Nature and Agriculture
How can the agricultural sector help nature and biodiversity?
As custodians of nature, farmers have a critical role to play in safeguarding the natural environment and fostering biodiversity.
Already, many are doing great work in this respect and protecting the natural resources on which their businesses and livelihoods depend remains a pressing concern for farmers.
But while there are many great initiatives underway, when it comes to nature and biodiversity, there is always more that can be done.
Each farming business is different. The affordability of different strategies will depend on individual circumstances. Importantly, though, as many farmers already recognise: farming productively and in an environmentally sustainable way can – and does – go hand in hand.
There already exist a wide range of nature positive approaches and initiatives farmers can undertake – not all of which are widely known or instantly familiar.
In this chapter, we hope to inform and inspire by showcasing a diverse array of nature positive solutions farmers can use to benefit both agriculture and nature. These recommended actions will also help farmers safeguard their businesses and futures against the mounting pressures of climate change.
Initially, our focus is on farming in England. But we will supplement this with further insights and examples from the UK’s other nations in the future.Challenges facing nature
What's being done
There is growing recognition across agriculture that nature positive approaches are critical to the future of farming enterprises, because to be viable they must be sustainable, productive, and generate profits over the long term.
In England, moving away from the Common Agricultural Policy, the government has committed to supporting the agricultural sector to make the changes needed to protect and restore nature and to reduce agricultural greenhouse gas emissions.
As set out in its November 2020 Agricultural Transition Plan, it will phase out area-based subsidies and reinvest the money saved into new policies and solutions that reward environmentally sustainable farming.[i]
As a part of this, the government is introducing three new schemes in England that reward environmental land management. These will support the rural economy while helping achieve the goals of the 25 Year Environment Plan and the commitment to achieving net zero emissions by 2050.[ii]
The Sustainable Farming Incentive scheme, piloted in 2021 ahead of its launch in 2022, is a universal scheme open to all farmers in England. It will support sustainable approaches to farm husbandry, such as actions to improve soil health and water quality, enhance hedgerows, and promote integrated pest management.
The Local Nature Recovery scheme, with a phased rollout from 2023, will pay for actions that support local nature recovery and deliver local environmental priorities. This scheme will also encourage collaboration between farmers, helping them work together to improve their local environment.
The Landscape Recovery scheme, to be piloted with ten projects in 2022 ahead of its launch in 2024, will support the delivery of landscape recovery through long-term, land use change projects – including ones to restore wilder landscapes where appropriate, large-scale tree planting, and peatland restoration projects.
You can find out more about the schemes, particularly what actions the Sustainable Farming Incentive will pay for in 2022, in the Agricultural Transition Plan Update.
There are a number of important priorities:
Building on improvements to reduce agriculture’s greenhouse gas emissions through improved crop and animal waste management is one. Scientists are getting closer to understanding the optimal level at which a methane-reducing feed additive, for example, could be included in commercial dairy cattle diets.[iii]
Further reducing the risks and negative impacts associated with pesticide use is another priority – and an issue many farmers have been working to address by reducing use, or by moving towards nature-based solutions.
With work now underway to develop targets and new metrics, there is a growing focus on better understanding the pressures pesticides put on the environment and using this to target their use.
Details of this are expected in a new Sustainable Use of Pesticides action plan, which is due for publication by the end of 2021.[iv] Further information and actions for pesticide reduction can be found in this handbook in the sections that follow.
Already, many farmers and other custodians of the land are working to lower carbon emissions, reduce their carbon footprint, mitigate the negative effects their activities can have on nature and biodiversity, and strengthen nature positive impacts they can achieve that benefit the environment.
We are seeing producers change the way they plant crops, with increased diversification and a renewed effort to keep soil covered to protect topsoil and encourage CO2 sequestration. We are also seeing new habitats being created on farms to provide food and shelter for wildlife, and efforts to encourage pollinators and natural predators to reduce pest numbers.
With farmers strengthening their role as protectors of nature and producers of food, land is being restored. With changes such as safeguarding water resources and restoring hedgerows, water resources are being protected and soil is being nourished.
Meanwhile, meat, dairy and poultry farmers are making important, nature positive changes such as reducing imported feeds derived from monocrops and monocultures – the form of farming where only one crop or species is farmed in a set area – and finding innovative uses for slurry.[v]Explore case studies
Every step towards regenerative farming is a win as rebuilding soil organic matter and restoring degraded soil biodiversity will also ultimately reduce pollution, overexploitation, land use change, carbon emissions and invasive species – the key drivers of biodiversity loss.
But farmers’ nature positive actions also have the potential to achieve an even bigger impact. The close interconnection of ecosystems and supply chains makes biodiversity a global issue. This means as farmers step up, worldwide change will be driven by their nature positive actions.
At COP26 this year, 26 nations set out new commitments to change their agricultural policies to become more sustainable and less polluting, and to invest in the science needed for sustainable agriculture and for protecting food supplies against climate change, laid out in two ‘Action Agendas’.
The path forward
Now is the time for the agricultural sector to build on efforts to deliver a biodiversity return.
The sector can provide nature benefits, sustained and/or increased yields and profits by actively reducing the drivers of biodiversity loss.
This will come from further reducing farm waste through the implementation of circular farming principles, optimising integrated pest management and moving towards regenerative agricultural processes, all of which foster the health of our land, water and air.
Everyone benefits by valuing natural capital and ecosystem services, and working to preserve and maintain the offerings of Nature.
Examples of different types of action are showcased here – not as a comprehensive checklist, but as inspiration for further positive action.
Initially, our focus is on farming in England. But we will supplement this with further insights and examples from the UK’s other nations in the future.
Given farming in the UK is devolved, policies are set by the individual nations. Whilst new English policies covered in this document will intend to incentivise biodiversity, this also needs to be delivered in the ambitions of the other administrations.
Effective action begins with an understanding of the challenges facing nature.Explore actions for nature
The UK is one of the world’s most nature-depleted countries – in the bottom 10% globally, and the last among the G7 group of nations.[vi]
The UK has an average of about half of its biodiversity left, far below the global average of 75%. A figure of 90% is considered the ‘safe limit’ to prevent the world from dipping into ecological meltdown. [vii]
One of the two biggest drivers of species population change in the UK between 1970 and 2012 was intensive management of agricultural land. The other was climate change. [viii]
UK agriculture accounts for 10% of the UK’s greenhouse gas emissions.[ix]
The National Farmers Union has set the ambitious goal of reaching net zero greenhouse gas emissions across the whole of agriculture in England and Wales by 2040.[x]
Martin Lines | UK Chair, Nature Friendly Farming Network
As UK Chair of the Nature Friendly Farming Network, I know the role of agriculture is changing. With this change comes the responsibility that we, as land managers, have to deliver on more than just food production.
The post-war drive for intensification has brought an onslaught of negative consequences to the natural systems we rely on to make sustainable, nutritious food possible. Without fertile soils, healthy hedges, thriving biodiversity or clean water and air, our landscape is less resilient, our yields inconsistent and our foundations for farming are diminished.
[viii] Burns F, et al. (2016) Agricultural management and climatic change are the major drivers of biodiversity change in the UK. PLoS ONE 11: e0151595 https://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0151595