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ELMS: It’s time for Defra to go back to the drawing board, and listen to the science

Matt Ridley

March 2024

Science for Sustainable Agriculture

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In the first of a series of essays examining the impact of farming innovations on food production and the environment, science writer, author and farmer Matt Ridley argues that the UK Government is squandering opportunities to accelerate the adoption of yield-boosting advances on Britain’s farms which could increase food production while freeing up land for nature. In pursuing a land-sharing approach to farm policy, Defra Ministers are failing to heed their own scientific advice, let alone the accumulating body of scientific evidence which supports a land-sparing approach as the most effective policy option to produce enough food while leaving room for nature, biodiversity and climate action.


In his own inimitable style, farming icon Jeremy Clarkson has become the latest high-profile figure to criticise the UK Government’s failure to recognise the importance of food production in its environmental land management scheme (ELMS). 


“Why would the British government decide to reduce a farmer’s income and introduce mass starvation?” he wrote recently in The Sunday Times.


Mr Clarkson also bemoaned the unfathomable complexity of the myriad of land management options under ELMS. “Looking at all the government initiatives and schemes and acronyms is like reading the old cosine book I had at school or trying to work out what a slide rule is for.”


And the nightmarish forms that need filling out to comply: “It’s horror-film impenetrable. Remember what it was like trying to put the tape back in a 90-minute cassette? Well, imagine being in a room where a billion of them have become unspooled. It’s that.”    


But shockingly, these criticisms of the Government’s post-CAP farming policies are not confined to disgruntled farming commentators like Jeremy Clarkson. As pro-innovation think-tank Science for Sustainable Agriculture (SSA) pointed out earlier this week, even the Government’s own scientific advice is now ringing alarm bells about the impact of ELMS on our ability to feed ourselves, and the environmental consequences. 


Following an analysis of research which was commissioned by Defra to ensure that its ELMS policies reflect ‘the very latest and best possible evidence’, SSA has raised concerns that Defra Ministers are failing to follow even their own science in the development of ELMS, let alone take account of the accumulating body of scientific evidence which supports a land-sparing approach as the most effective policy option to produce enough food while leaving room for nature, biodiversity and climate action.


A Defra farming blog described the recently published Qualitative Environmental Impact Assessment (QEIA), a £0.5m multi-partner project led by the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology (CEH), as an important source of evidence to ensure the Government’s ELMS policies provide value for money and support the delivery of environmental targets and climate commitments, while maintaining food production and supporting resilient rural communities.    


But closer inspection reveals that the QEIA report – a review of the current evidence base for 741 land management actions by ten teams involving 45 experts from the independent research community - highlights a host of unknown risks and uncertainties with a land-sharing approach, and clearly identifies multiple red flags in terms of potential risks to food production and the environment.


Some measures could even impact food production negatively on farmland outside the ELMS scheme. For example, the report states that “literature shows that connectivity is complex, and can also have disbenefits. For example, new corridors may allow pathogens to spread”.  


Most significantly, however, the report identifies a high risk of displacement of food production as a result of yield-reducing ELMS options, with unknown effects on either domestic food security or the environment.


For action after action, the Defra-funded report indicates that achieving environmental benefits in land managed under ELMS actions can be expected to be offset by potentially more significant disbenefits elsewhere – both in terms of environmental and food production impacts. In simple terms, it recognises that land under the ELMS will be less productive, which will require the missing food to be produced on other land, including in other countries, which could result in overall worse outcomes for the food production, climate and the environment. 


This aligns with the findings of leading conservation scientists such as Professors Andrew Balmford and Rhys Green of the University of Cambridge, whose extensive research has shown that the localised environmental benefits associated with land-sharing measures, such as reducing the use of pesticide and fertiliser inputs and creating small-scale habitats and woodland, risk exacerbating problems of biodiversity loss and environmental degradation on an even a greater scale elsewhere.


Echoing Jeremy Clarkson’s frustrations, the QEIA report also highlights the enormous complexities and uncertainties associated with a land-sharing approach.  For example, the report comments on “the need for more widespread advice and guidance to be made available to land managers as many actions have contextual dependencies and/or need to be done according to best practice.” 


But is it credible to anticipate widespread advice and guidance to be made available to land managers on contextual dependencies and best practice, when the report covers almost 40,000 interactions, when most are expressed as uncertainties rather than clear guidance, and when the report acknowledges that most external experts were unable to review the assessments due to its complexity?


Indeed, parts of the report are simply farcical, conjuring up a mental image of civil servants in ‘Yes Minister’ contorting their language so as not to expose the glaringly obvious. Consider this passage from the QIEA report on ‘plans’:  


“IV. The team recognised the importance of creating appropriate plans which were included in the action list from Defra (e.g. the action ‘Create a Woodland Plan’) but it was also recognised that not all plans lead to action and therefore the score for these actions in the IA are always scored ‘Green’ but contextually dependent ‘T’ as outcomes depend on the plan being implemented. Linked actions should always accompany the creation of such plans.”


One could organically fertilise crops with this kind of material...


But seriously, as Dr Derrick Wilkinson, a former chief economist at both the NFU and CLA has observed: “That such potential effects on domestic food production and security have not been given due attention amounts, in my view, to an appalling dereliction of duty by Defra.”


The UK government should have a strategy for allowing farmers to enhance their competitiveness by increasing yields and cutting costs through innovation. It should also have a strategy for releasing land from farming and returning it to nature. And it should look for, and facilitate investment in, innovations that specifically improve the environment.


For the human race to live alongside rich and diverse wild ecosystems, there are essentially two options: land-sharing and land-sparing. Land-sharing, which forms the basis for the current approach taken under ELMS, means farming the countryside in such a way that crops and pastures are full of wild species – flowers, insects, birds and mammals. This is roughly the way medieval land-use operated, with fields full of ‘weeds’ and ‘pests’.  By definition, such a farming system must have a lower yield per hectare, because some of the sun’s energy, as well as soil nutrients and water, are going into the weeds and pests and not into human food. Therefore, the drawback of land sharing is that it requires more land.


Land-sparing means growing crops so successfully that less land is needed to feed a given number of people, to the point where some land can be released from agriculture and returned to a state of nature, or ‘rewilded’. A patchwork of productive fields lies alongside a network of nature reserves, or patches and strips of land devoted to wildlife.


Globally, the result of changes in farming practice in the half century between 1960 and 2010 was that roughly 68 per cent less land was needed to produce a given quantity of food (Ausubel et al. 2013). Thus, more than twice as many people were fed from a similar area of land. Had yields not increased, pressure on wild lands would have become intolerable – or high food prices and mass starvation would have occurred.


Of course, one concern is that land sparing with high-productivity farming would have other environmental drawbacks. However, as previously mentioned, in a comprehensive study of the effect of land sparing, led by Cambridge University scientists, but including 17 organisations around the world, Balmford et al. (2018) concluded that more intensive agriculture that uses less land may also produce fewer pollutants, cause less soil loss and consume less water. They found that inorganic nitrogen boosted yields with little to no greenhouse gas ‘penalty’ and lower water use per tonne of rice. They also found that organic dairy farms caused at least one third more soil loss, and take up twice as much land, as conventional dairy farming for the same amount of milk produced.


"These results add to the evidence that sparing natural habitats by using high-yield farming to produce food is the least bad way forward", said Professor Andrew Balmford.


It is, indeed, time for Defra to go back to the drawing board, and listen to the science.


Matt Ridley is the author of numerous books on science. He has been a journalist and a businessman and served for nine years in the House of Lords. He lives on a farm in Northumberland.

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