From “Dig for Victory” to “Grow Nature for Food”

It is rarely the case that our farming system come in for as much scrutiny as it has during these last six years since we voted to leave the European Union and began to move away from the Common Agricultural Policy and the system of support for our growers and land managers. That focus only intensified this year, with “Food Security” becoming one of the most-quoted phrases of 2022, thanks to Russia’s illegal attack on Ukraine.

The irony of the situation is that farmers have probably never felt less secure themselves. Volatile prices for inputs, such as fertilisers and fuel, as well as for crops and livestock, have generated considerable uncertainty. On top of this have been the harsh effects of climate change, which were particularly evident this last summer. All this has helped to generate uncertainty at a time when farmers are attempting to draw up long-term business plans in response to the national conversation about the many things we will need from our land over the coming decades.

One thing that isn’t subject to fluctuation however is the fundamental importance of farming and farmers for this country. With uncertainty and volatility seemingly growing by the day, we rely on their dedication, know-how and sheer hard work through rain and shine to continue feeding the population. And with 70% of land of England managed for agriculture, building a strong partnership with farmers is the key to achieving thriving Nature at a scale that will put our society and our economy on a strong, long-term sustainable footing.

Many of the partnerships that we need to forge already exist or are in development, whether they’re between individual farmers and Natural England advisers, or involving multiple farmers joining together in a cluster across the landscape. These have already delivered numerous successes up and down the country, restoring hedgerows, ponds and soils, and creating beetle-banks, pollinator habitat, grassland, wetland and woodlands. But on a national level we know that more is needed to halt the declines of Nature on which our farming industry ultimately depends.

It’s sometimes said that you can’t go green if you’re in the red. There is of course some truth in this, but it also implies what is a false choice, through presenting food production and Nature as apparently alternatives rather than as essential partners. Indeed, I’d say the reverse is actually more true: that is, that farm businesses can’t stay in the black for long if Nature is in the red.

The false choice has appeared more plausible and has been magnified in the clamour to intensify agricultural output following Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, with some commentators claiming we need to prioritise food security over Nature in order to maintain food supplies.

It is of course right for questions to be asked about the extent to which making more space for species and habitats will mean less space for farming, but it is also vital that we find answers based on evidence and rooted in reality.

When we do that then it is clear that we must, and can, do both – restoring Nature whilst also feeding ourselves. Agriculture is the economic sector most directly reliant on a healthy environment. Stable climate, sufficient water, pollinating insects, healthy soils and natural pest control are among the assets that render farming viable, and the more we protect and enhance those, the more we enhance food security.

Beyond those basic dependencies there is a growing body of evidence pointing to positive synergies, indicating how helping Nature can actually improve productivity. For example, a wide-ranging review published in Science Advances in 2020 concluded that field margins with wild plants rather than crops can increase yield over the whole field, while practices such as reduced tillage benefit both productivity and Nature by improving soil quality and retaining beneficial nutrients. This in turn can reduce the need for expensive inputs – particularly relevant now of course given high natural gas prices pushing up fertiliser costs.

Some of those who advocate that rather more siloed view of farm intensification and who are heavily invested in that false choice I mentioned a moment ago, seem to have developed an unhealthy obsession with “rewilding”. They claim that all advocates of Nature recovery would rather replace the best and most fertile farmland with scrub, turning nettle soup into our national dish.

Nonsense of course, although we do need to create larger patches of natural habitat, connected with one another and where natural processes are restored on a larger scale, but Nature recovery is a far wider concept than that. It involves not only a reduction or withdrawal of human intervention in certain places and under certain circumstances, but also action in managed landscapes, including those primarily devoted to food production.

England is famously crowded, but even in our seemingly packed little country the creation of larger wild areas can be accommodated. This is not least because much of the land best suited to Nature restoration and carbon capture and storage actually produces comparatively small quantities of food. For example, in 2017 almost 60 per cent of agricultural output came from just a third of land and the Dimbleby National Food Strategy of 2021 estimated that restoring Nature across the least productive 20 per cent of farmed land would lead to a drop in food production of just 3 per cent. These numbers underline how not all land is equal and how, by taking intelligent approaches, we can make significant strides toward restoring the natural fabric of our country with negligible impact on food output.

The case becomes even more compelling when set against the continuing scourge of food waste. With up to a third of land producing food destined for bins and compost rather than people, cutting that by 10 per cent would negate any small effect from restoring a fifth of England to a more natural state. And in any event, much of the land that could be geared more toward Nature recovery would in many cases be producing food too.

Two weeks ago I was pleased to declare England’s newest National Nature Reserve at Ennerdale in the Lake District. This wild broad valley is an amazing patchwork of habitats rich in wildlife, but vital to it being its very best is a herd of Black Galloway cattle. These wonderful animals not only help maintain, and indeed increase, the natural diversity of the reserve, but also produce some of England’s finest beef.

Richard Maxwell lives and works there and has been the pioneer of low-intensity, year-round grazing. Supported by Higher Level Stewardship and Countryside Stewardship schemes, his switch from sheep to high value cattle is seeing Atlantic oakwoods regenerating, the recovery of upland heath, Marsh and Pearl-bordered Fritillary butterflies on the increase and a range of ecosystem benefits being enhanced, including carbon capture and cleaner water. Among other things, this means the water company which owns much of the land there is delivering far better water quality for the amazing downstream aquatic wildlife, adding to both the environmental performance of a major utility and bottom line of the farmer and other businesses that benefit from the area’s considerable tourist appeal. Downstream flood risk is also reduced as the catchment acts like a giant sponge. As Richard will testify, it’s not food or Nature; it’s both.

This is but one example – and many people in the room will be able to tell similar stories – of how positive relationships that can be forged between our food and the health of Nature and I hope an inspiration for the Government’s new Environmental Land Management (ELM) policy. This is seeking to achieve a stronger positive relationship between food and Nature and presents an opportunity for farming to accelerate that country-wide transformation.

The farming community across England has an impressive track record of engagement with the kinds of official scheme that is supporting Richard and his family farm to make progress in Cumbria. Right across the country farmers have been investing their time and energy since the very first iteration of land management schemes some 35 years ago that set out to deliver more for Nature in partnership with those farmers, many of them working small family businesses. In fact today the number of agri-environment scheme agreements stands at more than 45,000, stretching across two thirds of England. It is important that we don’t forget how important this has been and will be into the future. For the new schemes to be a success we must build upon the good work that farmers have been putting in place for many decades, from targeted action for farmland birds to better management of water courses and much else besides.

This is about the intelligent use of the land that we have to produce multiple benefits, food for sure, but also carbon capture, flood risk reduction, wildlife recovery and beautiful landscapes. The incentives to do better for Nature that will come with the Government’s Environmental Land Management schemes will sit alongside commercial food production, enabling farmers to blend these two together, in some cases with private sector investment into enhancing ecosystem services, such as carbon capture, improving the purity of rivers and biodiversity net gain.

Doing more for Nature will mean new opportunities to open new revenue streams and smoothing out some of the volatility we will undoubtedly continue to face into the future. As well as making financial sense, it also makes sense for society, not least because of how such an approach can strengthen the bonds between farmers and the communities where they live and work. Remembering that thriving Nature will not just benefit the farmers, but also people nearby who will enjoy the enhanced leisure opportunities, cleaner water and abundant wildlife, is essential for continued public investment in the agricultural sector.

An additional, very important driver for action is the Government ‘s environmental targets, which among other things require us to halt the decline of Nature by the end of this decade. England’s farmers will have a bigger role in this than any other occupation and, from what I’ve seen, they are ready to rise to the challenge of deriving multiple benefits from their land alongside the essential job of feeding us all. My impression is reinforced by how farmers have long been in tune with the needs of the country and have repeatedly risen to challenges faced by it. Whether through embracing new technology and techniques in the 18th century when rampant urbanisation required fewer farmers to produce more food, or indeed increasing production in the face of the wartime U-boat blockades, there are times when rapid changes in farming have followed a big change in context. And we are at such a moment now.

When the country was short of food because of enemy submarines, the rallying cry was to “Dig for Victory”. Today, we might sum up our modern challenge in the call to “Grow Nature for Food”. The threat has changed, but with the Nature and climate emergencies presenting real and present dangers, we are once more at a time when we must ask our farmers to change to secure our food supply for the future. Many already are changing but, given the right help, most can do even more and it needs to be every farmer farming sustainably, farming for food AND Nature, right across the country.

Last week there were reports in the press suggesting the government is about to scrap the new scheme of Local Nature Recovery and that they have lost their appetite for the challenge of joining up food and Nature priorities. This is not what we have heard at Natural England, however. Instead I am told that the plan is to stick to the already up-and-running Countryside Stewardship scheme, but to make it much better. At Natural England we think that evolving from Countryside Stewardship as it is now to a newer and better form could be a very positive thing, if some important changes are made. After decades of helping to deliver such schemes, Natural England has some suggestions:

  • First, we’d recommend a shift in focus to outcomes, rather than defined, detailed and often inflexible prescriptions, with new options to tackle our most urgent problems
  • Second, a better, results-based payments that reflect the real value of Nature and help tackle some of the issues which come with the volatility of markets
  • We’d also like to see a rolling application window, so that farmers can apply when it suits them rather than at a particular time of the year, and an amendment function that means everyone can do more as soon as they are ready
    -* We’d also like to see more support for farmer learning, with advice available for every farmer to learn the new skills and knowledge they need for the future
  • And we’d like to see a food and farming industry-led campaign to get every farmer farming for food and Nature, including support for small farms where people can be overwhelmed by the complexity of the process

All of this would help to make the most of farmers’ unparalleled sense of place – and pride in that place. Many trace their family connections to the land not in decades, but in centuries. In the past their pride in connection to the land would rest on the quality and quantity of their crops and livestock. Many now derive equal pride in other things that the land must also provide and a newly refreshed Countryside Stewardship scheme could really thrive if aligned with those connections to the land, farmers’ pride in it and their willingness to do better for Nature.

None of this is, however, about nostalgia for a bygone age. It is very much about rising to meet modern challenges. Technology will be, and is already, vital in combining Nature recovery with sustainable food production. I have been struck by the huge potential that comes with precision methods, with crops planted, monitored and harvested in much cleaner, smarter and less disruptive ways. It means higher yields can be achieved with fewer inputs, with less pollution and waste and with better soil quality and wildlife abundance and diversity among the results. These technologies can save a lot of time and money too, and build resilience against external shocks, such as the price volatility currently seen in many inputs.

The key now, it seems to me, is to scale up that new approach, so that the excellent pioneering examples that are already working – and which are in this room today – in the landscape become the norm. If we can achieve that we will lay the essential foundations to ensure that farming and our natural world have the security and sustainability they need. If we can do that, then not only will we enhance the security of our own country, but also set an example to the rest of the world. With that coming from here, from England, the place where the foundations were laid for the productive farming systems that enabled a quadrupling of the global population in just a century, it would I’m sure be more powerful an example than if it came from almost anywhere else.

Thank you very much.

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