My passion for wildlife was stimulated in my teenage years, mainly thanks to my Mum (a biology teacher) who made me look at the world differently and being inspired by writers such as Paul Colinvaux. This early interest developed into biological research in my 20s, when I did practical conservation work in places such as the Comores and Mongolia.
Today, any free time I have I spend pottering around the flatlands of East Anglia or escaping to our hut on the Northumberland coast looking for wildlife and castles with my wife and children.
I studied Biological Sciences at Oxford and Conservation at UCL, and worked at Wildlife and Countryside Link before spending five years as Conservation Director at Plantlife.
I joined the RSPB as Head of Government Affairs in 2004, became Head of Sustainable Development in 2006, before becoming Conservation Director in 2011.
I’m at the Yorkshire Show today to help Farming Minister, Jim Paice MP, launch the first report from the Green Food Project. You can read it here.
I feel good about our report. I say ‘our’ because it is the result of more than nine months’ work by a large and diverse group of people including representatives from Defra, farming and land management organisations, food retail and the environmental sector.
It’s a slightly new way of doing things. The Minister sets the exam question and then a bunch of people from different organisations try to answer it, understandably coming from different perspectives and with different priorities.
The exam question is not an easy one – how do we reconcile the competing objectives of increasing production and improving the natural environment.
The environment challenge is best summed by the National Ecosystem Assessment which showed that in the past, increases in the productivity of farmed land have resulted in declines in other ecosystem services (things that nature gives us).
So as we look to rise to the challenge that a growing and increasingly affluent global population poses, we need to give equal attention to the environmental impacts of our current food system. Environmental damage means that the world’s capacity to produce food is decreasing. Farming practices around the world today do have environmental consequences: emissions of greenhouse gas, water pollution, eroding soils and wildlife losses. Yes, we need to look to the future, but we also need to look at what we’re doing now, and how that needs to change. It’s becoming something of a cliché, but business as usual is not an option.
The loss of wildlife is felt at all scales. In the UK, arable plants are the most threatened group of flora, specialist farmland butterfly species declined by 39% between 1990 and 2009, and in 2010 breeding farmland bird populations in the UK were at their lowest level ever recorded - at half of what they were in 1970. Across Europe, a similar picture emerges: farmland bird numbers have dropped by 50% since 1980: a loss of around 297 million birds from the European countryside. Grassland butterflies across Europe declined by almost 70% between 1990 and 2009, driven largely by agricultural intensification and abandonment.
Biodiversity loss matters to farming. Wildlife is responsible for pollinating many crops, supporting soil functions like nutrient recycling, and helping to create the beautiful countryside we value for recreation and inspiration. The range of species present gives ecosystems their resilience – their flexibility to adapt to change. The diversity of life represents future options for us - it is the source of the genetic material and the information/inspiration that will drive future advances in science and technology. And a lot of us feel that the species we share the planet with are important in their own right.
The Green Food Project report sets out some recommendations and actions to address these challenges, and also describes some of the work that is already happening. While the report discusses the role of technology, knowledge transfer, waste and, briefly, consumption, I shall focus on the land management challenge.
The report (informed by case studies which you can access here) is clear that we have to tackle biodiversity loss at all scales. We need each farmer to manage his or her land in wildlife-friendly ways, guided by good advice and information, supported by agri-environment scheme payments or other means, and underpinned by smart regulation. This is what many farmers (such as our Nature of Farming Award winners) are already doing.
Across the landscape as a whole, there needs to be enough habitat to support stable populations of wildlife species, and habitats need to be connected so that wildlife can move around and adapt – as recommended in the report by Professor Sir John Lawton, Making Space for Nature. Looking globally, we need to make sure that our activities in this country aren’t driving damaging activities elsewhere – such as clearing land to grow soy to feed to livestock.
We also need to better understand the services that nature gives us, value them where possible and reward farmers to delivering them. This can be done through the creation of new markets, by providing a price premium for wildlife-friendly farmed products (such as provided by Conservation Grade) or through incentives such as agri-environment schemes. And, given the shortage of money, it is vital that existing schemes are made to work harder. Valuation is not a panacea and aspirations for recovery of wildlife will always partly be dependent on political commitments as reflected, for example, in the Government’s Natural Environment White Paper and its England Biodiversity Strategy.
Although the answer we collectively came up with in response to the exam question is not one that the RSPB on its own would have written, I think it is a fair reflection of the challenges that the food/farming sector, consumers and the environment face. Do have a look at the recommendations, but please do bear in mind that this is only a preliminary report. You see I’ve tabled my excuse early – but it's better than saying the dog ate my homework.
Have a read of the report and let me know what you think? Did we pass?
It would be great to hear your views.
Never been convinced about this meat eating argument,a lot of the fertility for other crops comes from these animals that provide meat and in the case of sheep a good product like wool.Wool could save a lot of use of environmentally nasty materials and if you go to the hill farms in the UK and look at the difference where cattle have been kept and manure put on in-bye land and compare the production of that land with that further away from the farms then it shows the benefit of cattle.Of course that manure also means much less use of environmentally bad man made fertilisers mainly I think from oil but definitely bad.
It is really all about people realising farming is a very expensive business to run,stop living in the past when labour and everything else cheap and if people want wildlife pay farmers properly for that and put less emphasis on crops,While wheat is up towards £200 a ton and farmers getting peanuts for wildlife do not expect anything else than farmers concentrating on less paperwork and rules to take the easiest option of producing crops.Why should farmers not take the easiest option on offer as think without exception everyone else in U K does.
The consumption piece is not ignored Peter, but it has not been addressed in substance at this stage. There is a page on this towards the end and I see this as a crucial part of the se.cond phase. Folk were clear that this needed to be part of the story
I have I must quite rapidly read the conclusions of the Green Food Group . I would focus on this statement as pretty key as to the flaw in its approach ? "A recent report from the
Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) estimated that if current patterns of food
consumption persist, 60% more food will need to be produced globally by 2050
(compared with 2005-07)".
This can not be done in my view. It may be possible but is very very unlikely and we are already seeing this year the potentially calamitous impact of climate change on what we have traditionally regarded unquestioningly as the perameters of our production capability.
We have to eat less meat and eat less; simple as.
This report seems to fail to address this issue certainly in terms of public education.