What is the first thing that comes to mind when you think of a British farmer?  Do you picture a white middle-class male who happens to reside in the countryside, understands the hidden culture of rural life, and seamlessly navigates the complex terrain of the farm-to-folk value chain in the United Kingdom?

One might ask, and rightfully so, why this matters? If this description of the British food and farming industry represents a society whereby the lack of diversity in this professional sector is simply due to personal choice, and not in any way a result of systemic limitations imposed by racism, classism, and sexism, it does not. While we are not all born to cultivate the land, access to and agency within food and farming must no longer remain a privilege for the few.

This short blog is my reflection on how a lack of diversity and maintenance of the status quo hinder much-needed change in the food and farming sectors in Britain.

Diversity is not just about representation 

“People tell me I don’t look like a farmer. But what does one look like?”
Gala Bailey-Barker, Shepherd at Plaw Hatch Farm, East Grinstead, Sussex

Representation is valuable. Perceptions of belonging are determined, in part, by those who already present a given space. People generally need to know that there is a place for them in food and farming before they attempt to occupy space in the sector. Although the image of diversity in food and farming is valuable, representation is not the only obstacle to inclusivity in food and farming.

In 2015, the Policy Exchange found farming to be the least ethnically diverse occupation in Britain, followed by environmental professionals, and animal care service providers. According to the research body, the lower the barrier to entry, in terms of social capital and skill, the more diverse an industry. In 2018, according to the Office National Statistics,  women made up 17% of farmers in Britain even though 64% of graduates from agricultural studies were women in 2018/2019. Could it be that pervading perceptions of farming as an activity primarily for middle-class white men discourage others from engaging in the sector?

This past summer there was a lot of talk about raising a ‘land army’ of British workers to support local farms due to limited migrant labour available due restricted cross-border movement during the coronavirus lockdowns in Europe. Interestingly, the call for new entrants to the agricultural sector was not born out of the desire to bring new actors to the industry, but an emergency measure to mitigate the impending food crisis. That is not to say, the call for action during this time will have no long-term effect in widening agricultural participation in socially diverse ways.

Why for some farming is not only inaccessible, it is invisible

To what extent has farming and agriculture been promoted to those who do not already own land or belong to families of communities who already farm? The idea that women and members of the Black, Asian and Ethnic Minorities are simply not interested in farming is not true.

“At school, no-one promotes agriculture to ethnic minorities or even gives it consideration. There’s nothing to say that this is a career for you”.
Navarantham Partheebam, farm vet and founder of the Veterinary Ethnicity and Diversity Society

Restricted access and (in)visibility of the food and farming sector is a significant obstacle to achieving a diverse and inclusive sector. Diversity matters if we want the very best people placed in the very best positions within the sector. Diversity matters if we believe there is a richness in bringing together individuals from different social, economic, and cultural backgrounds that is essential for innovation and transformation in food value chains. Diversity matters if the food and farming sector wishes to address widening food inequities in Britain.

What can be done to create a more inclusive sector and why it matters more than ever 

“People talk diversity, but don’t act diversity. Nobody is challenging the status quo”
Wilfred Emmanuel Jones MBE, Farmer and Black Farmer Scholarship.

As of late, there is a growing consensus that the current distribution of power across most, if not all sectors, organisations, and nations are unjust. While these conversations are important, it is important to consider what desirous change might look like, how to realise this change, and who is and is not included in this process or demand for change.

At the diversity and inclusion webinar hosted by SUSTAIN, Andre Kpondu of Feedback Global notably asked: “Are we supporting change or simply talking about it? What is the practical impact of what we are doing?”.  Rightly so, diversity for him referred to diversification in ways of thinking, methods, and aims and not just people in the proverbial room. That being said, what can be learned from organisations striving for diversity and inclusivity in food and farming?

What can I do?

If you are a farmer, small to medium scale food enterprise, or a member of a large organisation, you are an integral part of the movement towards diversity and inclusivity in food and farming. And you do not have to identify as an underrepresented group in the sector to do so. Make a start today by looking at those who are regular customers or members of your enterprise? What facilitated their awareness and access to your organisation? Who is included in your immediate community, consider what barriers may be present for those who would like to be a part of a growing or local food community? Diversity and inclusion in food and farming require systemic change, but all change begins with you.

Cobi-Jane Akinrele