We are familiar with the climate crisis, but this is not the only environmental problem we face. Mounting evidence shows the decline of wildlife globally, and it is increasingly clear that we are in the midst of an ecological emergency.
The UK situation mirrors the international one – while the decline in wildlife species may have slowed in recent years, it has not been halted, let alone reversed. Elsewhere, this is illustrated by rainforests and other pristine habitats being cleared to make way for palm oil or beef production.
Too often, the blame for the loss of wildlife is laid at the feet of the farming industry. More intensive practices often leave less space for nature to co-exist with agriculture, and the over-use of chemicals can negatively impact plants, insects and other species.
However, this wholly negative impression of British farming is not completely accurate. It is true that in decades gone by, UK agricultural policy did incentivise production increases, often achieved at the expense of the natural environment.
In recent years, however, progress and innovation have allowed us to continue to farm productively but also in harmony with nature. Government-funded, agri-environment schemes, which England led the way in developing, encourage land to be managed for nature. At the same time, agriculture has become more efficient at producing more with a lower environmental footprint.
Green and pleasant farmland
Another reason the global picture does not translate so easily into the British context is that our landscape has been shaped by human activities for centuries. Unlike many other parts of the world, we do not have untouched areas of wilderness harbouring our most important wildlife. Instead, with more than 70% of UK land used for farming, a symbiotic relationship has built up between farming and wildlife.
Many treasured wildlife species have co-evolved with farming and rely on agricultural land and practices to support them. Plant species once thrived both on the margins of arable fields and in livestock pastures.
These plants’ names betray their agricultural links: cornflower, corn marigold, corn buttercup, as well as oxeye daisy, shepherd’s needle and cow parsley. In turn, these plants support many insects, including pollinators and farmland birds like the corn bunting, turtle dove and grey partridge. All these species are far less common than they once were as farming practices have changed. In many cases, government stewardship schemes encourage the restoration of these habitats by putting in field margins or creating meadows.
Many iconic landscapes (including our National Parks) arose from traditional agricultural management. These places also often manage to produce food from otherwise poor quality land, for example, using native livestock breeds. Sometimes described as ‘high nature value’ farmland, these are places full of potential to deliver the environmental public goods that the government will seek to reward through the new Environmental Land Management scheme.
The business of green farming
Government incentives alone will not achieve a harmonious relationship between farming and the environment. The move away from direct payments offers an opportunity for the sector to become less reliant on public subsidy. But it will also put immediate pressure on farm incomes, already under pressure from multiple directions.
This focuses attention on the business and economics of farming. Is it possible to farm with nature while also making a profit? Recent evidence increasingly shows that it often makes business sense to farm with, rather than against, natural processes. Regenerative or agroecological farming practices can deliver multiple environmental benefits while also improving the profitability of farming, for example, by building soil fertility rather than relying on costly chemical inputs.
Technology and data use can also make farming more precise, thus reducing its environmental footprint.
And if you want an even higher level of ambition, rather than changing farming to become more sustainable and profitable, perhaps we could change our economic system so that it favours sustainable farming more. This may sound outlandish, but is precisely what a Treasury-commissioned independent review concluded last month.
The Dasgupta review, which investigated the economics of biodiversity, concluded that despite our economy being intricately linked to and reliant on the natural environment, which is something that farmers understand more than most, our economy is not set up to recognise the value of nature. This means that there are not enough incentives for sustainable business and too much encouragement or acceptance of activities that degrade our environmental asset base.
Farming that is fair to nature
Changing the economy so that it accounts for nature more is a tall order, but is one that could have mileage given enough pressure from the public. It is often said that England is a nation of nature-lovers, who enjoy wildlife and the countryside, though perhaps do not always appreciate fully what goes into creating and maintaining this landscape.
At the same time, a desire for cheap food was a key driver in agriculture becoming more intensive, with negative environmental consequences. There is a significant level of ignorance about the links between what we see on the supermarket shelves and in the fields we walk through.
With greater public education, there could be scope for greater rewards in the marketplace for food produced from farmland that supports wildlife and nature. One example of this is the Fair to Nature scheme, a gold standard for nature-friendly farming that is hoping to develop a premium for products assured through the scheme.
In the end, taking the ecological crisis seriously requires a concerted effort from the government, the public and farmers to ensure that farming that supports wildlife is supported and rewarded. Momentum appears to be going in the right direction in both public policy and public sentiment, and the CLA will continue to ensure that it does.