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Sowing seeds of stability

The case for a Basic Income for Farmers


What if food producers received an unconditional living wage? What if this was combined with real incentives for young people to get into farming (as the average age of UK farmers is 60). What if this policy package could facilitate the mass conversion of farms towards regenerative and natural practices? What if this made food cheaper and affordable, as a basic right rather than an economic trade off with heating bills or education? We’ve been having conversations with many farmers and food producers this year with the Basic Income 4 Farmers campaign. The farming industry, now at crisis point in many ways and in need of societies support, could be a ripe place to begin some basic income trials for wider society, whilst simultaneously transforming our food and climate predicament for the better, sowing the seeds of stability needed for stewards to regenerate lands, waters and health.

 

Currently in the UK over £4.7 billion is poured disproportionately into subsidies for a minority of landowners (80% funds go to 20% of farms) producing industrialised commodity foods - this is not disimilar to fossil fuel subsidies as it is these farming practices contributing to 30% global emissions and the lion’s share of biodiversity loss. And those farmers are still in debt and have the highest suicide rates in any profession whilst food is unaffordable for them and many others - this system is clearly not working for anyone or nature. Whilst these farm subsidies should not be removed, this £4.7 billion of subsidies would provide a basic income for every farmer in the UK. The funding for this should not however come from existing agricultural subsidies, as we need all of this to support the larger scale farmers in a regenerative transition and a reformed version of ELMS. As the pandemic showed, if the priorities are right then the budget can be found and the economics shifted.


If we are to look at the food and farming, climate and nature challenges as interwoven and at crisis point, then we need a proportionate response and a prioritising of this. Given the small number of farmers, it wouldnt require much budget in national terms. We could use just a few percent of the budget currently subsidising war, fossil fuels and deforestation. Just 1 percent of this budget could radically transform our food system and culture for the better. Subsidies, global market forces and backwards food policy has shaped the vulnerable system we have today, emphasising a “get big or get out” approach to farming and an erosion of the small-scale, community and regenerative farming methods. This was rooted in post war crisis response to scale up and feed a growing population, resulting in a food system that wastes 30%, feeds much of the rest to livestock and still leaves 1 in 10 people in food poverty. ‘Cheap’ commodity food does not actually mean access to food for people, as the UK context demonstrated – we have the highest level of food insecurity in Europe despite the lowest price tags on foods. The food security piece is inseparable for the land regeneration piece, there is no food security without soil stability. According to the United Nations we have only 50 years of topsoil remaining due to the agricultural practices that have been promoted in this post war period, and a limited time to turn the ship around to ensure any food for future generations.  

 

There are just 111,000 farmers left in the UK, a rate of extinction parallel to the loss of farmland birds, and yet so often the farmers hanging in there are blamed for this predicament that has been largely forced upon them. The average age of farmers in the UK is 60. New entrants have so many barriers and face a near impossibility to start from nothing, although some have managed like us through amazing community support and perseverance through the barriers (ongoing). Even the ‘successful’ farms that battle through these challenges are rarely able to pay everyone well, to provide holiday, sick pay and pension, or to cover all the extra hours from unexpected occurrences like a water leak, extreme weather or escaped animal in the middle of the night. There is an interesting economic shift at play in the farming world, comparable to the renewables world whereby the sustainable option is also becoming the most economic in the long term, which makes sense from a ‘working with nature’ perspective - healthier soil and using natural rather than synthetic energy is more cost effective, just like solar is now cheaper than coal to produce despite the skewed subsidies. Even with this economic logic to farm regeneratively, it can potentially cost more in the early transition years and takes a leap of faith, courage and mindset. The ability to do this with a stable income and guarantee of livelihood would flip the paradigm and result in a snowball of regeneration, perhaps just in time to save our soils and biodiversity.

 

There exists an age-old social contract between farmers and society which at its simplest states: “we will grow food for you if you support our farms and livelihoods.” This has taken many forms throughout history, and often involved more community engagement with the lands around them, especially pre-enclosure, the social agreement would have been a much more common day-to-day reality of every place and every person that ate food. This underlying social contract is the foundation of civilisation, and it is severely broken. The relationship between producer and consumer has reached a breaking point, whereby farmers are producing so much commodity food and yet are barely able to eat well themselves, or sustain a real living. Often debt ridden, subservient to a minority of landlords, struggling with mental health, overworked and stressed, this is a sorry state of affairs for how our country treats its producers. This backwardness is mirrored in our care systems and our educational systems, and thus the quality of service from these basic needs is existing in a perpetual crisis-response and adrenaline-filled environments. Meanwhile corporations, water company directors and supermarkets boast record profits at the expense of our environment and values, and our government continues to subsidise war, fossil fuels and deforestation. We could take a small percentage of any one of these budgets and radically transform our food system for the better.

 

There is also a contract between farmer/steward and nature in which the land says “I will provide for you forever if you look after me.” This age-old agreement is also at breaking point, with soils sprayed, tilled and depleted, now reliant on external inputs to produce low quality food for the market (one third of which goes to waste and much of the rest to livestock). This has not come about through an individual farmers choice to deplete his/her land, and neither has it come about through a lack of care or knowledge. Its arisen in large part from an economic system and a broken social contract, whereby farmers have been left behind, left to pick up the pieces of a failed experiment, and under-resourced to carry out any positive changes. Instead the policies and support could be redesigned to provide a basic income for food producers, freeing up a greater number of farmers to be the best stewards and caretakers of our lands and health.

 

This could simultaneously tackle the climate, food and cost of living crisis whilst also cultivating healthy food for all, saving billions in NHS expenditure and reversing an obesity epidemic in the UK (1 in 4 adults are obese from our food system). If farmers have to pay labour out of their income from producing food, they will be incentivised to opt for low labour approaches, putting money into sprays, fuel and fertilisers which are currently cheaper than people in the short term. A basic income for farmers flips this paradigm and the local, collaborative and regenerative approach will suddenly become the affordable norm , the easy choice for all - as it is ‘labour intensive’ (a positive feature) and less intensive in shipping , fossil fuels, chemicals and machinery .

 

We are launching a campaign, collaborating with many other groups, landworkers, academics and activists, to get a Basic Income for Farmers (and eventually for all care givers and essential workers)

 

Keep an ear to the ground for the a new year’s blog post as the campaign takes off, we will share the report, findings and practical recommendations co-written by our partners: Autonomy, BI4Farmers and Basic Income Conversation. Its time to transform the food system – will you join us?

 

Write to your MP and local council ask them to back a basic income for farmers, come to our session in January below, and follow the campaign on @Middle Ground Growers Instagram and @UBI4Farmers

 

And heres some sources for further reading on the benefits and practicalities :

Wicked Leeks article

 

Food Research collaboration

 

Uneven earth publication

 

UBI Lab

 

UNIVERSAL BASIC INCOME FOR FARMERS: CAMPAIGN LAUNCH, REPORT INSIGHTS AND DISCUSSION

Location : Oxfor Real Farming Conference, 4-5th January

Facilitators: Hamish Evans, Dot Tiwari

Speaker: Guy Standing

 

From labourers to landowners, livelihoods in agriculture are often precarious. A lack of funded pathways into farming makes careers in producing food both hard to access and difficult to sustain. Finding ways to support these livelihoods will be critical to building the resilient, sustainable and just local food systems we need.  This is an interactive workshop as well as the launch of a new report, with findings from a year of hosting conversations with farmers around the UK. UBI4FARMERS is a campaign created by a fresh working group of growers, farmers, academics and union co-ordinators. The aim of the campaign is to encourage farmers and food producers to discuss possible solutions to the financial barriers they face.

 

05/01/2024 14:00-15:30

 

 

 

 

 

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