Taking a holistic approach to food production

Today see’s the publication of a major new report on food and farming in the UK, called ‘Square Meal’, by ten organisations, including the National Trust. Rural Enterprises Director at the Trust, Patrick Begg (http://twitter.com/NT_Pat), takes a look at the focus of the report and the challenges ahead.

“The last week has been one of soaring highs and depressing lows.

First, was the most inspiring of visits to Knepp Castle Estate near Horsham in West Sussex, where Charlie Burrell has been re-inventing a thriving, lowland estate. His 2,000 acres has gone, in just over a decade, from a scoured, arable/dairy financial black hole, to a landscape dripping with natural health and economic possibilities.

This was followed by the House of Commons debate on implementing the Common Agriculture Policy (CAP) in the UK. It was a dispiriting and familiar trip around the threats to agriculture from administrative burdens and regulatory hurdles to the reinforcement of apparent entitlements to cash. These are issues, of course, and they do need to be dealt with.

But there’s a need for a much bigger debate and for thinking that breaks free from the bureaucratic and self-interested doldrums. We need to look beyond CAP and to address the constraints that farming’s dependency on it has created.

So we’ve been delighted to come together with a range of organisations to kick start the debate. The ‘Square Meal’ report , published today, sets out the scale of the challenges around food, nature, environmental protection, farming livelihoods, diet and health and challenges the political parties to rise to these in framing their manifestos for the forthcoming election.

There are a range of specific policy responses which we believe are critical to future progress. These include: ensuring public procurement leads in the purchasing of sustainably produced food; stopping using ‘production efficiency’ as the key metric for success; and making a much more effective and concrete response to the call for ‘bigger, better, more joined up’ habitats which Prof John Lawton enshrined in his vital report on the future of nature.

We’re also asking for much more leadership from Government. Without this, it’s hard to see how the big leaps we need can be made. We want a long term vision in place that blends the farming, food, environmental and social sectors much more coherently and we need Government to address market failures and to reward those delivering public benefit complemented by a properly embedded ‘polluter pays’ principle. We hope the ‘Square Meal’ report will kick-start this conversation.”

CAP and future proofing farming

National Trust Rural Enterprises Director, Patrick Begg, reflects on the announcement today by the Government on how its carving up funds from the Common Agricultural Policy:

I wonder in life if there’s always a slightly misplaced sense of relief whenever dodging a metaphorical bullet?  Perhaps that’s why the announcements today on England’s Common Agricultural Policy settlement has solicited an initial huge sigh of relief followed by a more reflective, at least in me, air of disquiet about the general direction of travel.  

It’s refreshing that DEFRA has battled hard to bolster support for agri-environment schemes and the promised staged move from 12% to 15% of funds transferred from Pillar 1 to Pillar 2 (if delivered) will be a positive move [1].  Also, the emerging design of the new green farming schemes looks progressive and in many ways enlightened.  In fact, there’s a sense that the concept of fundamental environmental protection and enhancement lying at the heart of the future of a sustainable farming system has retained and even strengthened its currency in DEFRA.  Owen Paterson has stuck to his mantra of “public goods for public money.”

But if you delve deeper the Government’s core focus on the short term growth agenda in the countryside at the cost of long term viability of farming is still a major concern.  The late interventions from the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills and the Treasury to try and divert vital funds within Pillar 2 away from  farming that benefits nature to Local Enterprise Partnerships-led rural growth schemes confirms this persistent threat.  And make no bones about it, in real terms, over the course of the next 7 years, there will be less cash available to encourage the style of farming that safeguards and nurtures soils, water and wildlife and delivers real public benefit for the investment of huge sums of public money.  We cannot be pleased with that overarching truth.

No-one can disagree that environmental quality is the fundamental building block of a healthy and resilient countryside and that it lies at the heart of farming’s future.  Likewise, sustaining and increasing public support for farming and its role in delivering a rich and beautiful landscape must be critical.  Yet every indicator tells us that England’s natural environment is under pressure and in decline like never before.  We also know that people have become disconnected from the natural world and the outdoors at an alarming rate.  

Without well-resourced and robust long term plans for improving the quality of the environment, it’s hard to see how farming’s future, and the sense of instinctive public support that it enjoys, can be secured.  DEFRA needs to continue to fight, make and win the case for a broader and deeper commitment to future-proofing farming and securing its environmental foundations, whether through direct or indirect subsidies.

Notes:

[1] Pillar 1 is made up of direct subsidies that go to farmers and Pillar 2 consists of money from the Rural Development Programme which supports schemes to improve the farmed environment, boost rural economies and improve competitiveness.

National Trust reaction to Common Agricultural Policy deal

Patrick Begg, the Trust’s Rural Enterprise Director said: “There was so much to be won by being bold about the long term future of agriculture in Europe, yet the final settlement feels like a backward step. The Commission rhetoric at the outset was encouraging: more public benefit for public money, we were told and a deeper commitment to protecting finite natural resources. Yet the deal announced today makes it harder, not easier to reward farmers and land managers for the provision of fundamental public goods. Our ability to lay the foundations of a sustainable farming industry – healthy productive soils, clean water, cultural landscapes and public access – has been seriously undermined.”

“There’s less money to go around as a result of today and a risk that the message to land managers is ‘carry on farming as before’. Our Government needs to show real leadership in Europe and send a clear signal that environmental sustainability has to be put at the heart of farming in the UK. It’s critical that Owen Paterson uses his discretion to shift as much resource as possible from Pillar I to Pillar II. He needs to back new agri-environment schemes, open to as many farmers as possible, and that set a high bar for quality farming and are based on safeguarding and improving our precious soils, water resources, landscapes, and wildlife.”

The National Trust owns 200,000 hectares of farmland (80 per cent of its total land ownership) and has 2,000 farm tenants.

Reform of the green farming schemes needed to benefit farmers and environment

A report commissioned by two of Britain’s biggest farmers suggests that the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) reform proposals present an opportunity to improve existing Entry Level Stewardship in England.

The changes to agri-environment schemes suggested in the report would create a more environmentally, financially and socially sustainable approach to agriculture, helping farmers, the environment and wider rural communities.

A view of rolling countryside

The ‘CAP’ has a huge effect on Britain’s special places.

With over 220,000 hectares of farmland between them, the National Trust’s and Co-operative Farms’ report comes at a time of intense speculation about the future of CAP, with fiercely debated proposals to ‘green’ farm subsidy payments, growing EU pressure to cut funding for rural development schemes and domestic calls to “rebalance” rural development spending “in favour of competitiveness.”

Land Stewardship in England Post 2013 offers a series of practical recommendations to improve agri-environment schemes, with transferable lessons for other countries.

The report analyses the perceived gap between the entry-level scheme and the higher tier, the opportunities to enhance the upland farming scheme and the overall implications of the proposed ‘greening’ of Pillar 1.  As a whole, the report’s recommendations could help to ensure that money invested in agri-environment delivers for public benefit, ‘future-proofs’ farming and protects the natural resource base upon which the English countryside and agriculture depend. Patrick Begg, Director of Rural Enterprise at the National Trust, said:

“Successful, long-term farming is about the careful stewardship of precious natural resources.  Without that principle in place, it’s hard to see how we can continue to produce food and the other natural services that our land offers: clean water, locked up carbon, fuel for heat and power and productive soils.  We believe that the economic future of farming will increasingly centre on how this stewardship is delivered and supported.”

“For British farms to remain in business we need to act now to secure a future for them.  ‘Future-proofing’ farming will need us to direct support payments to activities that benefit nature and the wider environment and in ways that work with existing farming systems. We need to move environmental stewardship into the heart of the standard farm business and not leave it as a bolt-on, which is how agri-environment schemes have often operated in the past.”

The Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) is currently reviewing how it will deliver the next generation of rural development schemes, which will run between 2014 and 2020. But it is likely that the Government will have less funding available. Defra currently chooses to spend the vast majority (80 per cent) of its EU ‘rural development’ funding allocation on agri-environment schemes, covering 70 per cent of farmland in England. David Watson, Head of Arable Operations for The Co-operative Farms, added:

“Our report shows that any new policy for environmentally sustainable farming must be practical, straightforward and deliverable.”

“We believe the recommendations of this report will provide genuine food-for-thought for Defra and Natural England, the two bodies responsible for the design and delivery of agri-environment schemes in England.”

“To secure a viable future for farming and rural communities, we must refresh entry-level stewardship in a way that not only makes it fit-for-purpose, but that ensures it becomes the cornerstone of rural development. This in itself would provide the continued justification for maintaining the current level of spending on agri-environment.”

 A number of individual farmers and organisations were consulted in the preparation of the report, including the NFU, Country Land & Business Association (CLA), Campaign for the Farmed Environment, Tenant Farmers’ Association and the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB).

It also builds on the Making Environmental Stewardship More Effective (MESME) initiative and is intended to inform Defra’s work to develop the new Rural Development Programme for England 2014-2020.

Research reveals that grass-fed beef is better for people and the environment

Feeding cattle on grass throughout their lifecycle is the most environmentally sustainable way to rear beef, according to new research for the National Trust.

One of the biggest global challenges is how to increase food security whilst reducing the environmental impacts of food production.

Livestock – like cattle and sheep – produce high levels of methane as part of the process of digesting grass.  This has led to suggestions that intensive production methods – where cattle are fed largely on cereals, producing less methane – should be preferred over more traditional grass fed livestock farming.

However, in a report [1] issued today, research at 10 Trust farms shows that while the carbon footprint of grass-fed and conventional farms were comparable, the carbon sequestration contribution of well-managed grass pasture [2] on the less intensive systems reduced net emissions by up to 94 per cent, even resulting in a carbon ‘net gain’ in upland areas.  The farms that had recently converted to organic status showed even greater gains.

Rob Macklin, National Agriculture and Food Adviser at the National Trust, said: “The results are contrary to recent thinking that livestock farming methods must intensify further in order to lessen carbon emissions to feed an ever-increasing world population.”

“Maximising carbon efficiency alone is too simplistic.  Many less intensive livestock systems would be classed ‘inefficient’ on the carbon emission scale, yet are much less reliant on artificial inputs and tend to have less impacts on water quality, loss of soil organic matter and reduced biodiversity.

“We believe that optimised beef production – deliberately accommodating less than maximum output in order to secure stronger and broader ecosystem protection – is the best sustainable use for the grasslands in our care.

“The debate about climate change and food often calls for a reduction of meat consumption and a more plant based diet, but this often overlooks the fact that many grasslands are unsuitable for continuous arable cropping.

“Grasslands support a range of ecosystems services including water resources, biodiversity and carbon capture and storage.  Grazing livestock not only contributes to their maintenance but also turns grass into human-edible food.”

Other recent research [3] found that the health benefits of beef (and lamb) are greater when animals are fed totally on grass – their natural food.  Omega 3 fatty acids – recognised as essential to good physical and mental health – are higher in meat from grass and the levels of saturated fat are a third of grain fed beef.

Patrick Begg, Rural Enterprises Director at the National Trust, said: “This research is incredibly timely.  Policy makers across Europe and in the UK are having to tackle the issue of carbon-efficient food production right now.  The debate is all about bringing broader public benefits to the fore alongside food production and this research demonstrates how extensive, grass-fed beef should be at the heart of discussions.

“We need to find new market mechanisms which reward optimised rather than maximised beef production and as bodies like the Government’s Ecosystem Markets Task Force gather their thoughts we think this research demonstrates an area which is due some real focus.  Current Common Agricultural Policy reform discussions can also benefit from understanding what this research is telling us and, as the reform drives towards even stronger ‘greening’ of the payments farmers receive, we think management that delivers quality, grass-fed beef should be encouraged even more through agri-environment measures.

“We’ll be taking the findings forward with our tenants, policy makers and the industry to explore how we can develop a market advantage which supports a stronger grass-fed beef sector”.

 

[1] The research was carried out by sustainability consultants, Best Foot Forward and farm business consultants, the Laurence Gould Partnership in Autumn 2010.

The two assessors used PAS 2050 (PAS 2050 incorporates the greenhouse gas emissions potency of methane and nitrous oxide emissions using the carbon accounting unit of CO2 equivalent per live weight of beef produced) as well as developing additional scenarios to account for carbon sequestration by grassland and organic conversion and compared with other published life cycle studies on UK, US and Brazilian production methods.

They compared the carbon footprints of beef cattle raised on ten of the charity’s livestock farms in England, Wales and Northern Ireland; four organic, four conventional and two semi-intensive conventional in both upland and lowland areas.

The results show the average carbon footprint across the Trust farms was 21.5 kg CO2 equivalent per kg live weight of beef which were comparable with those from other studies in the UK.  See:

Taylor, RC et al (2010) ‘Measuring holistic carbon footprints for lamb and beef farms in the Cambrian Mountains’ Report for Countryside Council of Wales.

EBLEX (2010) ‘Test the Water – The English Beef and Sheep Production Environmental Roadmap – Phase 2.

Williams, AG Audsley E and Sandars, DL (2006) ‘Determining the environmental burdens and resource use in the production of agricultrual and horticultural commodities.  Main Report. Defra Research Project ISO 20.  Bedford: Cranfield University and Defra.

[2] Carbon sequestration is the capture of carbon dioxide (CO2).  All crops absorb CO2 during growth and release it after harvest.  The goal of agricultural carbon removal is to use the crop and its relation to the carbon cycle to permanently sequester carbon within the soil.  This is done by selecting farming methods that return biomass to the soil and enhance the conditions in which the carbon within the plants will be stored in a stable state.

[3] See: Wyness, L et al (2011) ‘Red meat in the diet: an update’ Nutrition Bulletin 36,1 pp.34-77.

Rule, DC et al (2002) ‘Comparison of muscle fatty acid profiles and cholesterol concentrations of bison, beef, cattle, elk and chicken’ J ANIM SCI 80 pp. 1202-1211.

Duckett, SK et al (1993) Effects of time on feed on beef nutrient composition J ANIM SCI 71pp. 2079-2088.