As the biggest consultation in a generation kicks off about the future of farming and in particular the new British Agricultural Policy, there is a need to include some hard thinking about how to balance the roles of farmers as “custodians of the countryside” with producers of food and, increasingly, energy.
Despite some notable achievements the question arises “how compatible is current intensive agricultural production with reduction in environmental impacts and what is the role for agri-tech in helping reach a suitable balance?”
A sustainable policy underpinned by science, good practice and sound procurement could give the industry the chance to evolve.
Now more than ever is a time for new thinking, as many scientists* are predicting that we only have 60 years of farming left at the current rates of soil degradation.
Recent developments in microbiology and genomics have provided a greater understanding of how to create and maintain soil fertility. Cultivation techniques are also an important element of this as the farm scale projects being conducted by NIAB as part of the Sustainable Intensification Research Platform (SIP) project 1 are demonstrating.
Technology is providing a new armoury to support farmers.
Precision agriculture technologies, crop protection using biology as well as traditional chemistry, and predictive crop modelling to reduce waste in the value chain are all major contributors to the agenda of “growing more, using less” and some of the most promising technologies will be discussed at our next event, where we have both technologists and farmers talking about what is new and their experiences in the field.
The role of farmers as ‘custodians of the countryside’ is also evolving. The species counting approach, which uses particular birds or mammals as indicators of the quality of biodiversity, has now transitioned to become a recognition that the environment provides valuable ‘ecosystem services’. These services include: fresh water, microbes that release nutrients from the soil and capture nitrogen, pollinators, natural predators and benevolent competitors to pathogens.
SIP is also looking at how these ecosystem services can be enhanced and farm productivity boosted. The role of cover crops, tillage regimes and timing of input are all being investigated in the field and already it has revealed some new approaches to measuring the environmental performance and linking this to improvements in farm productivity
Sustainable intensification is not an “either/or” decision between yield improvement and environmental management.
One of the big estate managers in our network believes that managing the field margins and wildlife strips is as important as managing the crop, and he invests equal effort into both.
We saw first-hand the potential benefits of this kind of approach on a recent visit to the Bayer research farm, just outside Cambridge. Field margins full of grasses, birds-foot-trefoil, teasel and clover mixes mean a ready supply of pollinating insects to support crop productivity. Ponds are a source of carnivorous insects that feed on pests and lead to reductions in insecticide use. All this around soils which are working hard to maximise crop production with careful targeted use of chemicals within a wider management regime.
Breaking through the yield plateaus need not – and indeed, should not – be without mindfulness of the environmental impact. And new innovations can help achieve that balance.
Underpin Policy with science
We hope that new British Agricultural Policy will maximise the potential of UK research in this area to ensure productivity, profitability and sustainability are not mutually exclusive.