Sustainable intensification of agricultural systems had stalled because there was not enough data to show farmers the benefits of improved environmental land management, the conference heard.
Negative connotations of the word ‘intense’ in relation to farming had not helped convince environmentalists it could be the only way to feed the world, either.
Those were the arguments put forward by Prof Allan Buckwell, a senior research fellow at the Institute for European Environmental Policy, during a keynote presentation at the SRUC-SEPA conference, discussing the theme ‘What future for our farming systems? Environmental challenges and integrated solutions’.
He asked: “Farmers have plenty of benchmarking in terms of their economic and technical performance, but how much information is out there about biodiversity, greenhouse gases or nutrient leakage at farm level?
“Most farmers do not know what the carbon emissions from their farm are. If we could measure [some of these things], we would find variability and we could move [the poor performers towards the better performers].”
Prof Buckwell suggested at any level of on-farm productivity there were farmers with ‘three or four times’ the magnitude of biodiversity than their peers and while productivity gains had to continue, the only way they would is if there was a ‘step-change’ in environmental land management, he explained.
For this to happen, farmers needed to be convinced current systems were ‘economically weak and environmentally damaging’.
He said: “Farmers are not convinced their farming is unsustainable [and] there is little convincing evidence to say they are wrong. [There is] no attention to specifying and identifying environmental limits at local level [or showing] how close we are to them.”
Prof Buckwell’s comments provoked plenty of debate during a lively question and answer session, but linking future profitability and ecological performance remained a challenge.
Bruce Pearce, deputy director at the Organic Research Centre, said: “Farmers are doing what they are told rather than what is beneficial for their businesses.”
Farmers need to individually lobby Government more if they want to make their voices heard, according to Sarah Boyack, a Scottish Labour MSP.
She noted the issues farmers faced on the ground were often ‘a world away’ from papers and reports which were discussed at Holyrood, but she urged the farming sector to ‘ask tough questions and put new issues on the agenda we might not be ready to debate’.
Ms Boyack said organisations such as NFU Scotland and the Scottish Tenant Farmers Association were often in touch, but she had received ‘no emails’ from farmers in the Lothian area she represented.