Sustainable agriculture: an urgent need for a science-based land strategy


In the face of global food security concerns and soaring food and energy prices, the UK government seems to have realized the importance of having a productive domestic agricultural industry.

But reports indicate that one of Britain’s biggest landowners, the National Trust, is reclaiming large amounts of productive farmland from long-term tenants for tree planting and regeneration, and promoting the low yield agriculture on some of our most fertile land. soils, highlights the urgent need for a coherent land use strategy that recognizes the importance of food production.

Many interpreted the government’s recent food strategy as a welcome change in policy direction, signaling a renewed recognition by government ministers of the strategic importance of national agriculture and food production.

The war in Ukraine and the cost of living crisis will have played an important role in the government’s thinking.

So, for example, Defra’s food plan pledges to “maintain broadly” current levels of domestic food production, develop a new horticultural strategy and invest £270m by 2029 in research and innovation to improve productivity, sustainability and resilience at the farm level. .

Ministers also pledged to develop a land use strategy by 2023 which, if it follows the three-pronged approach advocated in Henry Dimbleby’s original National Food Strategy paper ‘The Plan’, will also mark a positive shift in policy towards scientific evidence, which supports a land preservation approach rather than a land sharing approach.

Based on the thinking of conservation scientists Professor Andrew Balmford and Professor Rhys Green, University of Cambridge, this creative three-compartment vision for future land use – allowing for a combination of natural habitat, d low-intensity, high-yield agriculture, high-tech agriculture – follows science and, if properly implemented, could provide a more sustainable balance in terms of food production, resource use, conservation of nature and climate change mitigation.

As Professor Balmford observed in October 2021 (in the Journal of Zoology), most species would fare “least badly” under a land-sparing approach – with high-yield production meeting to the food demand of a relatively small agricultural area, freeing up space for the conservation of intact habitats elsewhere in the landscape.

Building on this model in the UK environment, the three-compartment model recognizes that a limited number of farmland species do better in low-intensity farming systems, hence the provision of a third compartment alongside high-yield agriculture and nature reserve land.

However, the allocation of land to each of these three compartments will be the critical factor in the ultimate success of such a strategy.

Until a more nationally representative picture is developed of the optimal allocation for each compartment, the scientists involved have been cautious about estimating the relative share of each land use option.

But it is certainly not a division equal to three. On the basis of the detailed analysis already available for two pilot regions – Salisbury Plain and The Fens – I do not think it would be unreasonable to suggest a ‘rough’ estimate of 60% high yield farming, 25% nature conservation and 15% low intensity agriculture for the whole country.

In my opinion, it is extremely important to have an early idea of ​​what a scientific assessment of future land use allocations might look like, before too much of our productive land is devoted to regeneration, to tree planting or low yield farming systems such as organic, and before too much public money goes to rewarding less productive farming systems when the scientific evidence tells us to focus on the high yield agriculture.

Indeed, the development of a coherent land use strategy – providing a scientific assessment of the competing demands and priorities placed on this valuable resource – should have preceded any policy options developed by Defra under the management programs environmental management (ELM), whether in terms of low-input agriculture, preservation of local nature or enhancement of landscapes.

In its report on ELMs in January this year, the House of Commons Public Accounts Committee criticized the UK government for failing to set out a clear plan for land use and food production.

Indeed, two cases involving the National Trust – one of the UK’s major landowners – serve to highlight the risks of pursuing particular land-use options without a clearer understanding of their impact on broader policy objectives. wide. This is especially the case now that national food security and the goal of maintaining current levels of food production are integrated into our national food strategy.

The first concerns reports that the National Trust is taking over significant chunks of productive farmland from long-term tenants for regeneration and tree-planting projects.

Those affected suggest the move is financially driven, with the Trust targeting lucrative grants for landscape-scale nature recovery at the expense of its leasehold farms – and the food they have historically produced .

The Tenant Farmers Association (TFA) described the policy as totally wrong. “This is a vanity project driven by the current media frenzy around rewilding, which we believe is not based on sound science,” TFA chief executive George Dunn told AFP. Farmers Weekly.

The second example, reported again in Farmers Weekly, revealed how the National Trust flagship farm at Wimpole Hall in Cambridgeshire is leading the way to a carbon negative future for organic wheat production.

This sounds impressive from a net zero perspective, but in terms of land use policy, is this the most efficient and sustainable use of some of the country’s most productive arable land?

Yields of the KWS Siskin milling wheat variety at Wimpole Farm were 5.19 tonnes per hectare, well below half the non-organic average, and the resulting crop sold for over £100 per tonne premium over conventional.

Sustainable then, but only for a privileged few.

In terms of land use, the former British food safety ‘champion’, Professor Tim Benton, has extensively studied the comparative environmental impacts of organic versus conventional farming, concluding in a 2013 article from the Journal of Applied Ecology that “the relatively low yields of organic farms may lead to the introduction of larger areas of land into agricultural production (locally or elsewhere), at a cost to biodiversity much higher than the benefit on the farm of organic practice.” With grain production per unit area 54% lower in organic fields compared to conventional fields, Prof Benton advised concentrating organic production on more marginal land.

This may have been an early incarnation of the three-compartment model, but it again underscores the importance of developing a coherent land-use strategy that balances competing demands for food production, biodiversity, sequestration carbon, forestry, flood management, etc. therefore based on solid science and evidence, not the latest media frenzy or celebrity eco-fad.

* David Hill grows early generation cereal seed, grass seed, rapeseed, sugar beet and spelt in central Norfolk. The farm also operates three processing plants, adding value to its own crops and those of other farmers. David is a Nuffield Scholar and member of the Global Farmers Network. A strong advocate of new technologies in agriculture, he was one of the first farmers to organize UK trials of GM sugar beet as part of the government’s large-scale GM crop evaluation trials in the late 1960s. 1990.

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