September 2022

Written evidence submitted by River Action (FS0031)

EFRA Committee – Food Security Inquiry

River Action response

1. Introduction

River Action is a UK charity campaigning for action from Government and major agribusinesses to address the agricultural pollution crisis afflicting our rivers and to support farmers in delivering solutions.

River Action is deeply concerned by increasingly prevalent narratives which inaccurately pit food production and food security against nature protection and recovery, rather than understanding that the two are inherently linked and that the only viable solutions to the multifaceted challenges we currently face are those which deliver for both people and nature.

Our food system is undoubtedly experiencing arguably unprecedented challenges, but so too are nature and our rivers which are in existential crisis.

Every single river in England is now polluted beyond legal limits. This is a catastrophe for wildlife as well as for people who can no longer safely enjoy their local waterways. The discharge of untreated sewage directly into our rivers is one major contributing factor. However, another equally significant yet often overlooked contributor is the run-off of agricultural pollution into our rivers, which explains 40% of the pollution of our waterways.

We cannot and will not fix the food crisis by sacrificing our environment or by rolling back existing protections. Unless we restore nature, protect our soils and pollinators, and safeguard our water supplies, we have no hope of achieving genuine long-term food security.

The food system is undoubtedly broken – but fixing it requires Government to look for solutions that help both people and nature, rather than trade one off against the other. To do so, Government must ensure that measures such as the Environmental Land Management Scheme (ELMS) are fully rolled out.

River Action is deeply concerned by numerous recent reports suggesting that the Government is considering scrapping the Environmental Land Management scheme, as well as by recent Government announcements which indicate potential weakening of key legal protections for habitats and species. Such actions have rightly been labelled as an ‘all-out attack on nature’ and would have enormously detrimental implications for our rivers. Any turn away from ELMS towards something more closely aligned with a basic payments approach, in which people are paid simply for owning land, rather than providing public goods, would be hugely socially and environmentally regressive.

Any delay to ELMS rollout would damage our rivers further and jeopardise delivery of the UK’s Net Zero plans, as well as doing nothing to support the many farmers who are already stewards of our river environment or to facilitate the food system transformation that we so urgently need to see.

For the sake of both genuine long-term food security and also our rivers and the wider natural world, the Government must urgently progress the implementation of an environmentally ambitious ELMS, preserve legal protections for nature, and set and deliver upon ambitious targets for the health of our rivers. Our response to Q6 below sets out further detail on how this should be achieved.



  1. How could the Government’s proposed land use strategy for England improve food security? What balance should be stuck between land use for food production and other goals – such as environmental benefit?

It is not only possible to strike a balance between land use for food production and other goals such as environmental benefit but also a necessity if the UK is to reach its climate and nature targets and position itself as a global environmental leader.

The Government’s upcoming land use strategy must consider the importance of nature protection and restoration to ensure food security for years to come. There can be no genuine long-term food security without a stable climate and a healthy environment.

Any rollback of environmental protection or delay or scrapping of ELMS would certainly not be conducive to balancing food use production and environmental benefit. Any such moves would represent a prioritisation of intensive agriculture production at the expense of nature and therefore at the expense of long-term food security.

This summer we have seen a continued period of international and national crisis for our food system. As farmers face rising costs and the public faces rising food prices it is clear that the food system is broken. Around 70% of the UK’s land area is already used for agriculture, with approximately 70% of that used for farming animals and their feed – yet we still import substantial amounts of food and much of the food produced in the UK ends up being wasted.

The answer therefore is not to plough up more land but rather to find solutions that can help both people and nature, rather than trade one off against the other.

We will not find our way out of the double-edged crisis we now face by rolling back the meagre protection and incentives already in placed to protect our rivers, or by scrapping farmers reforms in favour of the regressive status quo which largely benefits the wealthiest landowners.

Through the land use strategy, the Government must deliver a positive and forward-thinking vision of a rural economy in which farmers are supported to grow good, healthy and affordable food, while protecting the natural resources upon which all of us ultimately depend, and which are essential to the future of our food system. This must include: