Counterpoint: Prioritising our natural environment

Rather than sacrificing our environmental ambitions to support competing needs, we can achieve food security and nature recovery at the same time, writes Tony Juniper

Tony Juniper, Chair of Natural England, writes:

In the wake of war in Ukraine, a cost-of-living crisis and global supply chain uncertainties, some argue that we must diminish our national environmental ambitions. Is this a logical proposition or a monumental error? Looking after ‘the environment’ is sometimes seen as a luxury, especially in hard times. Th e truth is that the more we degrade our natural life support systems, the more we imperil the human world. Expert reports, common sense and record-breaking temperature events reveal the case for investing in the health of nature – because healthy natural systems underpin social and economic wellbeing.

Food security is reliant on functioning natural systems. Healthy soils, natural pest control, pollination, sufficient water and predictable seasons are among the services supplied by nature that help determine our food supply.

The more we disrupt those services, the more farmers must resort to expensive fertilisers and pesticides, and the more consumers must pay for food driven into shorter supply because of environmental disruption.

Building natural capital

One way to cope with environmental change is to rebuild natural capital.

Soils with more organic matter hold more water, increasing resilience while holding more carbon, thus keeping it out of the atmosphere. The hedges and native woodlands that are so iconic of many English farmed landscapes also hold carbon, harbour beneficial species and reduce soil erosion.

Healthy, wildlife-rich landscapes are also good for psychological and physical wellbeing. With depression and anxiety rates soaring, helping more people find solace in good-quality natural areas could bring huge social gains, as was found to be the case during the Covid-19 lockdowns in 2020 and 2021.

Finding ways to accommodate our food, housing, water, energy, transport, public health, recreation and nature recovery needs from our limited land is not simple, but it is essential. The days when we could trade one priority against another have gone. We must find ways to accommodate multiple outcomes in the same landscapes.

Fortunately, we have the space to do this and examples of how it can work in practice, plus new policies that can

help blend nature recovery into food-producing landscapes. The centrepiece of this is embodied in the government’s agricultural transition – transforming the blunt instruments of old EU farm policies into more dynamic, nuanced and forward-looking approaches. And new approaches that can be harnessed to secure better environmental outcomes and encourage business innovation, including in the fast-growing agri-tech sector, signal a new era for farming.

Policies and targets adopted in recent years have set a positive direction on challenges that will defi ne the future - to go low carbon while restoring nature and to do it in ways that bring wider benefits for the country. Stepping away from that would not only mean we miss our green ambitions, but also imperil wellbeing, undermine national security and resilience, and diminish the UK’s role in growing technology sectors.

The CLA’s view

CLA Senior Land Use Policy Adviser Harry Greenfield says:

Tony Juniper is right that the environment is neither a luxury we can do without nor an afterthought for the government or businesses. He is also right that there is no choice between food and nature – we must have both. The CLA supports the direction of government policy in this area, and the agricultural transition, which will reward farmers for doing more for the environment. However, the test comes in delivery.

This is influenced not only by public policy but also market forces, individual motivation and the local characteristics of places where land management happens. It is hard to balance competing land uses, and harder still if we rely on top-down government direction. For CLA members to play their part in restoring nature and protecting or renewing natural capital, there needs to be a business case. Given the green rhetoric we hear from all quarters, this should be easy, but there is still a lack of recognition of the true cost of stewardship. Business investment in natural capital is in its infancy, and government funding is not at the scale needed to deliver its ambitions.

Combining profitable businesses with positive action for nature is possible, but risks being undermined by new trade deals that undermine our high environmental standards, or a lack of support for businesses to adopt new technologies and practices. A focus on getting the most out of the land has to be the answer, and supporting land managers to do this is the best way to do it.