Guest blog by Phil Carson, RSPB NI Policy Officer Sustainable Farming

Imagine a thriving countryside that’s rich in nature, supports rural livelihoods and helps communities adapt to climate change. Think of a future where nature is cherished for the vital role it plays in supporting our prosperity. This is the vision painted by farmers, producers, policymakers and conservationists at our two-day Food, Farming and Land Convention on February 9 – 10 2021.

It’s the resilient future we could all have. But to get there, our food and farming systems require fundamental change. Find out how we can make this a reality in my round-up from the event.

Food, Farming and Land Convention 21 event flyer

For the first time in over forty years, Northern Ireland is responsible for developing and delivering domestic agriculture and food policy. This provides a unique opportunity for the food, farming and environment sectors to work together to ensure that any new policies deliver for nature, climate and farmers in Northern Ireland.

To kick-start these critical discussions, RSPB NI, in partnership with the Food, Farming and Countryside Commission, Belfast Food Network, FoodNI, the Nature Friendly Farming Network and Northern Ireland Environment Link, launched Northern Ireland’s first Food, Farming and Land Convention.

The Convention explored a range of subjects including:

  • The important role of on-farm, nature-based solutions in the fight against climate change,
  • How nature friendly farming can deliver clear economic benefits
  • How to ensure that everyone has access to an affordable, healthy diet with keynote speaker Michael Fakhri, UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food
  • A vision for our food and farming sector to 2030 to help farming and land management deliver a more prosperous future for Northern Ireland

Sheep at Slemish by Neal Warnock

Sheep at Slemish. Photo credit by Neal Warnock

While the sessions were diverse in scope and content, some key themes were evident throughout.

A fundamental reform of our food and farming system is essential

We know our current approach to farming and land management is unsustainable. During the Convention, all key speakers highlighted that radical, not incremental, thinking is required to help us deliver a more resilient future and to address some of the biggest issues facing people and nature today. Farmers will be key in driving this change forward.

Organic farmer David Laughlin, a panelist on day one, drew inspiration from David Attenborough’s latest book stating: “The farmers of the future with the right support could become more than food producers. They could become soil engineers, carbon traders, foresters, energy suppliers and creators of the wild; custodians skilled at harvesting the natural potential and sustainable value of the land.”

Lapwing by Graham Goodall (rspb-images.com)

Lapwing. Photo by Graham Goodall (rspb-images.com)

There is huge public support for nature friendly farming

If designed in the right way, Northern Ireland’s agriculture policy can play an important role in supporting farmers to create, maintain and restore vital habitats across our countryside. This will not only benefit nature, but our climate too. When healthy, important habitats for nature like hedgerows, can store and lock away vast amounts of carbon from the atmosphere helping to combat climate change. There is a clear public mandate for nature friendly farming too. An overwhelming 75% of audience members believe that future agriculture policies should financially reward farmers for delivering essential services including water quality, biodiversity and climate mitigation.

Vision to 2030 panel discussion. Screen capture by Daithi McKay

Vision to 2030 panel discussion. Screen capture by Daithi McKay

We must work together to change how nature is valued in farming and throughout our economy

At the final session of the Convention, John Martin, RSPB NI Head of Policy and Advocacy provided a vision for future in which nature is recognised as key to prosperity: “A healthy, wildlife-rich environment must be valued both as an asset to society and essential for underpinning economic activity. All farmers should be supported to protect and restore nature; it should be easy to help nature and unacceptable to harm it.”

To build a resilient future, we need a cultural shift in food and farming nature restoration is not viewed as a burden or a cost. Instead, the immense opportunities and benefits that are provided by an enhanced natural environment are recognised. We must work together to make this vision a reality for present and future generations in Northern Ireland.

Belted Galloway by Neal Warnock

Belted Galloway. Photo by Neal Warnock

Find out more

With over 500 attendees taking part in the Convention, it’s clear that there is a growing movement which supports a transition towards a more sustainable, nature friendly approach to farming in Northern Ireland and RSPB NI remains committed to working with farmers and the Department for Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs to build a more resilient food and farming system. 

At RSPB NI, as part of our Revive Our World campaign, we will be pushing for legally binding targets to restore nature by 2030. For more information on any of the topics raised and to re-watch any session from the event, visit: www.foodfarmingland.co.uk/convention21

Anonymous