5 July 2023 – for immediate release
Pro-science think-tank urges NGOs to ‘come clean’ on £4.4bn farm budget report
NGO-led report calls for £4.4bn budget to support ‘farming’, but at least half would be spent on taking 25% of currently farmed land out of production
Top scientists say this ‘land-sparing’ approach is best for nature, but requires corresponding yield increases elsewhere to maintain food production and avoid exporting food system impacts
Science for Sustainable Agriculture calls on NGOs to come clean on the need for high-tech, high-yield farming to meet future food security, climate and biodiversity goals
Says report should inform a radical rethink of the funding and direction of England’s Environmental Land Management Scheme (ELMs), much of which is currently focused on encouraging lower-yield farming systems
The policy group Science for Sustainable Agriculture, bringing together a high-level group of political, scientific and industry leaders, has called on environmental NGOs to ‘come clean’ on the findings of a recent report into future levels of agricultural support, and to recognise the need for high-tech, high-yield farming to meet future food security, climate and biodiversity goals.
Far from advocating £4.4bn for nature- and climate-friendly farming, as was claimed by the NGOs, the new report commissioned by the RSPB, National Trust and Wildlife Trusts actually recommends that at least half the farm support budget should be allocated to the creation or restoration of woodland, wetland and semi-natural grassland on 25% of currently farmed land by 2050.
This represents considerably greater levels of land use change than in previous models, which the report’s authors explain have been updated to reflect the need to deliver a net zero land use sector by 2050.
As such the report, from a group of influential NGOs more usually associated with support for agri-environment schemes, or ‘land-sharing’, appears more aligned with the contrasting ‘land-sparing’ policies advocated by leading conservation scientists, including Professor Andrew Balmford at the University of Cambridge.
His group’s long-term field studies across five continents, covering more than 2,000 species of bird, plant and insect, show that, for the same overall food output, high yield farming combined with land-sparing results in larger populations of most wild species than all other policy approaches.
Other research has shown that adopting a land-sparing approach in the UK would cost the taxpayer half as much as land-sharing to provide the same biodiversity benefits, while also delivering significantly greater co-benefits, such as the removal and storage of greenhouse gases.
Importantly, land-sparing requires a corresponding increase in food production on the remaining farmland, otherwise, as Professor Balmford and environmental economist Professor Ian Bateman warned recently in Nature, an increased requirement for food imports could mean even greater harm to biodiversity, climate impact and environmental degradation elsewhere.
This NGO-led report should therefore inform a fundamental rethink of the funding and direction of England’s Environmental Land Management Scheme (ELMs), much of which is currently focused on rewarding lower-yielding farming systems. In particular, greater emphasis is needed on encouraging the high-tech, low-impact farming technologies and practices which will help deliver high-yield food production on a smaller footprint, while also meeting the UK Government’s Food Strategy commitment to maintain current levels of domestic food production.
Worryingly, however, the NGO report includes the following disclaimer: "It should be noted that the modelled changes are calculated by Finch et al as those required to meet net zero ambitions for the land use sector and should not be taken as representing the policy positions of the organisations commissioning this study."
In other words, we’ll cherry-pick the bits we like and distance ourselves from those we don’t.
But the food security stakes are too high for the NGOs behind this report, as well as policymakers taking decisions about the future use of agricultural land, to ignore its implications. We cannot spare productive farmland to deliver on climate and biodiversity goals without also encouraging yield increases elsewhere. If 25% of currently farmed land is taken out of production, it must be met with a corresponding increase in food production on the remaining farmland, not by continuing to advocate the expansion of lower-yielding farming practices.
The report, entitled ‘An assessment of the financial resources needed for environmental land management in the UK’, commissioned by the RSPB, the National Trust and The Wildlife Trusts, is available to download here.