This week my blog is exploring the challenge of balancing production with agriculture.  This was the focus for the talk I gave to the Oxford Farming Conference on Wednesday.  You can read a copy of my paper here.  Matthew Naylor and Allan Buckwell have offered their views and now, Caroline Drummond, the Chief Executive of LEAF (Linking Environment and Farming) has kindly outline her perspective below.   At the end of the week I shall reflect on the debate that this has triggered.

Striking the balance

 "Agriculture is our wisest pursuit, because it will in the end contribute most to real wealth, good morals, and happiness." - Letter from Thomas Jefferson to George Washington (1787)

The farming industry holds the cards for delivering sustainable food production.

No-one denies that land, water, biodiversity and natural habitats are under pressure from competing demands.  Sustainable intensification is not about increasing the use of inputs, it is about wisely using knowledge and technologies, to grow production efficiency; to intensify natures’ interactions and benefits; and reconstruct the values and culture of our food system.

Farmers need to be recognised for how they have adapted to the radically changed demands placed on our food system and land requirements over the last 20 years. New management approaches, environmental stewardship, market demands, social and environmental responsibility, improved engagement with retailers and closer relationships with consumers are all starting to help re-design our food systems.

But we need to do more – more to increase our farm efficiency, food’s nutritional value and more to enhance the environment.  However, it is alarming how little we know about the interactions between our use of land for food production, the environment and for society as a whole.  

Increasing global trade threatens to diminish the range of species and cultivars that are traditionally used in most agri-ecosystems. Of some 270,000 known species of higher plants about 20,000 are edible, but only about 7,000 are used in agriculture. 14 animal species currently account for 90% of all livestock production, and only 20 crops dominate global cultivation, providing an estimated 90% of the dietary energy consumed by the world's population (UNEP, 2007). Today 80% of the world’s population lives principally on four main crop species: maize; wheat; potatoes and rice.  Perhaps there is more scope to use a wider variety of species in our food and crop and animal health strategies?

We rely on biodiversity in our daily lives, often without realising it. The bacteria and microbes that transform waste into useful products, insects that pollinate crops and flowers, and the biologically rich landscapes that provide enjoyment, are but a few examples.

Often we are tempted to solve problems by singling out issues such as pollution, water security, carbon footprint, local production, or inputs. Individual approaches, however, do not do justice to the interactions between them. An integrated approach has the potential to use nature in conjunction with technology to help address these areas.

Integrated Farm Management (IFM) provides the flexibility to deliver a highly productive agriculture with reduced environmental impact. Advocated by LEAF, IFM has been developed to combine economic, environmental, social and welfare issues with management practices and decisions across the whole farm in a balanced and considered way.

For some 20 years LEAF has been instrumental in developing and promoting IFM and to encourage a better public understanding of and engagement in farming and the countryside.  Open Farm Sunday has welcomed some ¾ million people out on to farms over the last six years, over 20% of UK’s fresh produce are grown to LEAF Marque standards, with a growing range of grain and livestock products meeting the standard too. 

The future is not doing more of the same, it is about increasing sustainability at all levels. The real element of change is about growing production, whilst enhancing environmental health, and societal well-being in a fully integrated approach.

Do you agree with Caroline?

It would be great to hear your views.

  • Having read the blog in relation to ‘Balancing agricultural production and conservation’, we agree with Caroline Drummond (LEAF) that....Farmers need to be recognised for how they have adapted to the radically changed demands placed on our food system and land requirements.

    We often quote the adverse affects of intensification of agriculture over the last 30 years and we are usually right to do so, however there are many environmentally conscious British farmers who need to be recognised for their efforts (over the last 10 to 15 years) in the encouragement of wildlife and the subsequent prevention of biodiversity losses and ecosystem services. This has often been as a result of their involvement in Environmental Stewardship schemes, support for which must remain, especially when the widest range of habitat options are created and managed.

    Our Conservation Grade accredited growers are good examples of this as they continue to increase wildlife whilst maximising crop and food output. This was confirmed by the recent CG Barn Owl conservation project ( which showed CG farms supported a higher fledging rate of barn owl chicks than conventional farms.

    Barn owls, being peak predators at the top of the food chain, are indicators of the success of the underlying ecosystem and their success confirms that nature and biodiversity is thriving on these Nature Friendly farms and is a pointer to the sustainable intensification called for in the Foresight report.

    But it’s not just farmers who hold the key to putting things back into ecological working order, nor is it just one sector of society, business or government or NGO’s that will turn around the massive declines in global biodiversity, we will need cross-sector cooperation and ultimately engagement by consumers. We can’t expect only farmers to subsidise the management of wildlife in the countryside but we can engage consumers by encouraging them to make nature friendly food choices.

  • Thank you Redkite and Sooty.  I tend to agree that payment rates for agri-environment schemes need to be reviewed.  They must provide sufficient reward to farmers for the services that they provide.  All the evidence suggests that well-designed, targeted and adequately funded agri-environment schemes will deliver better outcomes for farmers and wildlife.

  • Do not think anyone could disagree with Caroline,these 3 blogs and indeed your own thoughts are really what we should aim for but they will be very hard to put into practice simply because at the moment and for a long time in the past farmers have found it hard to make reasonable profits and if we want more concentration from them on wildlife and environment we have to find ways to reward them fairly for it which would equal the income they would get from crops.

  • Hi Martin, Thanks for this excellent blog and all your very hard work, broadly I do agree with Caroline Drummond's approach and of course she is quite right in emphasising the need for sustainable farming to conserve our soil bacteria and microbes as well as the invertebrates/ insects. However I would like to have seen a little something about also conserving birds, wild life and biodiversity generally. So much can be done in this direction by farmers without effecting farm production, such as leaving the inaccessable corner of a field unmanaged and not flailling hedges flat every year, all as demonstrated at Hope Farm.

    I think your paper to the Oxford Farming Conference was first class. With your paper and Caroline's views, the technigues and technology to increase food production and at the same time halt and reverse biodiversity loss are clearly available to the world's farmers. The problem seems to be convincing organisations like the NFU (Mr Peter Kendall), the Agriculture Minister at DEFRA, (Mr Paice), and those mandarins at Brussels dealing with the CAP, that this type of thinking is "an absolute MUST and not just a luxury we can't afford. What a difference it would make if they spoke on similar lines to yourself and Caroline. I hope at least some of these people were at that Conference to hear your paper.

    Finally, as I say, all these techniques and technology, if applied, may buy this planet more time, perhaps 50/100 years but unless the world starts now initiating systematic education regarding birth control and ensures that it is effective then I do fear whatever we do, in the end there may well be a disaster. Of course I hope this is not so, but our politicians and world leaders would be strongly advised to adopt the "precautionary principle" in this respect. Do they have the necessary courage? I don't thinks so, I see little sign of it, at least at the moment.