates. It may sound like I’ve gone fully communist but f**k it”
Uh. Yeah, it does. Hard pass. Collective farming? Not one of the noted successes of agricultural reform in the twentieth century.

Jeff Carr
Jeff Carr
7 days ago

From what I watch and read about DEFRA it strikes me they are offering money to farmers to take land out of food production and this article does nothing to disabuse of that opinion.

Rob N
Rob N
7 days ago

Of course we need to grow more of our own food, have more ‘wilderness’, stop allowing foreign companies to to sell us their unhealthy subsidised junk food etc.

But the prerequisites are fewer people so we have more farmland and fewer mouths to feed. Also removing subsidies from farming chemicals (lack of pollution costs from herbicide etc and over encouragement of use of pharma drugs rather than good breeding) and returning full ownership of farms to their farmers.

Food ‘needs’ to be more expensive, clearly it is critical to life and is presently undervalued by Govt and Society.

Lancashire Lad
Lancashire Lad
7 days ago

A deeply conflicted article. The author starts by imploring the new government to set up a discussion about what our countryside is “for” then tells us all the requisite plans are already settled and government should just get on with implementing them.

Did the author bother reading it back to himself?

The shame is, i could have found.much to agree with him about, especially in terms of healthy food production and consumption. The danger is that the kind of muddled thinking which ensued might leach into government thinking faster than phosphates leach into our rivers from over-intensive farming practices. In other words, this article doesn’t help one little bit, apart from raising the issue.

Last edited 7 days ago by Lancashire Lad
Gordon Hughes
Gordon Hughes
6 days ago

A classic piece of rural romanticism aligned with the modern farmer’s stance of outstretched hand(s). As background I grew up on a farm, went to a different elite university, have studied agricultural economics for most of my life, and have lived in a rural area of Scotland very similar to the author’s fells.
The vision proposed is utterly at variance with the social and economic forces which shape British agriculture. The most important is rural depopulation. Few want to work in agriculture. Everything the author proposes requires much more labour intensive methods of farming. Where do the people come from, especially if he wants to turn the countryside even more into a playground for urban romantics?
The second factor is pressure from Net Zero folk to promote forestry and discourage livestock production. The outcome is to push land use in most of Scotland and Northern England to intensive plantation forestry. Where I live that means forestry on all the hills with livestock confined to valley floors. This makes perfect sense given current incentives but it doesn’t correspond in any way to the author’s depiction of what could be.
For more than 50 years British agriculture has been trapped between pressures to keep food prices down by relying upon an increasingly global market for agricultural products and the desire by romantics to protect the British countryside from the logical consequences of that globalisation. You can’t have both. Current policy is an unhappy compromise between the countryside as a public park view of the world and the reality of what is required to keep prices down. Don’t blame the supermarkets – they are just the vehicle of the desire of both government and customers to keep food prices down.
The author can have his vision if he is willing and able to persuade the public to accept far higher food prices – or the same in much higher taxes to subsidise farmers. Best of luck with that. The agricultural history of the last century has been a consistent choice to give more weight to lower prices and more capital-intensive production over any of the alternatives. Given its support it is very unlikely that the new government will make any other choice!

Iain Anderson
Iain Anderson
6 days ago
Reply to  Gordon Hughes

Agree here. But, can we afford food costs to go up while increasing higher housing costs reduce the amount of disposable income? Maybe there is a cunning plan but I doot it!

Richard Calhoun
Richard Calhoun
7 days ago

This is a familiar piece … farmers calling for Govt intervention … on the basis that the consumer doesn’t know what he wants and doesn’t understand anyway .. and of course more tax payer £’s.
Maybe Mr Rebanks look at the New Zealand model, I understand all Govt. grants and subsidies ended in 1978, and farming is one of the more successful sectors of their economy.

Roddy Campbell
Roddy Campbell
6 days ago

NZ is a country the size of England and Wales with a population of 5 million, half of which live in 2 cities. It lends itself to large farms, particularly in the South Island, where much of the hill land only supports low stocking rates. Removing subsidies drove a lot of small farmers out of business, with a great deal of pain; but it worked economically because NZ’s human and natural geography made that sort of model efficient.

Britain, particularly England, is a densely-populated land, which can’t produce all the food it consumes. This is being exacerbated by town-orientated politicians and technocrats trying to turn large parts of our productive farmland into a pastoral vision, a big wild garden. Leaving Britain, an island nation, utterly vulnerable to even the tiniest of sieges or sanctions.

Removing small farm subsidies wouldn’t work for Britain the way it has for New Zealand. Different land, different people, different economic and strategic setup.

Stephen Walsh
Stephen Walsh
7 days ago

“A healthy food system would massively reduce the cost of the NHS”. Why stop there? If the author had claimed that a healthy food system would guarantee eternal life it still wouldn’t have been the most ridiculous and overblown assertion in this fatuous article.

Norfolk Sceptic
Norfolk Sceptic
6 days ago
Reply to  Stephen Walsh

The NHS could stop promoting Carbohydrates, and that might improve the ‘food system’.

Adrian G
Adrian G
5 days ago

After all the time and effort taken to compile this piece, let’s just hope that he is given that weekly column at the Guardian.