Healthy ecosystems are essential to our food security, says Anthony Kleanthous
Look ahead to a warm Sunday in March 2040. You're off for a country ramble, but what will you spot? Skylarks, corn buntings, deer and toads? A bagful of wild salad leaves for dinner? And where will the path lead? Through patchwork fields of pasture, vegetables and grain – or vast expanses of arable interspersed with concentrated animal feeding sheds?
The expansion and intensification of food production has provided us with plenty of cheap meals, but it has also destroyed much of the natural resource base on which it previously depended. Artificial fertilisers have impoverished the natural fertility of soils and released prodigious quantities of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. Pesticides and modern harvesting methods have deprived birds of their sustenance and allowed populations of resistant pests to flourish. Traditional crop varieties – often uniquely well adapted to local conditions – have fallen into disuse, or been lost altogether.
Healthy ecosystems are essential to our food security: birds and other natural predators keep pests at bay; bees pollinate around a third of all our food; microbes and earthworms fertilise and aerate our soils. Today, their bill of health is sobering: a 30% decline in global biodiversity in the last 40 years; the loss of around half of our farmland birds in just 20 years, and worrying declines in the populations of amphibians and bees. The UN reports that two-thirds of all ecosystem services, including food production and pollination, are in decline.
For an illustration of what happens when we lose one of these vital ecosystem services, pay a visit to Sichuan, China, where bees had been successfully pollinating fruit trees for 3,000 years – until a rapid expansion of pear orchards in the 1980s. China increased the use of chemical pesticides, devastating the bee population. Now, thousands of villagers trawl through the trees with bottles of pollen, into which they dip brushes made of chicken feathers and cigarette filters, touching them to hundreds of thousands of blossoms. In many places, such a solution would be prohibitively expensive.
Making space for the king of the forest
To avoid getting into such a predicament, public funding bodies are paying farmers to create and protect wild habitats on their marginal land. Cousins Brian and Patrick Barker use parts of their farm in Suffolk to restore populations of 'target' wildlife species, with support from Natural England's High Level Environmental Stewardship scheme.
"In one of our ponds, we had one of the UK's biggest populations of great crested newts," says Brian. "With the money, we restored other nearby ponds, and joined them all up with grass margins and hedges to give freedom of movement. Now, we have well established and growing newt populations in these other ponds." The Barkers' other target species is the grey partridge, whose population has declined by 87% in the last 20 years. They used to spot one or two pairs on their land every so often. "We put down new areas of grassland and wild flowers to protect them from predators, and provide a nesting habitat. Now, we see five or six pairs on most days, with good evidence of breeding."
Like most farmers, the Barkers care about the countryside and value its natural beauty; but money has been the real driver for their conservation efforts. "Our parents' generation was incentivised to make their fields bigger and increase production at all costs. Output is important for us, too, but unlike them, we benefit financially from integrating production with good wildlife management and natural resource protection. By converting some of our less productive land to conservation, we can make more money."
But taking this model to scale is impractical: there's simply more money in crops than conservation. As Simon Henderson, an organic farmer in Northumberland, explains: "Set-aside schemes pay on the basis of income foregone; if you convert arable land to a bird habitat, you get paid for it. We've taken fields on a flood plain on which we used to grow carrots, and converted them to grass. But, because the scheme classes all cropland as arable, our compensation is worked out as if we had been growing grain, which commands a lower price than vegetables on the market."
So why does he do it? Partly, he says, because of a personal attachment to nature, but also because much of their land is classified as a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI), which attracts higher levels of payment for crops. Even then, the only way Henderson can fully fund his conservation efforts is by having his food certified as organic by the Soil Association. "It's very restrictive", he says, "but there's no other way for consumers to know that you are farming sustainably, [and so] justify the higher prices".
Funding isn't just available from government: some companies are beginning to pay premiums for grain from farms which take conservation into account. Cereal brand Jordans, for instance, pays a premium to suppliers to plant 10% of their land according to the Conservation Grade, which rules out GM products and certain agrochemicals and pesticides, and promotes wildlife-friendly practices.
But this trend could be challenged over the next few decades as the demand for food rises, and diets in developing countries become more dependent on animal products. Some fear that there may simply not be enough space for farmers to produce all the food we need and still leave room for wildlife conservation.
The current trajectory is for further intensification, and a sustainable version of it – more output with less impact – is being championed by many, including the UK Government, as the answer. The Foresight project commissioned a collection of case studies exploring sustainable intensification projects in Africa, and found a number of lessons to learn.
"The challenges facing Africa are substantial", says lead editor Professor Jules Pretty of the University of Essex. "Many believe that agriculture across the continent has somehow lagged behind the rest of the world." On the contrary, he argues, "these papers illustrate that Africa is at the forefront of a new, greener revolution."
The research, published in the International Journal of Agricultural Sustainability, looks at 40 farms from 20 countries, where sustainable intensification techniques – such as crop improvements, agroforestry, soil conservation, integrated pest management and aquaculture – are being put into practice. It claims that, on average, crop yields more than doubled, boosting the livelihoods of over 10 million farmers.
To some, this simply sounds too good to be true [see 'Is the future farm intensive or extensive?']. But with more mouths to feed, it may be a challenge we have no choice but to rise to. As environmental campaigner Tony Juniper puts it: "Establishing truly sustainable agricultural systems is perhaps the most important challenge facing humankind today."
Anthony Kleanthous is a writer and speaker on sustainable development, and Senior Policy Adviser at WWF-UK, where he works on sustainable food systems.
Simon Henderson runs an organic arable and sheep farm with an educational visitor centre in Northumberland
...on plain English
...on flood management
...on food prices
Edward Thompson runs Pixley Berries, Herefordshire a 'not from concentrate' juice manufacturer specialising in blackcurrents.
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...on the industry
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This article is taken from the Green Futures Special Edition, Tomorrow's Food, Tomorrow's Farms.
Image credits: alle12 / istock; AVTG / istock