Agriculture and biodiversity: Spreading best practice

Management & Regulation, Natural Environment

Agriculture and biodiversity: Spreading best practice

Wild pollinators do an incredible job of pollinating approximately £690 million worth of crops every year for free! The Wildlife Trusts have estimated that replacing this function could cost as much as £1.8 billion annually. That’s a lot of money and a good reminder of why pollinators should matter to us all. Y’know, in case wanting to eat wasn’t enough.

Whilst I say that tongue in cheek, biodiversity has the potential to help overcome many food production challenges. The State of the World’s Biodiversity for Food and Agriculture report by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) recently highlighted that, “biodiversity at genetic, species and ecosystem levels helps address the challenges posed by diverse and changing environmental conditions and socio-economic circumstances”.

Many farmers in the UK care deeply about nature and voluntarily enter in to schemes and choose to use best practices on their land. But populations are still falling, in 2016 it was reported that “more than one in 10 of the UK’s wildlife species are threatened with extinction and the numbers of the nation’s most endangered creatures have plummeted by two-thirds since 1970” and things don’t seem to be looking up much yet. The recent Joint Nature Conservation Committee report stated “There is an overall picture of ongoing species decline, although perhaps not at the rate seen in previous decades”.

The FAO report shows that biodiversity decline is a global issue, so we won’t be able to solve troubles we have in future by importing food (and most likely exporting other environmental issues, storing up problems for later).

In this blog I’m looking at what steps UK farmers are already taking and what can be done to support wider adoption of best practices.

What farmers are already doing that’s good:

  • Partaking in Countryside Stewardship

Thérèse Coffey recently stated that “since 2011, over 130,000 hectares in England have been set aside to create new wildlife-rich habitat, largely through our agri-environment schemes”. Securing farmer action through Countryside Stewardship an important way for the government to meet their aims under the National Pollinator Strategy and the 25 Year Environment Plan.

  • Farming with wildlife in mind
    • Organic

In 2017 the government reported that 517 thousand hectares were organically farmed in the UK, a figure that had increased by 3.5% since 2016 but is not as high as its peak in 2008. The Soil Association reports that “on average, plant, insect and bird life is 50% more abundant on organic farms” with “30% more species”. However, we do need a balance between organic and ‘conventional’ production to support the UK’s self-sufficiency, as organic yields are typically lower the conventional yields.

    • LEAF Marque

Integrated farm management is the cornerstone of the Linking Environment And Farming (LEAF) approach under which farmers can get their produce LEAF Marque certified to give consumers an environmental assurance. LEAF recognises nine sections within integrated farm management including landscape and nature conservation.

  • Using minimum tillage techniques

Supporting soil health by going min till can help protect soil fauna which in turn benefits ecosystems and wildlife further up the chain. Lots of farms have taken up min till as part of their soil cultivations in recent years, balancing decisions about when to use min till techniques with the potential need to increase use of herbicides and pesticides which could leech into surrounding watercourses.

How good practice can be supported:

  • Through the new ELM scheme

If the UK leaves the EU then the intentions is for the existing Basic Payment Scheme and Countryside Stewardship scheme to be replaced with a new Environmental Land Management scheme. This scheme is going to be based on the principle of public money for public goods and payment by results trials are underway.

Developing this new scheme provides an excellent opportunity to address the aims of the 25 Year Environment Plan, including thriving plants and wildlife. For this approach to work the government needs to develop reliable metrics and a simple approach to natural capital valuation and accounting.

It will also be important that facilitation funding for landscape scale projects is continued to help ensure delivery efforts are ‘joined up’. One of the key principles that came out of the Lawton report alongside ‘more’, ‘bigger’, and ‘better’.

  • Through increased knowledge exchange

There are lots of great examples of best practice being used across the UK. One of the most successful ways of increasing such practices is through farmer to farmer knowledge exchange. The government should consider funding such programmes.

  • Through biodiversity gain schemes

Following a recent Defra consultation, the Chancellor, Philip Hammond, announced in the Spring Statement that biodiversity net gain will be made mandatory for developments in England. You can read our response to the consultation here.

If conservation covenants are also introduced, this could provide a great opportunity for land managers to consider whether they could use some of their less productive land to provide biodiversity units.

  • We can all use our consumer power

Educated individuals become conscious purchasers. We have totally seen this with Blue Planet II and plastics. Now we need a similar revolution for our food to improve the habits of both current and future shoppers. LEAF and others are already doing good work to educate children and there have been many campaigns to put agriculture on the national curriculum so that all children, no matter their background, can understand where food comes from and why our choices matter.

We have the knowledge and the opportunity to act to reverse biodiversity declines, both individually and as a country, it’s time to make positive changes for our long-term future.

Written by Sarah Anderton, 14/03/2019

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