How to improve the balance between UK nature conservation and food production

Eurasian skylark. Skylark seated in a rape field.This post is by Claire Feniuk, land use policy officer at the RSPB.

If Brexit has taught us anything, it’s that people don’t like compromise, they really much prefer to have their cake and eat it. This week, I was invited to join a panel discussion at a Defra Evidence event hosted by the Royal Society, to give my thoughts on the trade-offs between nature conservation and food production.

At the RSPB, it’s taken us a long time to build good working relationships with farmers and we recognise the many conservation success stories that result from the fantastic work lots of farmers do for nature. Our scientists, in collaboration with others, also spend a lot of time trying to identify potential win-wins, where nature helps to maintain or even enhance agricultural yields in the long term, whilst also reducing the wider environmental footprint of farming. This often focuses on the role of so-called ‘functional biodiversity’, such as pollinators and natural predators of crop pests.

Inevitable trade-offs
But the uncomfortable truth is that farming and nature do not, and cannot, always go hand in hand. Not all nature is good for farming, and not all farming is good for nature. There are very real trade-offs between the two.

This is implicitly recognised within our existing agri-environment model: we ask farmers to implement environmentally friendly management on their land, and in return we compensate them for any income they forego in the process. Typically, this equates to a loss of yield, either as a result of taking some land out of production, such as field margins, or by incorporating less intensive management practices within productive land, such as lower stocking densities or spring sown cereals.

Different species require different amounts of space within the farmed landscape. Some need very little, so the trade-offs are relatively small. These species might benefit from small tweaks to a high yielding system, for instance providing skylark plots in conventional cereal fields. Other species need much more, preferring so-called High Nature Value (HNV) farming systems which are typically characterised by extensive management and very low yields. And some need lots of space in completely unfarmed habitats, such as nature reserves or other designated sites.

Ecosystem services, like pollination and flood management, can be considered in a similar way: some can be delivered by taking relatively small areas of farmland out of production, like wildflower strips to enhance pollination, which may have negligible or even positive impacts on yields. Others are likely to be maximised only in the complete absence of agricultural management, such as carbon sequestration or improving water quality.

A mix of measures that work for farmers
By understanding the important relationships between food production and nature conservation or ecosystem services, we can inform future policy. If environmental benefits can be achieved at little or no cost to food production – as with some of the functional biodiversity examples above – then perhaps farmers should be taking action regardless and it could be embedded in regulation or good business practice. But if there are upfront financial costs that prevent hard pushed farmers taking steps to protect nature, support for capital investments could be offered during a fixed transition period, or in the longer term.

For species or services that benefit from small tweaks to a system, a broad and shallow approach to agri-environment could be effective, and will be important if we are to keep species like the skylark and yellowhammer common in the countryside.

If, on the other hand, species or services need much lower yielding  farming systems or unfarmed natural or semi-natural habitats, then deeper, more targeted measures will be necessary.

We mustn’t worsen our environmental footprint abroad in the process
It is important to understand that these trade-offs are not contained within national boundaries, so any agricultural and environmental policy decisions, like taking land out of production, must not increase our domestic environmental footprint overseas. This risk can be minimised either through demand side measures, like wasting less food and burning less edible produce as biofuel, or by increasing yields on some farmland to compensate for land given over to nature in other areas. To avoid shifting rather than solving environmental problems, yield increases must be environmentally and agronomically sustainable.

So, despite real trade-offs, a better balance is possible. Post-Brexit, we will have the opportunity to design policies that meet the needs of a wide range of species, maintain important ecosystem services and support a thriving and sustainable agricultural sector for generations to come.

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