29 September 2022 – for immediate release
Pro-science think-tank urges Defra to put evidence and data at the heart of farm policy review
To deliver the best outcomes for food security, the environment and the climate, Science for Sustainable Agriculture is urging Defra Ministers to restore the strategic policy focus on sustainable intensification in UK agriculture, underpinned by science-based metrics, and with a clear focus on genetic innovation as the main driver of agricultural productivity.
As part of the Government’s Growth Plan, Defra Ministers under the new administration are set to review current frameworks for regulation, innovation and investment in the agriculture and land use sectors. Importantly, the review will include looking at how best to deliver the Environmental Land Management Schemes (ELMS) to ensure “policies are best placed to both boost food production and protect the environment.”
Science for Sustainable Agriculture (SSA), which brings together a high-level grouping of political, scientific and industry leaders, is urging Ministers to use the review as an opportunity to ensure that scientific rigour and evidence lie at the heart of our food and farming policies, and that British agriculture embraces technology and innovation to increase its food production capacity in the face of heightened food security concerns, while at the same time mitigating and adapting to climate change, enhancing biodiversity and environmental outcomes, and conserving precious natural resources.
In its launch prospectus presented to former Defra Minister Victoria Prentis MP in May 2022, Science for Sustainable Agriculture warned of a policy drift towards lower-yielding farming systems, and even ‘re-wilding’ of productive farmland, as the Government ignored the outputs of its own four-year research programme into sustainable intensification, and while policy development – including the Environmental Land Management Schemes (ELMS) – was overly reliant on campaigning and voluntary NGOs.
The SSA report noted that the recommendations of Professor Sir John Beddington’s Foresight report on The Future of Food and Farming remain as urgent and relevant today as when issued more than 11 years ago, and the policy group has reiterated its call on Ministers to:
Restore the strategic policy focus on sustainable intensification in UK agriculture - using scientific knowledge and innovation to help optimise the balance between food production, resource use and environmental impact, and re-focusing on the outputs of the four year, Defra-funded Sustainable Intensification Research Programme (SIP);
Adopt meaningful, science-based metrics for sustainable agriculture as a critical evidence-base to drive best practice at farm level and frame the policy, R&D and regulatory agenda, focused on measuring resource use and environmental impact per functional unit of output, and building on the metrics and sustainability indicator work already funded by Defra as part of the SIP programme;
Recognise the importance of genetic innovation, in both crops and livestock, as the single main driver of productivity gains in agriculture, by moving further and faster to make UK regulation of new genetic technologies in agriculture more proportionate and enabling, by establishing a long-term, strategic Crop Genetic Innovation Research Fund in response to Professor Jane Langdale’s 2021 review of UK plant science for UKRI, which warned that major opportunities to translate early-stage genetic discoveries from lab to field are being lost, and by reviewing the case for similar action in relation to livestock genetics and breeding.
The SSA policy group has also highlighted the urgent need for a coherent land use strategy – providing a science-based assessment of competing demands and priorities on our limited land resources – to precede the policy options being developed by Defra under the Environmental Land Management schemes (ELMS), whether in terms of low-input farming, local nature conservation or landscape recovery.
The SSA report pointed to peer-reviewed research conducted over 10 years across a range of farming systems, led by UK conservation scientist Professor Andrew Balmford, which concluded that the most effective way to keep pace with increasing human demands for food while protecting habitats and preventing further biodiversity loss is through high-tech, high-yield production on land that is already farmed, mirrored by explicit policy measures to make sure other land is set-aside for nature and/or carbon sequestration.
Drawing on this work in a UK context, the SSA report endorsed Professor Balmford’s creative vision of a three-compartment model for land use — allowing room for a combination of managed and natural habitat, low-intensity farming and high-yield, high-tech farming — as an evidence-based approach to sustainable intensification which, if properly implemented, could deliver a more sustainable balance in terms of food production, environmental protection and climate impact.
Based on a detailed analysis of two regions of England (The Fens and Salisbury Plain), agricultural economist Graham Brookes recently suggested that an allocation of land of about 60% in high yielding/intensity farming, 25% as managed and natural habitat (no agriculture) and 15% in low intensity/yielding, extensive farming might be appropriate for the country as a whole.
His fellow SSA advisory group member, Norfolk arable farmer David Hill, emphasised the importance of having a science-based assessment of future land use allocations, before too much of our productive land is consigned to re-wilding, tree planting or low-yield farming systems, and before too much public money is designated to reward less productive farming systems when the scientific evidence tells us to focus on high yield farming.
Science for Sustainable Agriculture has urged Ministers to take these evidence-based recommendations and considerations into account as part of the policy review.
Notes to Editors
Science for Sustainable Agriculture (SSA) is a new policy and communications platform, offering a focal point for information, comment and debate around modern, sustainable agriculture and food production. Supported by an independent advisory group of political, scientific and industry leaders from a range of sectors and backgrounds (listed below), SSA’s aim is to promote a conversation rooted in scientific evidence, rather than ideology. Science for Sustainable Agriculture will provide a platform for like-minded individuals and organisations to champion and explain the vital role of science and technology in safeguarding our food supply, tackling climate change and protecting the natural environment. SSA also stands ready to expose, comment on and challenge unscientific positions or policy decisions in relation to sustainable agriculture.
Further information about Science for Sustainable Agriculture is available here.
Advisory Group members
Matt Ridley – science writer and farmer
Professor Tina Barsby – plant scientist
Dr Julian Little – science communicator
Graham Brookes – agricultural economist
Lord Rooker - politician
Professor Helen Sang – livestock scientist
Helen Munday – food industry scientist
Dr Helen Ferrier – scientific and regulatory affairs adviser
Dr Craig Lewis – livestock breeder
David Hill – arable farmer
Paul Temple – mixed farmer
Professor Johnathan Napier – plant scientist
Julian Sturdy MP – politician and farmer
Alex Waugh – primary food processing
Dr Alastair Leake – agronomist and conservation scientist
Karen Holt – regulatory consultant
Nigel Moore – plant breeding
Daniel Pearsall – co-ordinator
Daniel Pearsall, co-ordinator
M: 07770 875455