Over the Christmas break, as I walked along the public footpath that took me through the centre of a field in Cornwall, I watched as skylarks flocked, swooping down to forage for food in a field full of wheat stubble. As I continued along the path, I noticed prosperous hedgerows and deep ditches along the field edges.
None of this had happened by accident. The farmer who managed this field had meticulously planned and worked to keep that footpath clear for the public to enjoy, to keep the stubble to help the soil structure and to provide food and habitat for birds, to dig and maintain those ditches for irrigation and to maintain the hedgerows for wildlife and carbon storage. Here is an example of one farmer who is taking part in the quiet revolution happening across our countryside, a way of farming differently, which works with the grain of nature and not against it.
So why aren’t we seeing more of this across England? It certainly isn’t because of bad intentions on the part of anyone who manages the land. It is because, to date, the policies and market drivers that have shaped farming practices have pitted nature against profitability and productivity.
This has spelt disaster for nature and climate: 10% of UK greenhouse gas emissions come from agriculture; some farmland bird species have declined by as much as 70% since the 1970s; earthworms that are crucial for soil health may have declined by a third in recent years; pollution in part from pesticides and fertiliser is choking our rivers.
But now farmers, businesses, governments and citizens across the UK are generally in agreement that we need to see changes in the way we farm to mitigate the climate and nature crises, and to produce healthier food that is accessible to all. The question is, how do we do it? There is no silver bullet, so we must employ a combination of measures, backed up by the right support for farmers and other businesses.
The saying goes that ‘the best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago. The second best time is today’; change needs to happen now, and fast. This is why Wildlife & Countryside Link-along with many other voices from the farming sector and beyond- have come together to support this consensus, to show a united front for a better farming future:
We think farming of the future must embrace:
- Nature as an ally for food and farming: Reviving nature and acting on climate change is not opposed to food production, but a precondition for it. The farming system of the future must create more opportunities for nature, both within farmland and in the wider landscape, alongside food production. This is essential to maintain the productive capacity of the land and ensure profitable and resilient farm businesses, whilst helping to meet nature and climate goals. Managing good quality wildlife habitats on farm can recover a range of species above and below ground, whilst boosting pollination and pest predation services.
- Breaking agrochemical dependency: Farming should be supported to harness the power of nature and cultural methods, to enable a radical reduction in pesticide use and to adopt a more cyclical approach to nutrient management, helping to break the dependency on artificial inputs and fossil fuels. Access to independent and impartial advice is needed to achieve this.Whilst this is a critical step to achieve climate, nature, and water quality goals, it is also a way to enable farmers to reduce business costs and improve profitability.
- Regenerative soil management: Rebuilding healthy soils is fundamental to their ability to support food production, mitigate and adapt to climate change and recover wildlife. Regenerative soil management needs to be the norm, and this will mean an ongoing role for livestock to help build fertility, alongside changes to tillage, more diverse crop rotations and practices such as cover cropping. This should be allied with a transition away from intensive livestock systems which can divert food crops away from human consumption.
- Responsible Innovation: Technology can play a role in new modes of sustainable food production, including decarbonisation. Investment should flow towards environmentally positive innovation including organic, agroecological and regenerative farming practices that build on tried-and-tested traditional husbandry.
We think unleashing this new farming future requires:
- Proper public investment in public goods: Investment in public goods must meet the scale of environmental need, unlocking the power of the farming sector to tackle the nature and climate crises, whilst producing sufficient healthy and nutritious food. All farmers, whether tenants, commoners, or landowners should be able to access public goods schemes. Access to affordable, trusted and quality advice and training is critical to improving environmental delivery and productivity. Governments should maintain at least the current agricultural budget in real terms to 2030 and ensure that the majority of this is used to drive and reward the delivery of public goods by farmers and other land managers.
- Well-regulated and aligned private and public finance: Private finance cannot replace public investment but has an important supplementary role. In addition to providing public funding, governments have a key role in helping establish well-regulated private markets in ecosystem services, to secure further investment to reward environmental delivery and to support farmers in creating diverse and resilient farm businesses.
- A level playing field: Regulation should set a fair but firm baseline for all farm businesses to protect the natural environment. This also should include the regulation of supply chains to ensure farmers can receive a fair return from the market and maintain competitiveness in a global market.
- Setting high environmental and welfare standards for trade: Governments must commit to core environmental and animal welfare standards in trade to protect British standards, support UK farmers and raise standards globally.
- Making the most of land: A strategic approach to land use throughout the UK must provide the opportunity to balance the different demands we put on land to optimise its use, whilst also helping to allocate public and private funding effectively. Not all land is equally productive for food, so a strategic approach to land use can help match farming practices to the carrying capacity of the land. All farming needs to be nature and climate friendly.On high yielding land, for example, regenerative practices and the use of ‘eco- infrastructure’ such as wildflower habitats, shelter belts and hedges can boost pollinators and pest control services to help sustainably optimise yields.
Less productive land can support more extensive farming practices, including those which create and maintain semi-natural habitats, including meadows, heath, and wood pasture, which are so critical to absorb greenhouse gases and help recover nature. To tackle the nature and climate crises, it is also critical to protect, restore and create woodlands, wetlands, and peatlands.
- Achieving healthy diets and owning our footprint: Everyone should have access to a healthy diet that is in balance with the carrying capacity of nature. UK and devolved governments have a central role in driving change to enable everyone to eat healthily, affordably, and sustainably, whilst helping to tackle food waste and bring our food system within planetary boundaries.
This can be done by reducing food waste throughout the whole supply chain, ensuring the affordability and availability of fresh fruit and vegetables for all, tackling the aggressive marketing of unhealthy ultra-processed foods to both children and adults and the creative use of public procurement. Everyone should be able to afford a healthy and sustainable diet.
Read the full Consensus here.
Hannah is Policy Officer and leads on food & farming at Wildlife & Countryside Link.
Not all views expressed in this blog represent the views of all Link members