Is it possible for the UK to ensure agricultural intensification is sustainable?

In an article published in the Guardian yesterday, the NFU called for more action to increase self-sufficiency in food production. Whilst they claimed that lack of support to UK farmers was a failure that should raise concerns about British food security and could even increase world poverty, this argument was heavily criticised by other groups. Charles Godfray, the director of the Oxford Martin Programme on the Future of Food says “self-sufficiency is a poor measure of key agricultural policies” and does not necessarily have much to do with food security, as was implied by the NFU president, Meurig Raymond.

In Karl Mathiesen’s live review of the evidence, in reaction to the statements from the NFU he concluded that “self-sufficiency measure is a dangerous one when used out of context to create the impression of a crisis”. Without disregarding the important points made about the need to eat more seasonally and locally, it should be acknowledged that in the UK we are oversupplied (with 33% of UK’s <18s overweight or obese, can we really claim to be short of food?) and food prices are stable – we would not have run out of food this week without imports.

The policy issues surrounding UK agriculture are contentious. Farmers would claim that they do more than any other group in the country to protect the environment but face continual challenges of extreme weather conditions and restrictions on pesticide use, for example. Others would say that intensification of agriculture has led to the demise of our countryside and wildlife. The EU Common Agricultural Policy (CAP), from which the basic structure of agricultural subsidies is created, is implemented across the EU, with each member state taking a different approach. The objectives of recent 2013 reforms have been to ensure farmer income stability, lower food prices and increase environmental gains. There has been intense debate about “greening” measures which would make the direct payments received by farmers more dependent on their ability to meet environmental criteria. Here in the UK, Defra have fought to limit CAP greening regulations.

Agri-environment schemes became compulsory in 1999, but they do not fit in well with the agricultural models of all member states. There is not total rigidity in CAP protocol, implementation and the amount of funding allocated to Pillar 2, which supports Rural Development Programs (as opposed to Pillar 1 which covers direct support payments to farmers) is decided my individual member states.

How is CAP implemented in other countries?

To see how our implementation of CAP regulations fair, let’s compare agricultural practices in the UK with that of the Netherlands, Although it’s a small country, the Netherlands is the world’s second biggest exporter of agricultural products in monetary terms. A UN report explains how this was achieved through governmental policy, innovation and technological research and arguably unsustainable intensification. Inputs including mineral fertilizer, manure, pesticides and energy, which rank among the highest in the world were increased from 1950-1980. It supplies a quarter of the vegetables that are exported from Europe. The main environmental problems that began to present themselves in the late sixties included increased ammonia concentrations in soils affecting acid depositions in forests, eutrophication of ground and surface waters air and pollution of air and water with agrochemicals such as pesticides. When the environmental implications were realised, restrictions were put in place. These restrictions were hard to implement due to high initial costs to farmers, and the Dutch government recognise they would have been much more effective if implemented earlier. The Netherlands will struggle to restore ecosystem functions that have been deteriorated; “Environmental guidelines have to be incorporated in farm policies and operations at a very early stage.” The Dutch government has now put efforts into agri-tech solutions to build more sustainability into its agricultural practices, as well as supporting the development of organic farming methods.

The agri-tech revolution: A UK strategy for agricultural technologies

After a consultation period in 2012, the government released this strategy aimed at “integrating [the UK’s] world class science base with agriculture.” They hope that Agricultural technology could halt the decline in the UK agriculture’s productivity by commercialising research so that farmers can benefit. The technology referred to is largely in the fields of genetics, agri-engineering (sensors, autonomous vehicles, robotics, precision agriculture) and crop/livestock health.

In their response to the 2012 Consultation, RSPB expressed concern that although safeguarding biodiversity is mentioned, it is not incorporated in many of the report’s aims. The word ‘sustainable’ is squeezed in – just before the word ‘intensification’ – early on in the 2013 report. There is, however, not much indication of how sustainability will be guaranteed. “Unsustainable systems of food production are themselves a long-term threat to food security” say the RSPB, “Intensification is unlikely to address the challenges of long term environmental sustainability in terms of reducing total direct and indirect greenhouse gas emissions, reactive nitrogen pollution or halting local and global biodiversity losses.” Furthermore, it is crucial that the impact of new technologies on biodiversity, for example biotechnologies,  are rigorously tested before wide scale implementation, to avoid the repeats of the neonicotinoid disaster. However, new research and technological advancements will be a key step in progressing from outdated farming methods that require large amounts of unnatural fertilisers and pesticides.

In the 2009 Making Space for Nature Report  states that “Agriculture has changed large areas of our landscape by ploughing, draining and fertilising what were semi-natural heaths, chalk grasslands and lowland wet grasslands.” In 2008, for instance 78% of Biodiversity Action Plan Habitats were degraded due to agriculture. Yet an EU survey found that over 85% of respondents across the EU are supportive of the new objectives for agriculture and rural development, including preserving the countryside and facing the consequences of climate change. Several organisations have collaborated on a report of what they think sustainable food security should look like.

The UK government seems all too tempted by the prospect of intensification and sensational remarks about the state of our food security won’t do much to help. There is a need to keep up with demands of the growing population. However if the issue of sustainability is not taken seriously, then, as the Dutch government have discovered, cleaning up the environmental mess further down the line would present a much bigger task.