Trade-offs and Synergies: working together to balance challenges and opportunities in UK farming

Over the last six months the Government has been developing the Green Food Project. We now see the initial report that sets out the foundations for building a robust and resilient food chain, increasing productivity and enhancing the environment.

Visual minutes at the Trade-off and Synergies debate

LEAF has been involved on the steering committee for the Green Food Project and we welcome this report as we work together to balance the challenges and opportunities for UK farming and industry to deliver a more sustainable and integrated food system. These objectives are at the heart of LEAF’s work.

Supporting the work of the Green Food Project, LEAF, Syngenta and the ESKTN (Environment Sustainability Knowledge Transfer Network) held an event, supported by the UK Food Chain Alliance and BBSRC in March 2012. The event set out to explore the stresses and the need for compromises and change amongst informed stakeholders about what we want the UK’s farmed land and environment to deliver, through synergies and trade-offs, to meet the challenge of the increased need for producing food over the next 30 years in a sustainable manner.

10 key messages to policy makers, researchers and industry emerged from the event. They are all interdependent and we have been developing these over the last few months.  They are summarised below:

Key message 1.  Planning at the landscape level – To attain gains for food production whilst improving biodiversity and reducing impacts on the environment requires innovative planning at the landscape level, with the Ecosystem Services approach offering new opportunities to engage others (such a water companies) in this discussion.

Key message 2. Working across sectors – Recognition that to work on the challenges faced in implementing sustainable food and farming will require us to think, plan and capture value across all of the supply chain. Retailers are already providing a pull for farmers to work sustainably, and there are some good working examples of shared responsibility, such as business groups and LEAF Marque.  However, more solutions need to share the value across the supply chain, through innovative approaches.

Key message 3. New mechanisms for sharing value and information – There was a strong agreement that trade-offs are necessary but priorities and perceived compromises were not agreed.  We need to start putting figures on the table and talking about trade-offs, supported by evidence. Better levels of integration between the key technologies underpinning ‘sustainable intensification’ are essential, with leadership required to establish mechanisms for sharing information and ideas.  There was a strong call for better integration, such as increased uptake of Integrated Farm Management, better integration across the food chain; landscape and government.

Key message 4. Legislation and the speed of innovation – The current regulatory environment (particularly in Europe) is now genuinely hindering investment in R&D and farming, primarily through escalating costs/timelines for registration/implementation.  This is causing money to seep elsewhere and depletes the incentive for companies to invest in developments, knowledge transfer and training in European farming since innovative technologies come to market very slowly. There was a strong call for legislation to be enabling and scientifically robust. There was a lack of public support for R&D in general and for applied research in particular, with a worrying lack of appreciation of the long term significance for food security and the competitiveness of our research in a global marketplace.

Key message 5. Water, energy and resource use – Efficient use of water and energy is key for sustainable farming. This includes precision farming solutions as well as effective integrated solutions i.e. the use of solar panels, windmills, human organic matter etc. Options for innovation and technology improvements included closed application systems (also better for reduced pollution), use of application robots as part of precision forming developments and closed loop systems for better resource use, but these will need more enabling and intelligent regulation.

Key message 6. Soils – Combining the best of modern technology and innovation with the best of traditional management methods through the adoption of Integrated Farm Management, were key elements coming through many of the discussions: the importance of soil management and soil health, especially for water holding capacity and management, and looking to more use of organic matter again to replace nutrients as well as improve soil health.

Key message 7. Education and communication with the public/ along the supply chain – ‘Intensification’ is a term that should be avoided as it suggests increased yields at all costs: how can this perception be changed? Landscape and ecosystems approaches mean more tailored production to the location and media interest can support this understanding, with opportunities to build on Countryfile type programmes. The National Curriculum is being re-written, so there is an opportunity to influence this, with more emphasis on getting children to connect food with the environment and farming, and encouraging more regular school farm visits (Open Farm Sunday is an effective way of encouraging these connections and we should look to strengthen this work). Options for innovation and technology developments included exploring and exploiting the potential of mobile phone ‘apps’ and interactive games to engage younger age groups.

Key message 8. More effective knowledge exchange – There is significant potential to build on the effective knowledge exchange work of LEAF through its Demonstration Farms and management tools.  There is a need to clearly identify the key ambassadors among farmers, researchers, industry and environmentalists to support change.  For example, agronomists taking a much greater role in this, supplemented by more Demonstration Farms and LEAF activity.  Industry could support this by highlighting the whole ecosystem benefits of their products/services and the financial benefits of biodiversity schemes, but there is also a need for advice delivered by a trusted independent partner. Other innovations including mobile phone technology and social media have a key role to play.

Key message 9. Economic sustainability – Need to calculate, discuss and communicate the true financial aspects of sustainability.  Research, support mechanisms, economic instruments, market drivers and innovative solutions need to be further explored to enable more sustainable standards.  This should include possible CAP mechanisms, payments for Ecosystem Services, carbon sequestration, Biodiversity Offsetting, etc.

Key message 10. Farm business competitiveness and viability – the ability of farm businesses to respond to increasing pressures, regulatory, financial and value chain requirements, mean that modern farm businesses will have to develop a variety of new skill-sets and management techniques.  There is a need for the value chain as a whole to develop working models that ensure a more integrated and shared approach to responsible for ensuring these skills are in place right across the food chain.

We would welcome your comments on these key messages as we take them forward over the coming six months to ensure that we drive forward the changes, developments and activities we need to build a robust and resilient farming system.

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8 responses to “Trade-offs and Synergies: working together to balance challenges and opportunities in UK farming

  1. Pingback: Can cheap food be produced sustainably? | Leo Hickman « « News in BriefsNews in Briefs

  2. The Green Food Report is very welcome for its joined up thinking, and for illustrating some of the real tensions which must be addressed.

    However I would balance this warm welcome with an important concern. Underlying issues of land tenure receive scant attention in the report, yet in my view they will be fundamental to the successful development of long-term supply chain relationships, the provision of development opportunities for new and established businesses, for long-term commitment to sustainability in its broadest sense. There are also dangers that some occupiers may be excluded from important initiatives if these considerations are not taken into account at an early stage. My own blog sets out my initial concerns in this area:

    http://charlescowap.wordpress.com/2012/07/10/green-food-report-land-tenure-is-a-missing-link/

    The working group which oversaw the production of the Green Food Report included the right organisations, but did it include all of them? For example, CLA can be expected to look after landowner and owner-occupier interests, but NFU has to represent a very broad constituency in these matters where land tenure might not be the foremost consideration. But no TFA, nor the professional institutions covering land managers: RICS, CAAV for example.

    The Green Food Report has made a great start, but I hope it will be able to embrace these questions over land tenure as an integral part of its work before it’s too late to do so effectively.

    • Charles, we are very aware of the difficulty and challenges of land tenure when it comes to sustainable farming, we encounter issues when we are certifying to LEAF Marque standards. I am sure Caroline will be happy to listen to your concerns and take them to the project which as I am sure you understand will continue and evolve.

  3. Pingback: Can cheap food be produced sustainably? | Leo Hickman - Agrofood Planet

  4. Caroline Drummond

    Thank you for your comments Charles. I will definately be happy to take your comments forward at our next meeting. A strong, meaningful and engaging action plan is the next step

  5. Pingback: Can cheap food be produced sustainably? | Leo Hickman | Firstpage Online UK News .co.uk

  6. Pingback: Can cheap food be produced sustainably? | Leo Hickman | Womens Health

  7. Thanks Caroline and Jeremy – would be interested to explore the tenure issues with LeafMarque when we have a moment. REgards, Charles

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