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Food, farming, and nature – getting the right balance from our land

RSPB's Alice Groom explores how land-sharing and land-sparing could help us to achieve vital balance between our food, farming and nature needs.

Land is a precious, finite resource, yet society is placing a growing number of demands upon it – from nutritious food to affordable housing. Wildlife also needs land and has been increasingly squeezed out by these competing land uses. Tackling these growing demands is a major challenge, but one society needs to face, to tackle the nature and climate crises, whilst feeding and housing a growing population. Part of the solution must be to address our consumption of the most environmentally damaging foods but equally we need to examine how we best produce the food we do need for a sustainable and healthy diet.

This blog considers how one approach to spatial modelling and prioritisation could inform the design of land use policies and delivery of the new environmental land management scheme in England.

Exploring the trade offs

In England around 70% of land is farmed. In recent years researchers have sought to model an approach which optimises the use of land, to maintain food yields, whilst ensuring enough space for nature. This thought experiment is known as the land sharing-sparing continuum, which can help us to understand the trade-offs inherent in land use decisions.

A newly published paper by Finch et al 2020, applies this thought experiment in two landscapes in England, The Fens and Salisbury Plain. Testing different spatially explicit land sharing and land sparing scenarios that seek to maintain overall food production whilst estimating the consequences for birds, global warming potential, diffuse pollution, and recreation. The papers lead author Tom Finch explains more in an RSPB blog. The optimal scenario depends on the landscape and the outcomes society is seeking to achieve, but in general this research points to the need to provide more land for wildlife and nature-based solutions to climate change to address the nature and climate crises.

Generally, this paper and similar research tells us that in the UK, we need to identify areas best suited to:
- The creation and protection of unfarmed wildlife habitats and nature-based solutions,
- Lower food yielding farming systems, that provide semi-natural habitats; and
- Sustainably managed high food yielding farming systems (which can generate high food yields from a smaller land area).
And ensure land use policies that can enable farmers to pick the right farming system for their land, whilst delivering the mix of outcomes nature and society needs.

The new Environmental Land Management Scheme

Defra is currently developing its first domestic agricultural policy in over forty years. Central to Defra’s proposals is the development of an environmental land management (ELM) scheme based on the principle of public money for public goods. This is not just vital to support the delivery of key environmental commitments such as the 25 Year Environment Plan, but also to rebuild the productive capacity of the land. Defra’s current assumption is that ELM will have three tiers. Below we have set out how the modelling work by Finch et al 2020 could help inform the design and delivery of these tiers.

Tier 3 – more land for nature
• We know that many wild species such as Bittern or Black-tailed godwit will only thrive in ‘unfarmed’ natural or semi-natural habitats with grazing akin to natural systems. As such this tier should focus on encouraging farmers and land managers to ‘spare’ land for nature-rich habitats such as peatlands, woodlands, species rich grasslands and wetlands, to support wildlife, store carbon, help reduce flood risk and ensure a supply of clean water.

Tier 2 – Low intensity nature friendly farming
• We know from the LSLS modelling work that there are many species such as corn bunting and yellowhammer that thrive in lower yielding farming systems with semi natural habitats and lower chemical inputs.
• Tier 2 could play a significant role in helping to reward the provision of semi-natural habitats and practices that keep chemical inputs low such as organic farming, to support the delivery of a range of public goods such as thriving wildlife, beautiful landscapes, and clean water.
• Achieving the right mosaic of connected habitats to enable species to disperse and thrive is likely to require support for collaboration.

Tier 1 – Environmentally sustainable farming, managed to optimise yields
• The modelling work suggests that to spare enough land for nature, nature-based solutions, and low yielding farmland we need to manage the remaining land in a way that prioritises food production. This needs to be achieved, whilst minimising negative externalities such as water or air pollution or depleting essential assets such as soil. Regulation has a vital role to play in ensuring sustainable high yielding farmland.
• Above these regulatory standards, tier one could play a vital role in improving the environmental sustainability of farming, for example, supporting the progressive use of regenerative and agroecological practices (including organic farminhg) across land holdings. Tier one should adopt a ‘ladder approach’, encouraging applicants to progressively adopt more ambitious environmental practices to receive the highest rewards.
• Many regenerative practices, such as using natural mixes of grass and wildflowers, crops to ensure soil is always covered, agroforestry and boosting grassland diversity to increase soil organic carbon; and reduce chemical inputs, can have a positive impact on the quality and amount of food produced.
• Even in the most productive landscapes, most farms will have areas that aren’t as good for crops or awkward field corners. Using these areas to create semi-natural habitats, including beetle banks, thick hedges, and scrub areas, is vital for farmland wildlife. Evidence shows that including flower rich habitats on farm increases yields through boosting pollinators and pest predators.

ELM will require an excellent spatially explicit targeting framework to deploy these tiers to optimise land use.

Final thoughts

Defra has a key opportunity now, to ensure a world leading set of farming policies, that help to achieve the UK Governments international environmental commitments, rebuild the productive capacity of the land, and support sustainable and resilient farming and land management. The LSLS model can help us to understand the trade-offs inherent in this, and guide decisions to account for the different requirements from our land across the continuum.

Alice Groom is Senior Policy Officer at RSPB

Follow: @Natures_Voice @AliceGroom2

The opinions expressed in this blog are the author's and not necessarily those of the wider Link membership.