Published on 15 July, the National Food Strategy calls for a tax to encourage sugar and salt reformulation, an expansion of Free School Meals and a major overhaul of food education as part of a coordinated effort to rethink UK diets and the sustainability of food production.
In his Introduction to the Strategy, lead author Henry Dimbleby makes the case for taking an integrated ‘food systems’ approach, similar to the approach we are taking in our H3 research programme: www.h3.ac.uk
The report makes 14 recommendations to address four key objectives:
- Escape the junk food cycle and protect the NHS
- Reduce diet-related inequality
- Make the best use of our land
- Create a long-term shift in our food culture
Welcoming the report and its coordinated food systems approach, researchers from the H3 consortium reflect on different aspects of the Strategy asking how it might contribute to a transformation of the UK food system and achieve the twin goals of improving public health and environmental sustainability.
Prospects for more sustainable food production Lynn Dicks
The National Food Strategy provides a challenging and provocative view of UK food production, explaining in stark terms why it is unsustainable in its current form. UK agriculture is producing 10% of our greenhouse gas emissions, degrading soils and water ways, and causing continuing declines in farmland biodiversity, yet many farm businesses are not even profitable, regularly making a loss or just breaking even, without subsidies.
As part of the solution to ‘make the best use of our land’, Dimbleby proposes a ‘Rural Land Use Framework’ with a National Rural Land Map at its heart. The map would be drawn according to national objectives for climate change mitigation (carbon sequestration), biodiversity conservation and overall food production. It would provide detailed assessments of the uses to which any given area of land is best suited and accompanying incentives to drive this.
From nature conservation and climate change perspectives, this kind of large-scale, spatially explicit, objective-driven planning is almost always missing from national strategic thinking, and has potential to deliver far better outcomes.
The thinking builds on a framework devised by Andrew Balmford and colleagues in the Department of Zoology at Cambridge, which compares two contrasting strategies for managing land for food production – land sparing and land sharing. Land sparing separates land for high yielding agriculture from land for wild nature. Land sharing aims to support nature within productive farmland, leading to less productive agriculture per unit area and therefore more farmland overall. Analyses of how wild animals and plants fare under these different strategies generally show that land sparing is better, in terms of wild populations supported by a landscape for a given amount of food production. This has been a source of heated and passionate debate in conservation science over the last decade and a half, perhaps largely because it is interpreted as an argument to dispense with efforts to conserve farmland biodiversity. However, recent analyses in both the UK (1) and Poland (2) have shown that here in Europe, where some of our valued biodiversity is associated with traditional farmland (think corncrakes, yellowhammers and greater yellow bumblebees for example), the best outcome overall involves a mixed strategy, somewhere between sharing and sparing. This gives you what the National Food Strategy calls the ‘three compartment model’, under which we will divide the country into high-yield farming, low-yield farming (to support farmland biodiversity) and semi-natural habitats.
In practice, this will be complex to achieve. The first rough attempt at a national map (page 4, Appendix 9), gives a sense of the debates and discussions to come. It has high-yield farming covering the Fens and most of Norfolk and Suffolk, while central England and all of the South West are devoted to low-yield farming, with major uplands and wetlands kept for nature and carbon storage.
There are some issues of definition here. What exactly counts as ‘low-yield’ and ‘high-yield’ farming? And when does ‘low-yield farming’ become ‘semi-natural habitat’? If the habitat in question is species-rich grassland, then it requires low-yield farming methods (grazing and hay-cutting) to maintain it. The Strategy itself conflates ‘low-yield farming’ with both ‘agroecological farming’ and ‘high nature value farming’, and claims that these farms typically have 20-40% lower yields. For me, agroecological farming is not the same as ‘high nature value farming’, nor necessarily a land-sharing strategy. Instead, it is a knowledge-intensive system that manages an agricultural ecosystem to be as productive as possible with minimum inputs, and is applicable in both high- and low-yielding systems. Agroecology has many similarities to ‘regenerative agriculture’. The Strategy agrees, providing a case study (p104) of an arable farmer who has reduced inputs and carbon emissions dramatically without any drop in yield by following regenerative agriculture techniques, with “similar [methods] to those of an agroecological farmer.”
In Work Package 3 of the H3 project, we are working collaboratively with farmers to examine the transition to ‘regenerative agriculture’ described by the case study. This transition is farmer-led, driven by people on the ground, trying out new ideas. We are looking at its impacts on biodiversity (wild birds), on ecosystem functions such as carbon sequestration, pollination and pest regulation, as well as on soil health, yields and profitability. We will work with farmers across the country to explore how they are supporting each other, sharing knowledge and collaborating at landscape scale to enable a transition from an agricultural system that degrades the farmed environment to a ‘regenerative’ one that supports and maintains it.
There is certainly a need to conserve and restore larger areas of natural habitat in the UK, but it is not clear to me how dividing agricultural areas of the country into two ‘compartments’ based on historical relationships between farm yields and environmental outcomes will help us move towards a more sustainable food production system overall.
(1) Finch, T. et al., 2021. Evaluating spatially explicit sharing-sparing scenarios for multiple environmental outcomes. J Appl Ecol, 58(3): 655-666.
(2) Feniuk, C., Balmford, A. and Green, R.E., 2019. Land sparing to make space for species dependent on natural habitats and high nature value farmland. Proc. R. Soc. B-Biol. Sci., 286(1909).