Why Policy Matters: Food for thought

(c) Ben Andrew (rspb-images.com)

In Today's Why Policy Matters blog, Jeff Knott, the RSPB's Director of Policy & Advocacy, outlines nature's fundamental role in our food and farming systems. 

Our natural environment, global wildlife and climate are all intrinsically linked to the ways we produce, trade, eat, and enjoy food. Agriculture - covering roughly 70% of the UKs land area -  is clearly a vital part of this system and its impact on the environment, both positive and negative, can be huge. 

But farming is also crucial to putting food on our tables. Sometimes it is suggested that this need to secure healthy and affordable food is in conflict with delivering benefits for nature. With headlines this week again showing that the cost of food is still increasing at an alarming rate, can we really afford to also give space for wildlife on our farms?

Well the evidence shows again and again, that far from being a trade off, real long-term food security is reliant on nature and the environment. In the 2021 Food Security Report, the UK Government stressed that “The biggest medium to long term risk to the UK’s domestic production comes from climate change and other environmental pressures like soil degradation, water quality and biodiversity”. And again this week, Mark Spencer, the UK Government’s Minister for Food, Farming and Fisheries said during a Westminster Hall debate on food security, “farming and nature can, and must, go hand in hand”.

Our future food supply will not be secure if we continue to erode the nature and climate system which underpins production. Farming and farmers, like all of us, are reliant on nature.

I’ve been fortunate enough to spend time in the last couple of weeks on farms showing how nature and farming can happily co-exist. At the RSPB’s Hope Farm, we talked to Georgie, the farm manager, about how the farm has trebled the number of farmland birds, while maintaining its yields. And how by dedicating 10% to nature along the Fair to Nature model they have maintained profitability whilst boosting nature. Then just down the road, I spent a rather wetter day with Martin Lines, Chair of the Nature Friendly Farming Network (NFFN).

Picture taken on the visit to Hope Farm.

The NFFN is a wonderful organisation, which brings together farmers and crofters from across the UK who are trying to operate more sustainably.

Both Hope Farm and NFFN members are already making a real difference for their local farmland wildlife, but a constant theme to both my visits, was frustration that the policy system doesn’t properly support those wanting to deliver a more positive future and in some cases actively hinders that ambition.

Whether its continued uncertainty as we move to new ways of funding farmers post Brexit, or payments that simply don’t deliver what nature needs, the frustration is palpable. At Hope Farm we saw some amazing hedges, allowed to bloom to their full potential, which deliver habitat for yellowhammers and turtle doves, as well as protecting the soil on which crops rely. But payments from the public purse were so small that this approach just doesn’t stack up for many farmers to deliver.

On Martin’s farm we discussed the ever increasing number of farmers desperate to secure a sustainable future for their livelihood and the shared sense of loss many farmers and conservationists feel at the quietening of birdsong across vast swathes of our countryside. But all too often, the support just wasn’t there for farmers wanting to change.

On Monday I was at an event in London outlining what businesses can do to help save nature, where Deborah Meaden delivered the killer line, “A bad system beats a good person every time”. In many ways that is the challenge of policy – to deliver a system which incentivises the good and discourages the bad. Yet with agricultural policy, all too often the opposite is true. The fantastic work of groups like NFFN are showing an ever increasing movement of farmers trying to do the right thing. But many are doing this in spite, rather than because of, the system.

Ongoing agricultural policy reform across all of the four countries of the UK give us the opportunity to create systems that support farmers to deliver nature and long term food security. Our teams are working in Scotland, Wales, England and North Ireland to ensure our systems work with those ‘good people’ rather than against them.

Across the UK, we need to deliver the systems those farmers deserve, putting nature at the heart of our food system.

Can we have food security and nature in our farmland? In reality, we can’t have food security without it. Can we afford to deliver both? In reality, we can’t afford not to. We are calling on governments across the UK to double down on delivery of policies which deliver for nature and farming businesses, there is not time to waste.