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Striking the Balance

Last week, RSPB’s Conservation Director, Martin Harper, invited Matthew Naylor, Allan Buckwell, Johann Tasker and myself to offer our views following his talk at the Oxford Farming Conference on Balancing Agricultural Production with Conservation on his RSPB blog. This was my post – 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.

Would love to hear what you think!