Written Evidence submitted by McCain Food GB (SH0068)


Executive summary


        McCain is an industry leader in developing regenerative agriculture practices that improve soil health. We are the largest purchaser of the British potato crop, and partner with 250 growers – most recently we announced a £35m investment in British farming by committing to a 31% contract price increase based on our indexation model.


        McCain welcomes Defra’s recognition of the need to maintain soil health, and the measures set out last year in the first set of Sustainable Farming Incentive (SFI) standards. However, the current measures are only a start. With studies finding that arable soils in the UK are facing erosion – for example, a 2019 Defra study found long-term damage to 17% of arable soils in England and Wales – more needs to be done to ensure food security and protect the UK’s biodiversity. We propose three actions Government should take:


     Encourage adoption of regenerative agriculture. While several of the principles which make up regenerative agriculture are subsidised under the SFI scheme, Defra does not present these measures in a coherent package to farmers. It should adopt a clear programme for farmers to follow – as McCain has rolled out in the UK, North America and Europe  to reduce administrative burdens for transitioning to sustainable practices.


     Publish clearer and more detailed guidance. Current soil health guidelines are unclear and difficult to access. There is also no long-term plan for farmers. Defra should work with industry to set out a clear, long-term soil health plan that farmers can adopt easily.


     Provide support across the supply chain. At the start of the supply chain, Defra’s Farming Innovation Fund should allocate a portion of its funding to soil-focused projects, building on the progress of initiatives such as Soil Benchmark’s solutions. On farms, more could be done to educate landowners on the benefits of maintaining soil health.



About McCain


McCain is the UK’s largest branded manufacturer of frozen potato products, employing over 1,300 people across five processing facilities in Scarborough, Hull, Grantham, Whittlesey, and Wombourne, with a dedicated seed potato business in Montrose. We recently invested over £100m into the renewal of our production facility in Scarborough, and invest regularly in other sites. This includes a new investment into our Hull plant and wind turbine developments around our Whittlesey site, which generates 70% of its electricity needs.


We are the largest purchaser of the British potato crop, buying around 15% of the total market from 250 growers. To ensure the sustainability of the farming industry, in January 2023 we announced a £35m investment in British farming by committing to a contract price increase of 31% for our growers. We use an indexation model for our contract pricing, based on change in production costs for our growers, thereby ensuring they are protected from input cost rises. This follows 2022’s contract price increase of 15% and a supplementary £5m energy support package, totalling a £50m investment by McCain in British farming in just two years. We have also published our global 2023 Sustainability Report which provides detail on how we will achieve our target of implementing regenerative agriculture practices across 100% of our potato acres by 2030.




The maintenance of soil health in the UK faces a number of challenges, including contamination, nutrient loss, erosion, and compaction. These challenges have been well-documented, and the Government has taken some action to address them. While the SFI standards set out in 2022 on subsidising soil maintenance actions[1] were welcome, further information was needed, particularly around the prioritisation of food production and the improvement of biodiversity, especially as the Soil Health Action Plan for England (SHAPE) has been subsumed into a wider environmental plan[2].


However, the scheme raised concerns amongst farmers and wildlife activists, who either stated that it fails to prioritise land needed for food production[3] or does not go far enough to improve biodiversity and protect the environment[4]. Only 224 farmers received ELMS payments in 2022 according to The Guardian[5], highlighting that changes need to be made to the scheme, including through increased funding and reduced administrative barriers. While the Government has expanded the SFI to include six new standards in early 2023, it has not done enough to address concerns around uptake of the existing standards.


The uptake of soil-friendly practices is crucial to the long-term sustainability of our food sectors and protection of biodiversity. Long-term damage to UK soil has resulted in 17% of arable soils in England and Wales, in 2019, showing signs of erosion and 40% (2m ha) thought to be at risk of erosion[6]. In the long-term, intensive agriculture processes have also caused arable soils to lose 40–60% of their organic carbon, reducing their ability to sequester greenhouse gases.


Renewing the UK’s soil health


To improve the state of the UK’s soil health, Defra should increase the support available to farmers to take remediative and preventative action. We believe support should focus on three key areas:




Regenerative agriculture


Regenerative agriculture is an effective way to decarbonise farming while maintaining and improving domestic food supply. It takes an ecosystem-based approach to farming that aims, in the long-term, to improve farmer resilience, yield, and quality. Meanwhile, it decreases input costs and allows farmers to benefit from natural processes that can help farms build resilience and become more efficient.


Regenerative agriculture should be adopted in the UK to achieve a number of strategic goals identified in the Government’s recent Food Strategy, including strengthening food security, and helping farms to be commercially sustainable in the face of climate change. This involves improving soil health through practices including: Strategic deployment of cover crops; Enhanced crop diversity; Minimised soil disturbance through reduced tillage; Reduced agro-chemical impact and optimised water use; Enhanced biodiversity; and, Integrating organic and livestock elements on farms.


To accelerate the adoption of regenerative agriculture, the Government should:


        Incentivise industry commitments to regenerative agriculture – All farms should be incentivised to join us in transitioning to 100% regenerative agriculture practices by 2030.

        Fund new research into regenerative agriculture – Regenerative agriculture should be a key focus of the Government’s Farming Innovation Programme and other food innovation funding packages.

        Promote Regenerative Agriculture in the Land Use Framework – Regenerative agriculture allows farmers to continue to use farmland which might otherwise need to be rewilded to meet environmental targets. We hope the framework promotes and incentivises farmers to embrace the practices.


Improving subsidy guidance


The guidance available to food producers on the SFI scheme standards is convoluted and difficult to find. For time-poor farmers, this adds to the administrative burden of applying for payments. For example, McCain’s growers are mostly interested in the arable and horticultural soils standards, with other soil types being of no relevance. We welcome the support for small farms to enter the SFI by subsidising the first 50 hectares of land, but having to wade through large amounts of irrelevant information[7] remains a major disincentive for take-up.


The Government should make clear what its national guidelines are, instead of linking farmers to a third party source. At the moment, the clearest guidance that can be found on the SFI web page is a link to Championing the Farmed Environment (CFE) guidelines[8]. The Government should integrate any of these guidelines that are official into its own website. The CFE guidance itself lacks detail – for instance, it doesn’t include guidance on minimising tillage to avoid soil disturbance, or dedicating non-cultivated land to natural habitat.


For longer-term soil sustainability, the Government should publish clear stages in the SFI that farmers can reach by achieving sustainable farming goals, instead of the current single-action piecemeal approach. At McCain, we propose a three-tier system – beginner, master, expert – which clearly outlines how farmers can improve their land use[9]. We apply these rankings based on attributes such as soil health, where we fund soil health tests for growers and those results help place farms into one of the three categories. We would be more than happy to provide further details about this system, which we use across our farms in Canada, the US, and Europe to help farmers improve their soil health.


Supporting soil health across the supply chain


The actions of those involved across the wider food supply chain can help to maintain and improve soil standards. R&D funding and landowner / farmer education are examples of such support.


First, soil-targeted R&D can play a role in helping farmers adopt innovative practices in the long-term. We welcome Defra’s Farming Innovation Fund, and see this as a suitable vehicle through which to advance soil maintenance practices. Soil Benchmark’s data-sharing solutions, funded by the Research Starter Pilot[10], is an example of where funding has been allocated in a successful way to support soil health. It is crucial that similar projects continue to receive funding, and that any findings that arise from such research are integrated into Defra guidelines.


Second, to accompany the ELMs schemes, the Government should invest in educating landowners and farm managers on the importance of improving soil health. The benefits of sustainable agriculture practices often only come about in the long term. This means that, despite their willingness to adopt sustainable practices, many growers are forced to continue to farm intensively with little focus on improving soil quality. Education on the longer term economic benefits of soil-friendly practices would help to accelerate takeup.


How will these policies help the Government’s aims?


If the Government adopts these changes, it will help to improve the UK’s soil health alongside supporting the growth of the UK agriculture sector. This support will result in:


        Increased uptake of Defra’s ELMS. By providing clear guidelines – including by adopting schemes that have worked elsewhere such as McCain’s regenerative agriculture framework – Defra can reduce the administrative costs that farmers face, and accelerate the transition to sustainable soil practices.


        Long-term certainty for British farmers. The regenerative agriculture framework that we have set out provides long-term clarity on how farmers can develop their farming practices according to different levels of adoption. The current SFI standards provide one-off, uncoordinated actions that provide little long-term confidence, and a coherent framework will resolve this issue.


        Reinforcement of the UK as a leader in sustainable land use. The Government intends to set out its Land Use Framework shortly, signalling its commitment to sustainable and high-yield land use. These proposals, especially the creation of standardised product certification, will help the UK to have a leading food supply chain, where all actors are contributing to the health of our soil.


For further information, please contact charlotte.pick@mccain.co.uk.


[1] Gov.uk, ‘A summary of the SFI in 2022’, March 30 2022, (link).

[2] Farmers Weekly, ‘Defra shelves bespoke soil health action plan for England’, January 20 2023, (link).

[3] The Telegraph, ‘Jeremy Clarkson leads farmers’ demands to scrap “bureaucratic bulldozer” red tape’, September 26 2022, (link).

[4] The Guardian, ‘Farmers threaten to quit NFU as leader backs scrapping of nature subsidies’, September 26 2022, (link).

[5] The Guardian, ‘Just 224 farmers were paid under post-Brexit farming scheme last year’, January 4 2023, (link).

[6] Environment Agency, ‘The state of the environment: soil’, June 2019, (link).

[7] Gov.uk, ‘Environmental Land Management (ELM) update’, January 26 2023, (link).

[8] Championing the Farmed Environment, ‘UK Soil Health Initiative guides’, June 21 2021, (link).

[9] McCain, ‘McCain’s Regenerative Agriculture Framework’, (link).

[10] UKRI, ‘£11m funding announced to further support food sector innovation’, August 22 2022, (link).


February 2023