Happy New Year!
My new year resolutions are simple to say and virtually impossible to achieve: I shall never shout at the kids, I shall complete a task before starting a new one, I shall master the art of presentation in my cooking and I shall improve my botany.
But here is a resolution I would like to recommend to those in positions of authority: to relentlessly pursue ways to decouple economic growth from unsustainable exploitation of the natural world.
This is also simple to say, yet is much, much harder to achieve and the stakes are high. If we fail, the consequences are dreadful to contemplate - catastrophic climate change and biodiversity loss which erodes the foundation upon which our own species depends. I think it is right for us to be ambitious, to want a global economy that protects rather than destroys rainforests, that is reliant on the power of wind, sun and waves rather than fossil fuels and that prevents species from becoming extinct. And this is also the stated ambition of the UK Government. Environment Secretary, Caroline Spelman, has encapsulated this vision by saying that she wants this to be the first generation to pass on the natural environment in an enhanced state. I want her to be successful in realising this aim - but this will require a radically different way of thinking.
I shall be exploring this idea as it applies to agriculture at the Oxford Farming Conference this week. The focus for my talk is how to balance production with conservation. I’ll post a link to our full paper later this week.
In reality, the challenge is much broader than this title suggests. How can we develop a sustainable model of agriculture that helps us to feed the world without harming the planet? The context is provided by two reports published last year.
The Foresight report on the future of food and farming concluded that to feed a population of about 9 billion people in 2050 we will need to radically overhaul the whole food system. Yes, this does mean increasing production but it also means minimising waste and reducing demand for the most resource intensive products. And, we must recognise that hunger remains a problem today despite the fact that we already produce enough food to feed the world. Oxfam offers a number of reasons why one in seven of us will go hungry tonight. Key solutions include improving food availability as well as intensifying the use of knowledge to support agriculture in the poorest parts of the world.
A second report, which featured heavily in my blog in 2011 and deserves to be a fixture in 2012, also provided some signals for the path we should follow. The National Ecosystem Assessment concludes that we have undervalued the environment in decision-making and that as a result we are not getting the most from our land. The report highlights that although farmland provides a vital service to the UK in terms of food production, food is just one of the services farmland can provide. The objective should be to optimise the total benefits we get from land. These can include storing carbon, managing water and providing biodiversity, as well as producing food.
Every farm is unique, with the potential to provide a varied range of services. All farmers take decisions that reflect the conditions in which they are farming and help to determine what services their land provides. The RSPB is no different. For example, at Tarnhouse Farm (a upland livestock farm that forms part of the RSPB's Geltsdale Reserve), working with our tenant farmer, we have decreased the intensity of grazing, introduced some cattle alongside the sheep, and rewetted part of the holding. This has increased the biodiversity, carbon storage and water management functions of the land, while the farm continues to produce high-quality meat. At Hope Farm, our lowland arable farm, we have been able to increase both food production and biodiversity through smart use of agri-environment schemes within a conventional intensive farming system.
Hope Farm is principally a win-win situation. At Tarnhouse, to a certain extent there have been some trade offs. By looking at all the functions this land can perform, we think that we have optimised the supply of ecosystem services it provides – but this has meant scaling back on one service - food production. Although Tarnhouse is on land considered to be agriculturally marginal, it is now producing a wide range of valuable services including carbon storage, water quality, biodiversity and food.Discussions on balancing agricultural production and conservation are often framed as a choice between two options. Some argue that by farming intensively on some land, we free up other land for nature. By producing high yields of wheat on Hope Farm and thus helping to meet food demand, maybe somewhere else a nature reserve will be spared from the plough. Some argue that we should produce food and wildlife on the same land, even if this means some compromises – wildlife friendly farming, like at Tarnhouse.I don’t believe it is a black-and-white choice between two competing models of farming. I think the future has a place for many different types of farm: organic and conventional, livestock and crop, upland and lowland, extensive and intensive. As the National Ecosystem Assessment said, we need to think about how to get the best from our land. This is going to mean different things in different places. We need the policy environment (whether framed by the Common Agriculture Policy or through domestic policies) to encourage this flexibility. And finally, we need more investment into agricultural research. We need to be pioneering and export a model of sustainable agriculture which not only leads to increased productivity but also has a lighter ecological footprint on the planet.
The UK, on its own, will not be able to feed the world through intensifying production at home. We need to avoid the race for short-term high input, high output systems where those systems compromise the ability of land and local people to sustain output. But we can be a leader in environmentally sustainable agriculture and we can export our knowledge and expertise. Those looking for a moral crusade for 2012 should look no further. And, I would argue that, for our children's sake (whether they are shouted at or not) there is no alternative.
What are your resolutions for 2012? How do you think we can balance food production with conservation?
Throughout this week, I shall be encouraging colleagues from other organisations to contribute their thoughts via this blog. I hope that it leads to a wider debate offering tangible solutions to one of the great challenges we face.
It would be great to hear your views.
Yesterday, I gave a presentation to the Oxford Farming Conference on balancing production with conservation. You can read a copy of my paper here. I enjoyed the experience despite having the odd flashback to doing my final year exams - the conference is held in the Examination Halls which for me is home to some rather painful memories.
It was great to be able to contribute to the debate as the conference sets the scene for the rest of the year. To keep the debate alive I have invited a few guest bloggers to add their contributions this week.
Below you will find some thoughts from Matthew Naylor.
Matthew is a farmer from South Lincolnshire. He grows cut flowers for most of the major supermarkets. The farm, on Holbeach and Moulton Marsh, was reclaimed from the Wash by the Saxons and Romans. The farm is LEAF Marque accredited and Matthew is a trustee of LEAF (Linking Environment and Farming). He is a Farmers Weekly columnist, a Nuffield scolar and he writes a blog here.
Martin Harper’s paper gives a rational and comprehensive overview of where Western European agriculture finds itself. It is a fact that the CAP-designed system for producing food in the UK has caused biodiversity to suffer. Thankfully he delivered the news in an impartial way. Farmers are sensitive souls and they take criticism badly; they need to understand why there’s a problem before they will start to tackle it.
There has been a tug of war between certain farmers and certain conservationists in the past. The best policy in this situation is usually to stop tugging and let the other side fall on their bum. This signifies a brave new dawn and I hope will lead to many more cases of farmers and conservationists working together. Unfortunately it is much easier to keep on arguing than it is to address a situation. The big challenge now is “How do we deliver a productive and profitable farming network while maintaining a balanced eco-system?”
Martin’s paper was the first time that I have heard the phrases land sharing/land sparing. This encapsulates something which has troubled me as a farmer. Should I be farming with nature or alongside nature? The correct answer varies from one crop to the next but I suspect involves a proprtion of both. We clearly need areas that are managed for wildlife on most farms but we also need to consider our practices on the productive areas too. The timing of mechanical operations is fundamentally disruptive to all sorts of natural life cycles. Most UK farms have moved towards huge fields and the capabilities of modern machines mean that vast areas of the countryside can receive the same process in a few days. We cannot hope to have broad bio-diversity unless the crops and the way that they are grown is at least as diverse. In this respect, the market is leading the farming industry in completely the opposite direction.
The paper also highlights how difficult it is to measure the postive and negative impacts of our actions. None of us can claim to be absolutely sure why farmland bird numbers are falling. The EU have paid huge sums of money into Stewardship schemes without a clear idea of what they would actually achieve. ELS and HLS have set the agenda very well but they should have been supported with much more research funding and practical advice at a local level. The role of the RSPB has been invaluable on our own farm in this respect. It is disappointing, but perhaps not suprising, that the charitable sector has to be depended upon to make up for the shortcomings of the tax-funded policy.
Do you agree with Matthew?
This week I am looking at the role that business can play in protecting the planet.
But for a business to remain in business, they do need consumers to buy their products or services. And that means we all have a role to play.
Even at breakfast.
Because if you start your day with Jordan's cereal and a couple of slices of toast made from Allinson Bread, you'll be helping wildlife from the comfort of your kitchen.
These are just two brands that support Conservation Grade - a scheme encouraging nature friendly farming. Farmers that supply conservation grade products are obliged to allocate 10% of their land to create wildlife habitats. This is on a par with what we do at our Hope Farm. And, as at Hope Farm, Conservation Grade farms have more wildlife. It is estimated that they are home to five times more wildlife than conventional farms.
They achieve this by being pretty prescriptive about which habitats farmers need to manage to get the most wildlife on their land. Nearly all Conservation Grade farmers will be rewarded through agri-environment schemes and then receive a premium payment on top.
And, in farmers like Robert Law (former Farmer of the Year and Nature of Farmng Award regional winner), they have fabulous advocates. Sometimes it takes a farmer to convince a farmer"
I am a fan of Conservation Grade and any other schemes that drive up standards. I hope that their market share grows. And let's remember that we, as nature-loving consumers, can help make that happen by choosing the right products when we shop.
Do you buy Conservation Grade products? If not, why not?
This week I am encouraging commentators from outside the RSPB to offer their views on the paper that I presented to the Oxford Farming Conference this week. You can read a copy of my paper here. After Matthew Naylor's comments yesterday, my second guest post comes from Allan Buckwell. Allan has remained a highly respected commentator of CAP issues over a number of years and has always looked to push the debate to find solutions to meet the need of everyone with an interest in what happens in our countryside. He pulls no punches in his comments below.
"I would have enjoyed seeing the reactions of the Conference to the RSPB’s Martin Harper. Apart from some snarls and grimaces, I suspect that for the majority of the audience the reaction to his paper would have been ‘yeah yeah, we know we have not yet found the optimal balance between food production and nature, but what new ideas has this guy got to get closer to the right mix?’
Harper’s proposition is that food production has to increase, and environmental care has to increase too. I don’t think anyone seriously argues about either statement. The CLA has argued Europe’s key policy in this area has to become focused on ‘Food and Environmental Security’, and the NFU’s motto is ‘produce more impact less’. This ‘only’ leaves us to dispute the details of how to do it – and critically – who pays?
This is where the worrying dearth of new ideas hits home. We’ve got lots of new jargon. Sustainability on its own is now passé so we add an extra word and talk about ‘sustainable intensification’. It is also compulsory nowadays to throw in ‘externalities, market failures, public goods, and ecosystem services’. All of these are well-defined concepts within their own spheres of economics and ecology, but will take more time before they are used correctly and usefully in the public debates – but credit to the OFC for inviting speakers who provide this educative role.
Harper tries out the land sparing versus land sharing dichotomy to try and describe how some aspects food production and the environment are competitive and should be produced on separate parcels of land (sparing), whereas others can be produced together on the same parcel (sharing). But having run with the idea he concludes “There is a continuum of approaches to land management, and each situation should be assessed on its own merits rather than attempting to apply one particular model across the board.” Ho hum.
Where Harper seems to pull his punches is with regard to the correct policy approach in Britain and the EU. He is surprisingly soft on the Government’s stance.
My view is that until and unless there is public acceptance of the scale and seriousness of the market failures in land management which mean that farmers are properly remunerated for producing the non-food ecosystem services which only they can provide, then we will continue to wring our hands about the deterioration of environmental capital. It is entirely reasonable that the appropriate policy is operated at the EU level, and that the CAP provides the mechanisms and funds. The Commission’s proposals for CAP reform with its 30% Greening of Pillar 1 can be interpreted to suggest a massive increase in funding for delivery of environmental services from about €2.5b/yr to €15b/yr. The way the Commission proposes doing the greening is poor, but there is time and scope to improve this. The UK problem is that whilst Defra’s rhetoric is for more sustainable land management, and is doubtless sincere about its international commitments on biodiversity and climate change, the UK stance on the CAP reform is owned by the Euro-sceptic, British Budget Rebate-obsessed Treasury. The Chancellor shoved ‘the greenest government’ pan firmly to the back burner in his autumn statement – so I’m afraid the signs are not good for better “balancing agricultural production and conservation”."
Do you agree with Allan?
...I would have seen the Prime Minister interviewed by John Craven on Countryfile. It is worth a watch. I am not for a moment suggesting that it is a substitute for what I called for in yesterday's blog - a key note speech setting out Mr Cameron's vision for the environment - but it is still pleasing to hear support for the environment from the top of the Government.
As context for the interview, John uses footage of Mr Cameron's 14 May 2010 speech to staff at the Department of Energy and Climate Change where he uttered those immortal words "I want this to be the greenest government ever". He then asks whether, following the Chancellor's autumn economic statement, the intent remains.
Mr Cameron said that he does not see a distinction between environmental protection and economic growth, he suggested that he would no more put the countryside at risk than his own family and that he remains supportive of renewable energy. It is a refreshing to hear him speak publicly of the agenda which figured so prominently when he was Leader of the Opposition.
Of course, I disagreed with his analysis about the planning proposals and think that he is wrong when he suggests that protection afforded to SSSIs is not threatened by the reform (read my blog entry here). But I hope that when he engages in the detail of the policy debate he will be supportive of changes proposed by the RSPB, the National Trust and others.
The second part of the interview will be shown next week and a preview suggests that he will outline his support for reform of the CAP so that more farmers are rewarded for protecting the environment. If Mr Cameron begins to find his environmental voice and fights for policies to match his rhetoric, then 2012 may just be a good year for wildlife.
I must remember to tune in next week.
Did you see Mr Cameron's interview? What did you think?