Have we got the balance right
between protecting the
environment and producing food
Land Manager Mark Tinsley and the RSPB‟s Mark Avery respond.
Tell us what YOU think - post your comments at the bottom of the page.
Mark Tinsley, Land Manager
We do not have a coherent strategy for land use in the UK. Policy is ad hoc and
designed to achieve short-term political gain. It is reactive rather than pre-emptive and
the balance between environmental, social and commercial consideration is heavily
weighted in favour of the environment.
It is understandable why the environment was given priority, but social, commercial
and environmental positive outcomes are interdependent. If a policy neglects any of
these three influential factors, it is unlikely that medium and long-term strategic
objectives will be achieved for the others.
The UK countryside is widely admired because, for generations, commercial activity
has funded rural strategic stewardship. Not all that funding emanated from rural
commerce, but a significant proportion did. In the future UK consumers will decide
what outputs from the land they wish to pay for; whether they are food, energy,
resource protection, tourism, birds or whatever, should be a matter for ongoing
parliamentary debate and review.
We need an intelligent land use debate for the UK, looking ahead at least twenty five
years, and taking into account rising world populations, dietary change, water
shortage, climate change and political instability. Government, the major UK retailers
and NGOs are driving policy in a way that is damaging rural commercial activity in
the UK. If not changed, this will adversely affect the UK rural environment and
We need to decide rural policy based on a balanced perspective between
environmental, social and commercial influences. Much of the past environmental
damage at field level has either been reversed or is improving rapidly. However, we
continue to reduce our commercial competitiveness by allowing the environment to
dominate decision- making on issues such as Research and Development strategy.
Present Government policies will result in a continued decline in our food self
sufficiency. It is right to debate whether that is strategically sensible. Rebuilding a
home based food industry, if we allow it to wither, would be difficult and costly.
Mark Avery, Director of Conservation, RSPB
Agriculture policy is moving out of the dark days of scant environmental awareness,
but we‟re far from a positive environmental footprint.
In fact, I‟m not convinced, taking agriculture in isolation, that this is an achievable aim. We need to produce food, and until there are radical improvements in technology,
growing food will emit greenhouse gases, skew water and nutrient cycles and affect
ecosystems. This is not to suggest that great improvements can‟t be made - they can
and must. The RSPB‟s farm in Cambridgeshire has doubled its farmland bird
populations, against a national background of decline, without damaging profits or
I get more hopeful, however, when we stop talking about agriculture, and start talking
about land management. Land management can, and should, have a net positive
environmental gain. Productive agriculture is a vital part of that, but the key is to
recognise other land management objectives, which governments have, up to now,
failed to value sufficiently.
Take the uplands. In this 40% of the UK, agriculture is on its knees, causing
enormous distress to those involved. Our rescue package has been to shore up the
holes in Upland Farming plc‟s accounts with very small dollops of cash from agriculture funds. Result: declining production, communities and environmental
assets. But the uplands capture 70% of our drinking water, host charismatic wildlife
and stunning landscapes, and harbour the most extensive carbon store, peat, in the
country. A land management approach to the uplands, would secure a huge array of
assets. Upland Land Management plc‟s accounts would be very much in the black –
environmentally and economically.
The folly of recent bioenergy policy shows us what happens when we try to force
production to answer all the questions. We must include conserving and enhancing
wildlife, mitigating and adapting to climate change, managing water resources and
quality, and providing outdoor space for people‟s exercise and spiritual enrichment as
equal objectives, alongside production, in our land management policies. That is the
only way to gain the environmental riches we hunger for, and be able to feed
ourselves and our children, too.
48 Responses to “Have we got the balance right between
protecting the environment and producing food”
1. Hilary Benn Says:
March 6, 2008 at 5:13 pm
We all have a stake in the countryside and it‟s important that we all have a say
in its future. I am therefore delighted that RELU is launching this debate on
rural land use as part of its contribution to National Science Week.
As a society we need to take a fundamental look at how we use and value our
rural land and what sort of countryside we want future generations to inherit.
The rural environment provides us with a huge range of benefits: from food
production to health and wellbeing; from wildlife conservation to water and
flood management. It is also central to the challenge of climate change and has
a really important role to play in both mitigation and adaptation.
We therefore need a properly informed debate about how to get the best from
our land, based on the most up-to-date evidence. I believe that RELU has a
key role to play in this. In particular, we need to work towards a consensus on
how we can use land, not just for one purpose but to achieve multiple benefits
- for communities, for the environment and to meet our economic needs. There
are already many excellent examples of this, such as Community Forests and
work to restore our upland peat bogs. We need to learn lessons from this
practical experience and from what science and economics can tell us about
future land use trends and pressures. These are the issues which Defra‟s Land
Use Project is exploring, and I hope this debate will make a significant
contribution to that project and our thinking on the future of land, both urban
Hilary Benn, Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs
2. Iconoclast Says:
March 6, 2008 at 6:19 pm I‟d like to question the policy which puts thousands of decisions about
delivery of environmental services in the hands of only two people - the
farmer and the state official. Isn‟t it time that we involved rather more interests
in critical decisions about what habitat is recreated where, what land is
managed for flooding rather than arable crops, what land is restored to
saltmarsh to mitigate coastal flooding, what land is put back to grass to reduce
nitrate and phosphate losses from soil erosion, what peatland is restored to
sequester carbon, what land is converted to woodland for community access?
Why can‟t we have a land management policy which is delivered through
local communities rather than through one-to-one, state-to-farmer, agreements?
Why shouldn‟t the communities around farmed land have a voice - and a say?
After all, they will be just as knowledgeable about how land use has changed,
and about environmental risks and opportunities than farmers. Hence it could
be the „community land trust‟ (say) which receives an agri-environment
payment from Defra - which it then uses to purchase the environmental
services which the community wants from the farmers around it. It‟s still
voluntary, but it‟s not just a cosy discussion between a farmer and an Official
about what to do where. Let‟s get more people involved in how land is
managed for the public good.
3. Critical friend Says: March 6, 2008 at 6:36 pm Maybe there have been some recent environmental gains via agri-enviroment
schemes, but they come from a very very low base. We are never going to be
able to recreate the huge areas of chalk downland, heathland, wet grassland,
etc which were lost to „agricultural improvement‟ in the 1960s-80s. A few
skylark patches, a new hedgerow, a pond, and a blocked grip are not going to compensate me for the sight of ancient woodland being rooted up and ploughed for cereals in August 1981. Mark Avery is right to say that farming still has a long way to go. How to do it? The key is to help land managers to recognise and reduce the costs of the unwanted damage caused by insensitive farming (to soil, air, water, biodiversity, landscape, recreation opportunities) and at the same time to reward them for the valuable services which they (can) deliver (flood protection, carbon sequestration, biodiversity restoration, coastal protection via managed retreat, access for recreation and tourism and health, and so on). We need to „internalise the externalities‟ - both good and bad. And
we need to tackle both at the same time - at the moment costs are being imposed on society unchecked, and society is purchasing benefits piecemeal. We need to do this better.
4. Joe Bailey Says:
March 6, 2008 at 8:11 pm
I am not being anti SE but the rest of the country must have a different perspective on the use of land in their region. The North West Regional Strategy 2006 NWDA. See Page 42- item - Box 84.
I think there is an academic at Birmingham University who could comment on RDAs Policies.
Brown felid sites could be reforested as patchwork national park. If land on the green belt was allowed to be built on the price of greenbelt land could be three times as it is priced. This could pay for the work on the brownfield sites which would be left to go back to nature. All new builds on green field sites would have to be built to the highest environmental standards.
5. Joe Bailey Says:
March 6, 2008 at 8:16 pm
The BBC debates the provision of a servant class of person in the countryside. That is the low paid working people to keep the countryside ticking over. It is never clear who has second homes. Do the BBC people have second homes? Live in a congested town? Do the politicians?
Save the countryside? The return of the agricultural labourer? Where will he live?
Who lives in the country or lives in the towns. Those who wish to defend the countryside should make statements of interest before commentating.
Surely all statements should start with the statement. “I have given up living
the countryside to protect the Countryside from being spoiled.” Now for my
6. Agnostic Says:
March 7, 2008 at 8:08 am Is it really simply a question of „balancing‟ the aims of „protecting the environment and producing food‟? Shouldn‟t we put this debate into the
„ecosystem services‟ framework, and recognise that we need to manage land
to deliver a very wide range of services of which „producing food‟ is only one?
Hence holding and releasing water (managing floods), sequestering carbon,
enhancing biodiversity, filtering rainwater, providing aesthetic beauty, and
creating recreational opportunities, should be valued in their own right - and
maybe often more highly - than simply producing food. And NB we have to
go far beyond simply „protecting‟ the environment. We need to actively
restore the quality of water and soil, and the diversity and abundance of
species and habitats. The idea that farming should be allowed free reign just so
long as it meets some bare minimum standards of „protection‟ is not the right
mindset. Some farmers do recognise that farming is about more than kg/ha of
meat and grain. Let‟s mainstream that view - helping land managers to deliver
the full range of ecosystem services from land (and using public money to
reward them for doing so where the market does not already do so).
7. David Gibbon Says: March 7, 2008 at 9:01 am If this is to be a realistic debate, all the stakeholders in land and its associated
resources need to be involved. It is not likely that this will happen with this
format so related public meetings are crucial if the debate is to have any
meaning and value. We need to make a special effort to include farmers voices
and views ( both small and large, organic and non organic) in the discussion.
The key question is rather simplistic and needs widening, as the initial
contributors have done so already. The experience of other countries in Europe
of managing the multifunctionality of land-based resources needs to be learned
from as many have a long history of considering agriculture as one component
of multifacited and multigenerational livelihood systems.
8. Wyndham Rogers- Coltman Says:
March 7, 2008 at 9:58 am It seems to me that the range of this debate is far too limited. The real problem
is surely that the supply of food is going to be restricted in the future by an
excess of demand over supply. As with energy high prices will have severe
social and political consequences. Neither Europe nor the UK has a food
supply strategy at present. This was once a pillar of the policy of the founding
fathers of European Union. The tragedy is that the poor undeveloped nations
of the world will suffer the consequences of starvation first as we are seeing in
Africa currently. The consequences of food shortages are hard to imagine for
those in the current and second generation but are well remembered by the
third generation who grew up with rationing and state control of virtually all
food production. There is no reason why these times of shortage should not
return. Weak government has led to restrictions on scientific advance in food
production. Many of our potential problems could be delayed, if not solved, by
the application of already well developed scientific techniques. Genetical
modification is probably the most immediate technical advance from which
food production (and the environment through the production of
biodegradable plastic substitutes) could benefit. There are many other
technical and scientific advances in the pipe line. It is not like Newcastle
University, with whom I have had a long association through their agricultural
society, to be trying to solve past problems but this is what you are in danger
of doing in this debate.
9. Town-dweller Says:
March 7, 2008 at 11:28 am Wyndham makes a good point. Wouldn‟t it be much better, for example, to
supply all our vegetable and salad needs from glasshouse production. We
could control the environment (soil quality, pests, etc) far more easily,
minimising wastage of fertilisers and pesticides. We could make hugely more
efficient use of irrigation water - which would increase water supply for
wetlands, and to meet the needs of growing communities (especially in the
SE). OK, we‟d have to heat the glasshouses but sensible planning would
enable us to use heat from waste incinerators and other processes, and or from
biomass. Has nyone modelled how much land we could thereby free up for
other public needs and for wetlands and habitat restoration? Maybe we could
re-wet the peat soils of East Anglia to develop their carbon storage function?
And yes, if we used GM-varieties in glasshouses we would minimise the risks
which others perceive from growing them in the wild. We need to think much
more radically here.
10. Just A Simple Link to the Humble Plant Says:
March 7, 2008 at 2:44 pm I am on the demand side of the agricultural economy. W consumers need to
know the language in order to understand the business, which can puzzle the
inquisitive. Words like “Food-Chain” are imparted to some in education, but
are perhaps rarely understood even in the classroom context. We are „fettered‟
by our lack of true understanding - like „the old woman who swallowed a
spider‟ whose story might be given far more learning time because it contains
a more profound insight, even though both result in the same end. Who
invented the “Food-Chain” concept, and for what purpose? I know people who like food for thought, and people who think we become what we eat, and even
those who think we are what we eat: but the “Food-Chain” concept seems to
refute all of these notions. The “Food-Chain” concept gives each living
creature two identities which confer rank: (1) according to its appetite to
devour another, and (2) according to its palatability to another. It has more to do with convention than nutrition or sustainable production. I think it odd that it is blindly accepted as a fact of life by such a knowledgeable society as our own, without any critical appraisal of its ethics by the economic community. Personally, I would like to opt out of that sort of pecking order altogether. Could we not start talking about a “Food-Base”? At least we could then
calculate the most economical use of the required and available units per capita, for people and animals alike. We could promote vertical superiority to foodstuffs which could be piled up in simple stores for the longest time without losing any nutritional value nor gaining toxicity. Or to those which have the highest yield with either least work and investment or most healthy intervention to cultivate. (Or is that too topsyturvy?) We might then begin to recognise fertile ground as a valuable commodity, to be purchased for posterity as much as financial gain, and even as a right to life (for creatures of other species who we would like to survive, as well as our own families and fellow humans). I wish that I could more effectively demand that the food I require to eat be produced by farmers in the UK. Instead, along with all of those other pests struggling to survive in both urban and rural Britain, my voice is easily dismissed as background interference and noise to be silenced.
11. adrianskilling Says:
March 7, 2008 at 3:27 pm
I think its simplistic to say preserve the environment vs farm on it. Approaches such as organic farming do some of both. Even better are sustainable approaches to farming with perennial crops and can support much greater wildlife, think fruit or nut Orchards and other agriforestry approaches which combine crops with livestock. A lot of these approaches need further research, organic farming gets only about 2% of goverment funding compared to GM (see http://www.i-sis.org.uk/dirty_GM_secrets.php). These „radical‟ low-tech
approaches need goverment support.
12. robin pershore Says:
March 7, 2008 at 3:45 pm
we can have a land management policy that is good for people and wildlfe and dealing with climate chaos; but it means encouraging people to get close to the land. our current planning policy totally fails here and instead prices people who want to care for land right out of the market. this has to change. we must gear rural policy to support people who want to grow food in sustainable ways, for local consumption, and to increase tree cover for recreation and wildlfe and energy reasons. we cant go on importing apples from new zealand for ever, nor should we. local food and energy production means less food miles, renewable electricity, and people who live and work in the country who can ensure our environment is cared for. subsidy needs urgent redirection to these areas.
13. Jenny Hall Says:
March 7, 2008 at 4:37 pm
Simon Fairlie has already done the figures to work out how Britain can feed
itself within six scenarios (1) Livestock chemical (2) Vegan Chemical (3)
Livestock ORganic (4) Vegan Organic (5) Livestock Permaculture (6) Vegan
Permaculture available at http://transitionculture.org/2007/12/20/can-britain-feed-itself
The scenarios may appear under different names but essentially the difference
between organic and permaculture is that “organic” happens on specialist
commercial units and so requires inputs (and associated fossil fuels) and the
“permaculture” scenarios are more in line with closed biological cycles
including the recycling of all organic wastes to agriculture. On a crude
estimation the vegan permaculture scenario seemed to be producing half the
greenhouse gas emissions for feeding people a healthy diet (than livestock
permaculture which was also recommending a reduction in meat consumption)
with the widespread consumption of fruit and vegetables seeming the most
important element in line with health policy.
Within the article there are several criticisms of the “vegan approach”
however I have made a lengthy reply to this which will appear in the next
edition of “The Land”. I have done this under the concept of “stockfree
fertility” that is closed biological cycles using green manures, composts,
mulches and chipped branch wood. These require serious consideration. At
present we are recommending that arable land should be 40% in 2 year green
manures (like red clover) which are amazing carbon sinks and wildlife habitats
if mown sensitively. Also we recommend that the growing of trees including
crop trees needs to be integrated into the annual growing of crops.
According to Chris Goodall our CO2 million tonnes equivalent emissions
from our food production (excluding food grown overseas for consumption in
the UK) is
Fertiliser manufacture and transport – 9 Methane from animals and slurry – 19 Methane from tilling and soil management practices - 4
Oxidisation of carbon from tillage – 13 CO2 from farm operations 6
Fertiliser use generating nitrous oxide 27
Road transport in the UK – 7 Road / sea transport outside the UK – 7 Air freight – 2
Food and drink manufacturing process – 11
Manufacture of packaging – 10 Operation of retail stores – 4 Consumers driving to shops – 3 Landfill gas from rotting food – methane and carbon dioxide – 13
Landfill gas from rotting packaging methane and carbon dioxide – 4
I believe that these could be cut by 60% in a decade if with switched to
biological sources of soil fertility i.e. green manures and their seeds can also
be a saleable crop making it commercially feasible. Fertility from green
manures is the only chance for a carbon sequestering agricultural sector.
Within the article I have written there are elaborate calculations for land use
and these can be summarised as
7.2 million hectares arable including 40% 2 year green manures
10 million hectares of woodland for all needs.
1 million hectares - Fruit berries and nuts. These are a really important
consideration especially if sea levels rise. Most of our best arable /
horticultural lands are in low lying areas and so we should take the
„precautionary principle‟ and plant food trees and bushes over rearing grazing
animals. Bushes are also a fantastic habitat for birds.
3.8 million hectares - Managed wildlife conservation including pasture and
14. Peter Lundgren Says:
March 7, 2008 at 9:16 pm
In my opinion it will be biofuels that will have the greatest impact on the
balance between food production and enviromnent.
The impact will be most noticeable as a huge price hike in the raw material
needed for fuel production – but the same raw materials are needed for
livestock production. Arable farmers are enjoying a very welcome bonus but
livestock farmers will find it difficult to survive – especially pig and poultry
producers. Many will be forced out of business leaving those remaining to
become more efficient – which has implications for animal welfare and rural
EU ministers have recognised the threat of rising grain prices and have moved
to curb the price increases by suspending setaside and increasing the area of
land available for cropping. And yet setaside, whilst loathed by the majority of
arable farmers, has benefited wildlife. I believe its irresponsible for EU
ministers to reduce setaside without putting in place proper safeguards – and
its irresponsible of farmers‟ leaders to gamble the reputation of farmers as
custodians of the countryside whilst assuring government that farmers can
increase production and maintain environmental benefits.
Biofuels will drive a change in cropping as farmers increase the area of
profitable winter sown wheat and oilseed rape and reduce the area of spring-
sown crops and fallow. This will lead to a „bi-culture‟ of wheat and rape,
further intensification, a loss of diversity, loss of habitat, and less opportunity
for wildlife to share our farmland.
Those landowners currently in environmental schemes will try to opt out as
they see those outside the schemes enjoying increased income from their crops
and an increase in the value of their farmland
We will also see a fundamental change in attitude towards farm management. In the past decade farmers, struggling to survive, have concentrated on trying to ensure a positive gross margin. However, as prices increase, farmers will become driven by yield rather that gross margin.
Doesn‟t sound significant but in practice the impact on the countryside and the environment will be huge.
When farmers concentrate on gross margin sometimes the „doing nothing‟ option has produced the best gross margin. But when farmers concentrate on yield they will be willing and able to use expensive technology and agrochemicals to drive up yields confident that any yield increase will cover the cost.
As land prices increase on the back of increased profits then every piece of land will be pushed into production. Its no coincidence that the last time we saw this yield driven attitude to farm management gain prevalence it was coincided with the height of the hedge row removal, drainage of wetlands and the loss of habitats.
This led to the public losing confidence in farmers as guardians of the countryside. Its taken 20 odd years to get that confidence back but I now believe that the drivers are in place to create another Hughie Batchelor – for
those of you who do not remember Mr Batchelor, he farmed in Kent and came notorious for removing tress and hedges. He was jailed for his activities and came to epitomise in the public conscience the arrogance of farmers in the 70s and 80s.
Looking further into the future I see the growing affluence of arable farmers demonstrating itself in arrogance with a corresponding loss of the publics‟ confidence in farmers‟ suitability as custodians of the countryside, and a corresponding loss of public sympathy.
We farmers endanger public sympathy at our cost. If we‟ve learnt anything
from the past decade of low prices, it‟s that our only defence against supermarket dominance and incompetent government is public sympathy. But we are farmers are trying to address these demands in a policy vacuum. Policy is reactive when it should be proactive. We are all so busy fire-fighting that no-one has the time or opportunity to look into the future and try to pre-empt future events
It seems to me that what is needed is a new approach to developing policy that takes into account the wider implications of a given policy on farmers and the environment - locally, nationally, and globally.
Too many of those charged with developing domestic agricultural policies are representing their own speciality or their own financial interests. Or are