The Government yesterday published its long-awaited Clean Growth Strategy, setting out its plans and priorities for moving the UK to a low-carbon economy over the coming years. Unfortunately, the UK Government is still failing to reach its emissions reductions targets, in breach of the Climate Change Act. As ClientEarth have pointed out, “We need a firm commitment to say how the UK will decarbonise. Good intentions are no longer good enough”. However, the Strategy does make a number of promising statements and commitments on the future of farming and land use, many of which reflect core priorities for the Soil Association.
Chief among these is the Government’s stated intention to design a new farming system “with a strong focus on delivering better environmental outcomes, including tackling climate change”. In the UK, farming accounts for 10% of our total greenhouse gas emissions, making it the third highest emitting sector after transport and energy. Globally, the food system accounts for around a third of all greenhouse gas emissions. It is abundantly clear that we stand no hope of successfully tackling climate change without a revolutionary change to the way we farm.
We at the Soil Association also welcome the Government’s recognition of the vital role of trees in storing carbon and enhancing and protecting the natural environment. England has fallen desperately behind its target to plant 11 million trees by 2020, and this Clean Growth Strategy commits to accelerating the rate of tree planting over the coming years. We particularly welcome the Government’s commitment to introduce incentives to encourage farmers to plant trees on farms, a practice known as agroforestry. Throughout 2017, the Soil Association and others have been working hard to raise the profile of agroforestry, and we are pleased to see that the Government is taking note.
The Strategy rightly recognised the valuable role of healthy soils and the need to tackle emissions from nitrogen fertiliser. It sets out ambitions to protect and restore vulnerable, carbon-rich peat soils, to develop low carbon fertilisers, and to “overcome the decline in soil quality in the UK”.
Radical changes in the approach to farming, food and the way we manage land are needed. As part of this Strategy, the Government should put farmers themselves at the heart of their approach to innovation. The Innovative Farmers programme is leading the way in field-based, farmer-led research, and the Soil Association is calling on the Government to invest in a dedicated farmer-led innovation fund. We are also urging the Government to accept the Committee on Climate Change advice for new farm policies to 2030 to move beyond the current voluntary approach to cutting greenhouse gas emissions.
We now want to see the Government recognise and reward the major contribution that organic farming can make to achieve the goals on climate change set out in the Strategy. Organic farmers and growers up and down the country are practicing methods of farming which are known to help to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and other environmental impacts. A report published earlier this year by IFOAM EU sets out comprehensively the considerable benefits of organic farming for climate change mitigation and adaptation.
While the Strategy does make some positive noises about the direction that farming, the supply side, needs to move in, it ignores demand – the need to change what people eat, both for the sake of human health, and so that we can farm in ways which will achieve the Government’s new objectives. However, there is much to feel heartened by in the Clean Growth Strategy and we at the Soil Association will now focus our efforts on ensuring that these priorities and policies are implemented – and improved where necessary too. The forthcoming Agriculture Bill will be a big test to determine whether or not the Government remain true to its word on addressing the climate impacts of farming and food. We will also be pushing for a much greater emphasis on supporting and incentivising truly sustainable, low impact farming methods, such as organic farming. The commitments made in this Strategy represent an encouraging step forward, but there is still a great deal of work to be done to ensure that these laudable plans become a reality.
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Six game-changing ideas for the future of UK farming policy ()
Today, Monday 20 March, we have launched a new report, setting out six proposals for domestic agricultural policy after the UK leaves the EU. These are game-changing ideas that have the potential to transform farming and land use at the scale and pace required to meet multiple challenges – from tackling climate change and nature degradation to supporting rural livelihoods and improving public health. Every farming practice we talk about here already happens on the ground in the UK, but is currently the exception rather than the norm.
Our proposals are:
a national agroforestry strategy
investing in soil
a tipping point for organic
a good life for farm animals
support for farmer innovation
making the most of public procurement
There is a growing consensus on some of the key principles that should underlie new policy:
We need to maintain high environmental and farm animal welfare standards.
Public money should pay for public goods such as clean water, farmland wildlife, carbon storage and reducing greenhouse gas emissions.
Government should maintain the overall annual farm payment budget of around £3.2 billion.
We need a joined up approach that looks at land in the round – farming, forestry, water, wilderness – taking account of public health, food poverty and international development.
Policies must work for farmers and growers, and help them move towards sustainable business models.
We need a renewed focus on supply chains to improve resilience, farmer incomes, and environmental sustainability.
Public participation in debate and decisions on the future of farming is critical.
What we really need now are some game-changing ideas – ideas that have the potential to transform the UK’s farming and land use on the scale and pace required.
Our report proposes six such ideas:
Proposal 1: a national agroforestry strategy
Agroforestry brings trees into fields. They can be in neat rows through crops, dotted through pasture like parkland, or planted closer together to provide cover for plants or animals.
Agroforestry is game-changing because it can increase yields and farm profitability, boost resilience through diversity, and deliver big environmental benefits at the same time. At scale, it would dramatically help mitigate soil erosion, nitrogen leaching, and biodiversity loss while increasing carbon sequestration.
To deliver these benefits, the government should work with the agricultural, forestry and land use sectors to develop a national agroforestry strategy. This should include:
A target of agroforestry on 50% of all farms by 2030.
Clear ownership and accountability within government.
Capital grants and maintenance payments.
Fiscal measures and procurement policies to grow the domestic market.
Incentives for longer term farm tenancies.
Investment in research, knowledge exchange and advice.
Proposal 2: investing in soil
The fundamental importance of soil health to farm productivity, food security, climate change and public health has been neglected by government for far too long. Recent statements from UK ministers on soil health are welcome, but have not been matched by action.
The government’s existing soil health commitments provide a starting point for a new UK policy framework: the global 4 per 1000 soil carbon initiative, aiming to increase soil organic carbon by 0.4% each year; and the aim for all English soils to be managed sustainably and degradation threats tackled successfully by 2030.
Strong policies to restore and protect soil health in the UK’s post-CAP agricultural framework should include:
Soil stewardship payments to incentivise farmers to increase the organic matter in the soil – including through existing farm assurance schemes such as organic and LEAF.
Regular soil organic matter monitoring and reporting by farmers to form a well-maintained national database, alongside investment in soil health research, data collection and monitoring.
Encouraging soil health improvement by making it a requirement of tenancies that soil health is not degraded during their term.
A nitrogen budget for each nation of the UK – following Scotland’s lead.
Modelling and piloting of new mechanisms to lower nitrogen, such as fiscal measures.
Proposal 3: a tipping point for organic
The public benefits delivered by organic farming have been well documented by independent research over decades. They include more wildlife and biodiversity, healthier soils and carbon storage, flood protection, clean water, lower pesticide and antibiotic use, more jobs and healthier food.
While only 3% of farmland in the UK is organic, British consumers are demanding more organic produce, with the UK organic food and drink market seeing four years of successive growth. With organic farmland more or less stable, much of this growth is being met by imports, particularly of raw materials for animal feed.
In some other countries, organic farming accounts for up to a fifth of production, and sets new norms for policy, business and the public. Reaching such a tipping point would be transformative. We propose an organic strategy for England, developed by government in partnership with the organic sector, which includes:
An expansion of organic promotion and marketing – including opportunities for export.
Maintaining, improving and expanding the organic conversion and maintenance payments, as currently operating under Countryside Stewardship for England.
A particular focus on increasing production of home-grown organic fruit and veg and animal feed, to meet demand and reduce the high reliance on imports.
Better procurement policies (see also Proposal 6).
Assessing the expansion of organic and other certification systems as a gateway to automatic eligibility for farmers to receive payments.
Research, innovation, knowledge sharing through ‘field labs’ and farming advisory services.
Encouraging agricultural colleges to offer more courses in organic and agroecological farming practices alongside new organic apprenticeships.
Maintaining the legal base for organic standards, ensuring alignment with the EU organic regulation.
Proposal 4: a good life for farm animals
Insisting on a good life for all farm animals as a core part of post-Brexit agricultural policy would be game-changing. It would mean switching to better farming systems, not just making tweaks, also brings benefits to public health through dietary changes.
The Farm Animal Welfare Council defines three levels of welfare: a life not worth living, a life worth living, and a good life. A good life involves more than simply being free from pain or disease. It means ensuring animals have the choice to feel the sun on their backs and to follow their urges to care, graze, root and play.
The scale of indoor, intensive farms is increasing, pushing out smaller family farms to make way for industrial systems that affect local communities and the environment as well as the animals themselves.
We propose that the UK sets the ambition that all farm animals should have a ‘good life’ within ten years. Hand-in-hand with stronger regulation, this will require public investment to help farmers adjust their infrastructure and businesses. This will require:
Defining a good life by urgently supporting the development of a rigorous framework that can score farms, supply chains and assurance schemes against the tiers set out by the Farm Animal Welfare Council.
Mandatory method of production labelling to empower consumers, level the playing field and allow more farmers to shift from volume to quality production.
Banning the routine, preventative use of antibiotics in livestock farming and strict targets to reduce farm antibiotic use 50% by 2020, and 80% by 2050.
Incentives and funding to make the transition to extensive, high welfare farming systems, ensuring such systems are the most attractive option for farmers and investors.
Proposal 5: back farmer innovation
The success of UK agriculture post-Brexit will depend on innovation by farmers. Policies should recognise and support this.
The starting point is that thousands of UK farmers already investigate, experiment, design and develop. Helping them share the risk and increase the rigour of this would benefit all of agriculture, at relatively low cost.
The UK spends around £450 million a year on agricultural research and innovation. Only a fraction of this, perhaps as little as 1%, goes to practical projects led by farmers. We propose:
A dedicated farmer innovation fund with a budget of at least 10% of the UK’s public agricultural research and development budget.
Innovation support services to help farmers apply and make the most of new funds, building on experience from other countries of doing this through the European Innovation Partnership (EIP-Agri), and of home-grown initiatives such as Innovative Farmers.
Rewarding practical research by incentivising individual researchers and institutions to pay more attention to the impact of their research, for example, through awards schemes for researchers working on farmer-led projects; training; and involvement of farmers and practitioners in reviewing research grant applications.
Proposal 6: making the most of public procurement
Making the most of public procurement could have a transformative impact. The UK public sector serves some 3.5 million meals each weekday across settings as varied as schools, nurseries, care homes, hospitals and prisons. In total, the public sector spends £2.4 billion each year procuring food and catering services across the UK.
While the cost of sourcing higher quality ingredients is perceived as a barrier, this can be counterbalanced by re-formulating menus. 71% of public sector institutions meeting Food for Life Served Here criteria report the implementation was cost neutral and 29% report overall cost savings. Research by the New Economics Foundation demonstrated £3 in social return for every £1 invested in Food for Life, with most of the benefit experienced by local businesses and local employers.
The UK could improve the health and food habits of the next generation by further upping ambitions for school food. It could also help drive demand for food that meets the highest standards, helping to achieve economies of scale in processing and lowering consumer prices. Government should help make this happen by:
Implementing the Balanced Scorecard approach across the whole public sector – not just central government.
Requiring public procurement decisions to place a weighting of at least 60% on quality, with price not to exceed a 40% weighting.
Comparing the cost-effectiveness of delivering public benefits through direct agri-environment payments to farmers compared with growing the demand for assured products such as organic through public procurement – with a view to topping up public catering budgets where cost is a genuine barrier.
Using schemes such as Food for Life Served Here for independent verification, to increase the uptake of assurance schemes and grow the market for more sustainable farming and food.
Converting land from conventional agriculture to organic production could reduce greenhouse gas emissions, the run-off of excess nitrogen from fertilisers, and cut pesticide use. It would also, according to a new report, be feasible to convert large amounts of currently conventionally farmed land without catastrophic harm to crop yields and without needing huge amounts of new land.
The study, published in the journal Nature Communications, found that by combining organic production with an increasingly vegetarian diet, ways of cutting food waste, and a return to traditional methods of fixing nitrogen in the soil instead of using fertiliser, the world’s projected 2050 population of more than 9 billion could be fed without vastly increasing the current amount of land under agricultural production.
This is important, as converting other land such as forests, cerrado or peatlands to agricultural use would increase greenhouse gas emissions from the land. The authors found that an increase in organic farming would require big changes in farming systems, such as growing legumes to replenish nitrogen in the soil.
However, other scientists were cautious over endorsing the report’s findings, pointing out that the size of the world’s agricultural systems and their variability, as well as assumptions about future nutritional needs, made generalisations about converting to organic farming difficult to make.
Sir Colin Berry, emeritus professor of pathology at Queen Mary, University of London, said: “As for all models, assumptions have to be made and what weight you attach to which item can greatly change outcomes. The assumption that grassland areas will remain constant is a large one. The wastage issue is important but solutions, not addressed here, to post-harvest- pre-market losses will be difficult without fungicides for grains. Some populations could do with more protein to grow and develop normally, despite the models here requiring less animal protein.”
Les Firbank, professor of sustainable agriculture at Leeds University, said: “One of the question marks about organic farming is that it can’t feed the world. [This paper] concludes organic farming does require more land than conventional methods, but if we manage the demand for food by reducing waste and reducing the amount of crops grown as animal feed, organic farming can feed the world.”
He warned: “[These] models can only be viewed as a guide: there are many assumptions that may not turn out to be true and all these scenario exercises are restricted by limited knowledge [and] are fairly simplistic compared to real life, but realistic enough to help formulate policy. The core message is valuable and timely: we need to seriously consider how we manage the global demand for food.”
Even without converting to organic production, however, the US, India, China and Russia – four of the world’s biggest greenhouse gas emitters – could turn into some of the biggest absorbers of carbon, through better management of their agricultural land.
A separate new study shows that these countries have the greatest potential for the sequestration of carbon dioxide through changing the way soils are protected, through better farming methods that can also help to preserve declining soil fertility.
Scientists said the potential of using soil as a carbon sink was equivalent to taking between 215m and 400m cars off the road, even if only small changes are made, of a kind which should be achievable on all farms. The study, published on Tuesday in the Nature journal Scientific Reports, and conducted by experts from the Chinese Academy of Science, the Nature Conservancy NGO, and the International Centre for Tropical Agriculture, found that farming crops differently could make a big contribution to achieving the goals of the Paris agreement on climate change.
Today’s intensive agricultural methods, involving frequent tilling of soils and the excessive use of chemical fertilisers, could be replaced with the revival of older methods such as the increased use of manure, cover cropping, mulching and growing trees next to cropland. However, the role of land management in preventing dangerous levels of climate change has often been overlooked at the talks, where discussions over the burning of fossil fuels have dominated. This is partly because of the urgency of switching away from fossil fuels, and partly because land management is a diffuse and diverse problem spread across the globe from small farmers to agri-industrialists, whereas fossil fuel sources tend to be larger and more monolithic, such as coal-fired power plants.
The results will be presented to delegates at the UN COP23 climate talks in Bonn on Wednesday. Nations at the talks are discussing ways to increase the commitments on emissions reductions made alongside the Paris agreement, and which scientists say are currently inadequate to hold the world to no more than 2C of warming, the binding target under the landmark 2015 accord.
The world’s largest ever field trial demonstrates widely used insecticides harm both honeybees and wild bees, increasing calls for a ban
Widely used insecticides damage the survival of honeybee colonies, the world’s largest ever field trial has shown for the first time, as well as harming wild bees.
The farm-based research, along with a second new study, also suggests widespread contamination of entire landscapes and a toxic “cocktail effect” from multiple pesticides.
The landmark work provides the most important evidence yet for regulators around the world considering action against neonicotinoids, including in the EU where a total ban is poised to be implemented this autumn. The insecticides are currently banned on flowering crops in the EU.
Neonicotinoids represent a quarter of the multi-billion dollar pesticide market but have been repeatedly linked to serious harm in bees in lab-based studies. Bees and other pollinators are vital to food production but are in decline, in part due to loss of habitats and disease. But there had been few realistic field studies to date to address the role of the insecticides and only occasional evidence for colony-level harm in wild bees.
The new research took place at 33 large farmland sites spread across the UK, Germany and Hungary. Honeybees, bumblebees and solitary bees living by insecticide-treated fields of oil seed rape were compared with those in fields where insecticides were not used in the year of the study.
The survival of honeybee colonies was reduced by exposure to the insecticides in the UK and Hungary, but not in Germany, where the bees foraged far less on oil seed rape and had lower levels of disease. The reproductive success of the wild bees was cut as the insecticide exposure increased in all three countries.
“We showed significant negative effects at critical life cycle stages,” said Prof Richard Pywell, from the UK’s Centre for Ecology and Hydrology (CEH), and part of the research team. “If the bees are foraging a lot on oil seed rape, they are clearly at risk. This is a large and important piece of evidence, but it is not the only evidence regulators will look at.”
Scientists not involved in the research backed the conclusions. “Together, the two studies make strong contributions to the growing scientific consensus about the harms of neonicotinoid pesticides to bees,” said Prof James Nieh, at the University of California San Diego. Addressing the differences between countries, Prof Jeremy Kerr, at the University of Ottawa in Canada, said: “Neonicotinoid applications are a kind of reproductive roulette for bees. Depending on local environmental characteristics, they can materially reduce survival prospects.”
The $3m cost of the research was met by Syngenta and Bayer, the companies that sell the two neonicotinoids tested, as part of a voluntary commitment to increase the available field data. But the companies were not involved in the designing, conducting or reporting of the study.
It found that the bees in Germany got just 15% of their food from the oil seed rape fields, compared to 40-50% in the UK and Hungary. “Clearly the bees in Germany are feeding on other flower resources in the landscape and are less exposed to neonics,” said Pywell.
The scientists also discovered that the wild bees were exposed to a neonicotinoid that was not even used in the trial and concluded the harm caused may result from “persistent residues in arable systems due to their widespread and often very frequent use”.
However, both Bayer and Syngenta expressed doubt about the “simplistic” interpretation of complex and “inconsistent” results. “We do not share CEH’s interpretation and remain confident that neonicotinoids are safe when used responsibly” said Richard Schmuck, director of environmental safety at Bayer CropScience.
Peter Campbell, from Syngenta, said: “The negative and positive results reported by CEH could easily be random, ie not real.” He said even taking the results at face value “demonstrates that neonics can be used safely or even with benefit to bees under certain circumstances, such as reported in Germany.”
But CEH’s Pywell said: “We stand by our peer-reviewed paper. We undertook the statistical analysis and reported the findings as we saw them and those are underpinned by the data. We are absolutely independent.”
The second new study published in Science, carried out on corn farms in Canada, also found crops were not the main source of neonicotinoids to which bees were exposed. Instead, the contaminated pollen came from wildflowers, as has been shown recently in the UK.
“This indicates that neonicotinoids, which are water soluble, spill over from fields into the surrounding environment, where they are taken up by other plants that are very attractive to bees,” said Nadia Tsvetkov, at York University in Canada and who led the research.
“The detection of the potential long-term persistence of neonicotinoids in the soil by both studies raises the spectre of a reprise of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring,” said Prof Robert Paxton at Martin-Luther-University Halle-Wittenberg in Germany.
The Canadian research also found that the presence of realistic levels of a fungicide made the neonicotinoids twice as toxic to bees. “The effect of neonicotinoids on honey bees quickly turns from bad to worse when you add the fungicide boscalid to the mix,” said Prof Valérie Fournier, at Laval University in Canada and also part of the team. Pesticides are not tested in combination by regulators and Kerr said: “This study shows that mixtures matter.”
What are the fundamental principles behind organic gardening? We know about not using toxic chemicals, but in truth there is more, much more, to creating a resilient and healthy natural growing space.
Garden Organic is pleased to announce the publication of a new booklet which neatly summarises the five organic gardening principles. Feed the soil, encourage wildlife, use resources responsibly, avoid harmful chemicals and keep your growing area healthy. Based on over 60 years of research, the easy to read Principles explains the thinking behind each of the above.
The booklet aims to help you your own growing methods, so that you can progress along the journey towards becoming truly organic. Based on the original Organic Gardening Guidelines, it has helpful Do’s and Don’ts, plus new sections and beautiful illustrations. “This should be a best-seller,” writes one member. “It is packed with important information.”
The Principles of Organic Gardening can be downloaded free of charge from gardenorganic.org.uk/principles. Alternatively, we can send you a copy by post, all we ask is a suggested donation of £2.50 to cover postage and package. You can do this here, selecting ‘Donation for Principles of Organic Gardening’ from the drop down options.
Study shows almost all farms could significantly cut chemical use while producing as much food, in a major challenge to the billion-dollar pesticide industry. Virtually all farms could significantly cut their pesticide use while still producing as much food, according to a major new study. Click ‘Read more’ for the full article from the Guardian newsletter.
A question which has intrigued those on both sides of the organic fence. Instinctively, organic growers feel that their produce – grown without chemicals and using natural fertilisers – must be safer and more nutritious. We look at research which has been published in the past year, which reveals the difference between organic and conventional produce.
Gardeners are the natural stewards and protectors of our Earth, and how we garden has never been so important.
Biodynamic gardening methods provides a much needed catalyst for regeneration, which revitalizes soils, nurtures bees, provide safe havens for wildlife, and keep our precious bio-diversity alive.
The aim of biodynamics is to maximize the inherent vitality of our soils and gardens through its use of herbal compost and spray preparations, by harnessing the subtle cosmic forces of nature, building natural resilience with open pollinated seed, and by creating a garden full of harmonious life, which becomes self-sustaining .
Want to discover more? Packed with hands on practical advice, workshops and captivating lectures, our conference devotes itself to biodynamic approach to gardening, and how to take your organic gardening to a new level of holistic health.
The House of Commons Environmental Audit Committee has just released a damning report on UK Soil Health.
“…. some of the most productive agricultural land in the country is at risk of becoming unprofitable within a generation due to soil erosion” cites the report. “(Although) the Government says it will ensure that all soils are managed sustainably by 2030… our inquiry suggests that the Government’s actions do not match its ambition, and casts doubt on whether we are on track to achieve the 2030 goal.”
The report points out that “Soil, water and air are all essential to human life and society—but of these three, soil is often the forgotten component. Yet soil is crucial to agricultural production, climate change mitigation and adaptation, urban development, and flood risk management. Neglecting the health of our soil could lead to reduced food security, increased greenhouse gas emissions, greater flood risk, and damage to public health.”
Concerns over soil health include
Around 300,000 hectares of soil are thought to be affected by legacy contamination from the UK’s industrial past. However, local authority duties to clean up contaminated land are compromised by Defra withdrawing capital funding. This presents the real danger that contaminated sites are being left unidentified, with consequential public health impacts.
Soil is a massive carbon sink, storing three times as much carbon as the atmosphere. Soil carbon is particularly concentrated in peatlands. The UK’s arable soils have seen a worrying decline in carbon levels since 1978, with widespread and ongoing decline in peat soil carbon. At COP21 the Government signed up to a scheme to increase soil carbon levels by 0.4% per year. However, methods to increase soil carbon are not implemented to their full potential. The Government needs to set out specific, measureable and time-limited plans to meet the goal to increase soil carbon, as well as taking take tougher action to tackle land use practices which degrade peat, such as burning of blanket bogs.
The Government relies on ‘cross-compliance’ rules associated with farm payments to regulate agricultural soil health. However, the rules and their implementation are not sufficient to support the Government’s 2030 ambition to manage soil sustainably. Crucial elements of soil health, such as structure and biology, are not assessed at all. The rules are accompanied by a minimalistic inspection regime which Defra aims to reduce further. Moreover, the rules focus primarily on preventing further damage to soil, when an effective system would also focus on restoration and improvement of soil health.
The UK lacks an ongoing national-scale monitoring scheme for soil health. Many indicators of soil health change slowly, so it is appropriate to measure only every few years—but successive Governments have neglected to establish a rolling scheme to monitor soil health.
The Government has an ambitious goal to ensure that all soils are managed sustainably by 2030. The report claims that current policy does not put us on a trajectory to meet this goal. Further action is required to back up the Government’s laudable words on soil health. The Government should use its upcoming 25-year environment plan to propose policies to strengthen soil protection, so that policies are not focused merely on damage limitation but encourage restoration and improvement of soil quality & organic matter.