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How can the agricultural sector can take action to foster biodiversity and be a steward for nature?
The agricultural industry is uniquely intertwined with nature.
Not only are natural resources a free and essential basis of all farming, but those working in the industry have a direct and tangible relationship with nature in their daily actions.
Whether arable and horticultural, or meat, dairy and poultry farming, every action in the industry is both reliant on and affecting nature.
The results are now keenly felt.
With a 32% loss to biodiversity public spending between just 2008 and 2014, the UK is facing a biodiversity and natural capital crisis and is considered one of the most nature depleted countries in the world.[i] We are seeing a loss of animal, bird and pollinator life – 12% of farmland bird species are now threatened with extinction in the UK, though these issues are ubiquitous across all creatures.[ii]
And research shows that “species’ population change (~1970–2012) [in the UK] has been most strongly impacted by intensive management of agricultural land and by climatic change” (Burns F, et al., 2016) [iii]
Agriculture is also associated with the production of several greenhouse gases that contribute to global warming. In the UK, agriculture accounts for about 10% of the country’s total GHG emissions.Challenges facing nature
What's being done
There’s been a growing change in the industry, among both government and business.
Outside of the Common Agricultural Policy, area-based subsidies are being replaced with new policies and solutions that reward environmentally sustainable farming. Termed Environmental Land Management, with three main components:
- The Sustainable Farming Incentive will be a universal scheme open to all farmers and will support sustainable approaches to farm husbandry to deliver for the environment, such as actions to improve soil health and water quality, enhance hedgerows and promote integrated pest management.
- Local Nature Recovery will be a new scheme that eventually replaces Countryside Stewardship and will focus on restoring nature into and beyond our farmed landscape.
- Finally, Landscape Recovery will support more fundamental changes to land use in order to significantly enhance the landscape, restore wilder establishment of a Nature Recovery Network
Simultaneously, there is a need to protect and increase our carbon stores, increasing afforestation and peat restoration rates across the UK, whilst supporting the adaptiveness and resilience of these ecosystems to risks which may arise under a changing climate.The government intends to support the sector to make the changes needed to protect and restore nature as well as to reduce agricultural greenhouse gas emissions, as set out in Agricultural Transition Plan.
And many farmers and other custodians of the land are already responding to the negative agricultural impacts of their activities on nature – taking a stand for nature and the future of their livelihoods.
We are seeing producers change the way they plant crops, with increased diversification and a renewed effort to keep soil covered in order to protect topsoil, and encourage CO2 sequestration. New habitats are being created on farms to provide food and shelter for wildlife and encourage pollinators and natural predators to reduce pest numbers.
Meat, dairy and poultry farmers, meanwhile, are making important changes to decrease their impact with measures including reducing imported monoculture feeds and finding innovative uses of waste and slurry.
Every change towards circular farming and waste reduction in the UK is a win for biodiversity as it reduces pollution and energy use. Further, as UK industry changes, it can also be a drive for positive change globally.
With a shift in approach within the wider industry – with farmers becoming protectors of nature as well as producers of food – land is being restored, with changes such as restoring hedgerows, nourishing the soil and protecting water resources, and delivering a biodiversity return which can provide increased profits and yield as a direct result
By valuing the natural assets and capital from the land, air, and water, and working with nature, everyone benefits.Explore case studies
Our global food system is the primary driver of biodiversity loss, with agriculture alone being the identified threat to 24,000 of the 28,000 (86%) species at risk of extinctionUNEP, Chatham House & and Compassion in World Farming: Food System Impacts on Biodiversity Loss, 2021
The path forward
Now is the time to effect change. To put nature first and farm with the land so that sustainability and productivity go hand-in-hand.
Individually, farmers can make room for nature. From agroforestry, adding hedgerows, leaving wild space where possible and protecting water sources, there are a host of ways of creating habitats.
By reducing pesticide use and creating bespoke solutions that are actively good for the natural space that is farmed, we can reduce the biggest impacts and drivers of biodiversity loss and improve soil and water health in the process.
By working with our supply chains to reduce our impact globally, reducing all waste and moving towards circular farming and regeneration, we can create a sustainable process that puts nature first and is more profitable for farmers.
Examples of different types of action are showcased here – not as a comprehensive checklist, but inspiration for further positive action. Effective action begins with an understanding of the challenges facing nature.Explore actions for nature
- Sustainable and efficient agricultural production must match demand to meet goals on food security and access, improve the global food chain, and eradicate hunger and waste in the next generation. [iv]
- Transformation of the agricultural system to focus on sustainable and regenerative agriculture could deliver USD$1,140 billion and 62 million jobs. [v]
Martin Lines, UK Chair of the Nature Friendly Farming Network (NFFN)
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.
[iii] 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
[v] World Economic Forum (2020) The Future of Nature and Business http://www3.weforum.org/docs/WEF_The_Future_Of_Nature_And_Business_2020.pdf