Happy New Year!

My new year resolutions are simple to say and virtually impossible to achieve: I shall never shout at the kids, I shall complete a task before starting a new one, I shall master the art of presentation in my cooking and I shall improve my botany.

But here is a resolution I would like to recommend to those in positions of authority: to relentlessly pursue ways to decouple economic growth from unsustainable exploitation of the natural world.

This is also simple to say, yet is much, much harder to achieve and the stakes are high.  If we fail, the consequences are dreadful to contemplate - catastrophic climate change and biodiversity loss which erodes the foundation upon which our own species depends.  I think it is right for us to be ambitious, to want a global economy that protects rather than destroys rainforests, that is reliant on the power of wind, sun and waves rather than fossil fuels and that prevents species from becoming extinct.  And this is also the stated ambition of the UK Government.  Environment Secretary, Caroline Spelman, has encapsulated this vision by saying that she wants this to be the first generation to pass on the natural environment in an enhanced state.  I want her to be successful in realising this aim - but this will require a radically different way of thinking. 

I shall be exploring this idea as it applies to agriculture at the Oxford Farming Conference this week.  The focus for my talk is how to balance production with conservation.    I’ll post a link to our full paper later this week.

In reality, the challenge is much broader than this title suggests.  How can we develop a sustainable model of agriculture that helps us to feed the world without harming the planet?  The context is provided by two reports published last year.

The Foresight report on the future of food and farming concluded that to feed a population of about 9 billion people in 2050 we will need to radically overhaul the whole food system.  Yes, this does mean increasing production but it also means minimising waste and reducing demand for the most resource intensive products.  And, we must recognise that hunger remains a problem today despite the fact that we already produce enough food to feed the world.  Oxfam offers a number of reasons why one in seven of us will go hungry tonight.  Key solutions include improving food availability as well as intensifying the use of knowledge to support agriculture in the poorest parts of the world.

A second report, which featured heavily in my blog in 2011 and deserves to be a fixture in 2012, also provided some signals for the path we should follow.  The National Ecosystem Assessment concludes that we have undervalued the environment in decision-making and that as a result we are not getting the most from our land.  The report highlights that although farmland provides a vital service to the UK in terms of food production, food is just one of the services farmland can provide.  The objective should be to optimise the total benefits we get from land. These can include storing carbon, managing water and providing biodiversity, as well as producing food. 

Every farm is unique, with the potential to provide a varied range of services.  All farmers take decisions that reflect the conditions in which they are farming and help to determine what services their land provides.  The RSPB is no different.  For example, at Tarnhouse Farm (a upland livestock farm that forms part of the RSPB's Geltsdale Reserve), working with our tenant farmer, we have decreased the intensity of grazing, introduced some cattle alongside the sheep, and rewetted part of the holding.  This has increased the biodiversity, carbon storage and water management functions of the land, while the farm continues to produce high-quality meat.  At Hope Farm, our lowland arable farm, we have been able to increase both food production and biodiversity through smart use of agri-environment schemes within a conventional intensive farming system.

Hope Farm is principally a win-win situation. At Tarnhouse, to a certain extent there have been some trade offs.  By looking at all the functions this land can perform, we think that we have optimised the supply of ecosystem services it provides – but this has meant scaling back on one service - food production.   Although Tarnhouse is on land considered to be agriculturally marginal, it is now producing a wide range of valuable services including carbon storage, water quality, biodiversity and food.

Discussions on balancing agricultural production and conservation are often framed as a choice between two options.  Some argue that by farming intensively on some land, we free up other land for nature.  By producing high yields of wheat on Hope Farm and thus helping to meet food demand, maybe somewhere else a nature reserve will be spared from the plough.  Some argue that we should produce food and wildlife on the same land, even if this means some compromises – wildlife friendly farming, like at Tarnhouse.

I don’t believe it is a black-and-white choice between two competing models of farming.  I think the future has a place for many different types of farm: organic and conventional, livestock and crop, upland and lowland, extensive and intensive.  As the National Ecosystem Assessment said, we need to think about how to get the best from our land.  This is going to mean different things in different places.  We need the policy environment (whether framed by the Common Agriculture Policy or through domestic policies) to encourage this flexibility.  And finally, we need more investment into agricultural research.  We need to be pioneering and export a model of sustainable agriculture which not only leads to increased productivity but also has a lighter ecological footprint on the planet.

The UK, on its own, will not be able to feed the world through intensifying production at home.  We need to avoid the race for short-term high input, high output systems where those systems compromise the ability of land and local people to sustain output.  But we can be a leader in environmentally sustainable agriculture and we can export our knowledge and expertise. Those looking for a moral crusade for 2012 should look no further.  And, I would argue that, for our children's sake (whether they are shouted at or not) there is no alternative.

What are your resolutions for 2012? How do you think we can balance food production with conservation?  

Throughout this week, I shall be encouraging colleagues from other organisations to contribute their thoughts via this blog.  I hope that it leads to a wider debate offering tangible solutions to one of the great challenges we face.

It would be great to hear your views.

  • Many thanks for all your comments - challenging as ever.

    Peter - the paper which we have submitted essentially makes the point that the challenges is essentially to optimise the use of land and this will mean different things in different places.  Mixed farms will of course be part of the picture - but I do not think that this is a realistic universal solution.  I hope that this comes across when you have a chance to read the full paper which I shall post tomorrow.

    Sooty - thanks for your comments about Thorney - we are delighted with this pioneering project and hope that it triggers similar iniatives elsewhere.  As for the raptor petition - we do support it and will find ways to promote it properly soon.  Thanks for the chivvy.  Oh and I will get back to you about Arne very soon.

    Redkit - good to hear from you again.  We recognise that population is a problem and I think that late last year I did publish a blog on our our views on this - around the time of the seven bilionth person arriving on the planet.  Environmental impact is a function of both consumption patterns and the number of people.  We are perhaps better placed to address consumption issues.  We do however support others' ambitions to constrain fertility rates though female education and taking hte necessary action to lift people out of poverty.  Have a read and get back to me.

  • Just read about the Thorney Farmers and RSPB co-operating in large scale scheme(i4 farmers think in one block all co-operating on improving wildlife in that block.Really well done to both sides and just shows what can be done with persuasion and of course the agri-environment scheme.

    Well done Martin as you were surely involved and lets hope this is the first of many as quite often the first starts others thinking about things.

    Think these things can prosper with or without the NFUs involvement but perhaps they may soon not want to miss out on such things.

    Reading that made my day.

  • Hi Martin, you have raised the biggest conservation question of all in my opinion, that is how to balance food production with conserving nature. I think the work that the RSPB does at Hope Farm is just fantastic and organisations like DEFRA and the NFU should make much more of this by urging farmers to follow the good examples of Hope Farm. There are therefore no doubt many and varied methods in the short term (the next 20/30 years) by which food production can be increased and nature conserved at the same time, but in my view, however hard we work at this, (and I know the RSPB will work very hard), in the long term it will all be for nought if we do not follow David Attenbourgh's pleas of starting NOW, to halt and reverse, by birth control, the ever increasing human population. The human population is now so great that we need to plan 50 to 100 years ahead, or more, but our politicians don't seem to want to face these problems. The stark facts are that if we do not face up to these issues now not only, in the end, will the natural world on this planet disappear but much of the human population as well. Sorry to post a rather dire comment for the New Year but it is a very big issue which few seem to recognise or, maybe, do not wish to face up to.

  • Agree with all your blog Martin although I am not sure the Government has ever coupled economic growth to the detriment of environment and wildlife.Feel this has been the way conservationists have judged what has been said and think some have a agenda to publicise it this way.

    Do not ask for many things as I tend to be independant but have one big ask of yourself as you are perhaps the person who could help most and that is for you to persuade the top people at RSPB to have a big campaign to get the raptor petition upto the required numbers for it to go before Parlement or whatever.Think the present number of around 5,000 is really terrible and if we want to help these birds especially Hen Harriers then maybe we need to get the RSPB to e-mail all those members you have the details of and put a flyer in with the magazines.

    Lets face it Martin this is probably something going to fail unless someone like yourself takes it on board and only a organisation like the RSPB can do this.Surely as the RSPB is doing commendable work all over the world we can make the effort to stop the Hen Harrier becoming extinct in England and help all BOP as well,thanks in anticipation.

  • Hi Martin,

                 Not a word here about mixed farm systems which I thought showed a clear correlation to higher "biodiversity" levels or the importance of rotations or the importance of traditional farm systems aka work of European Forum for Nature Conservation.

                 Nor a word here on eating less meat which is of considerable importance re resource distribution or eating meat from our grass based pastoral systems being conversely so important to nature conservation.

                  Most importantly nothing here on devising settlements that have the potential of food sustainability written into their design; ie allotments and/or proper gardens. Therefore as resources become scarcer and efficiency of their use becomes paramount that communities have the capacity to be a high degree self sustaining both in energy use and food ; allotments are after all THE most efficient form of agriculture due to their high labour inputs. If the people are TO BE POOR then them at least have the wherewithal to eat and be warm and play music !

                  This requires a new deal with regard to land redistribution and lowering UK housing costs. I have copied the latest lPPR report to you which I believe marks perhaps a first step on this road; to reduce the influence of Wimpey et al.

                  The future in short is an agricultural one or as it were post industrial.