In this new sustainability series, in partnership with NatWest, we will explore the building blocks of a future-proof farm.
Speaking at the Oxford Farming conference last year, Defra Secretary of State Michael Gove announced the Government’s intention to abolish a farm policy based on production. The EU’s Common Agricultural Policy has long made direct payments to farmers without incentivising environmental or social outputs.
In contrast, the focus of Gove’s Agricultural Bill, the biggest overhaul of UK farm policy since the end of the Second World War, has been on sustainable land management.
It proposes a system of payments to farmers for undertaking environmental measures, such as flood management measures and increasing wildlife numbers on-farm.
The evidence overwhelmingly suggests the world’s natural resources – land, soil, water, air, biodiversity – are being depleted and damaged in ways which threaten food production in the longterm and also have broader implications for human well-being.
As well as being a victim itself, the food system has a role in protecting and preserving our planetary resources and food-producing capacity for future generations.
That means everything from protecting soils to planning farm succession.
One of the greatest threats to farming is the loss of fertile soil. Around one-third of the world’s arable land has been lost to erosion or pollution in the last 40 years, according to scientists[ 2].
The UN has gone as far as warning the world’s soils have an estimated 60 harvests left before they are too degraded. While, a study in the UK has predicted soils here have an estimated 100 harvests in them.
Gove has said his vision for sustainable farming is farm businesses becoming more profitable and reducing their environmental footprint.
“This Bill will allow us to reward farmers who protect our environment, leaving the countryside in a cleaner, greener and healthier state for future generations,” he has said.
And when it comes to soils, the Government has already suggested farmers will be rewarded for improving soil health.
“Sustainably managed land is far more productive than land which is stressed and stripped of its nutrients. But moving to more sustainable and, ultimately, productive farming methods can involve transitional costs and pressures.
So we plan to provide new support for those who choose to farm in the most sustainable fashion,” Mr Gove has said.
The gauntlet laid down to the farming sector is how to increase or maintain food production without damaging the environment and undermining future generation’s capacity to produce food.
That is the definition of sustainable agriculture. To do that ultimately means taking account of much more than just producing food, says Roddy McLean, director of agriculture at NatWest.
“For users of land there is an obligation to provide food for a growing population, but at the same time we have to marry that with maintaining the environment for future generations.
It is in farm businesses’ interest to look after the natural resources they rely on to produce what they do on their farms,” he says.
“To deliver on a healthy environment the first building block we need is a profitable business to then make those investments.
But some of those investments are absolutely in the farm businesses’ interest, including, for example, soil health. Farm businesses rely on having healthy soils,” says Mr McLean.
In this sustainability series we will be looking at the components of a sustainable farm today, including the importance of soil health, energy efficiency, agricultural technology like automation, water and waste management, renewables, farm biodiversity and succession planning.
We will be looking at best practice examples on each of these topic areas from across the UK farming sector. Interviewing the farm businesses which have made the investments and seen the benefits.
And delving into why it matters and how farm owners can go about future-proofing their own farms and making them sustainable for the long-term.
As well as going into detail about soil health and other building blocks of a sustainable farm business, we also hope to cut through some of the confusion surrounding the word ‘sustainable’ – an often contentious and abstract word.
The series will explain more clearly what sustainable agriculture means today and how farm owners can put their own business on a more secure footing for future generations.
While headlines continue to be dominated by Brexit and the UK’s future relationship with the European Union and its members, farm owners should not overlook the importance of sustainability and what it means onfarm, says Mr McLean.
“There is a lot of potential distraction to farm businesses at present. It is up to business owners to secure their own future and to make the necessary adjustments needed on-farm. They must focus on what they can control and influence,” he says.