Food Futures: Sustainable Intensification or Agroecology?

Labour are going through a review of all their policies, trying to work out what they got wrong last time, and what they need to change to get the electorate to see them as electable next time round. Shadow Environment Secretary Mary Creagh has set up a rural policy review group, which I am very lucky to sit on – we met for the first time last week.

I’m not divulging any secrets to tell you that the conversation unsurprisingly turned to food security. The NFU and Co-op farms  both pushed the argument laid out in the Foresight Report on Global Food and Farming Futures, that we should be moving to sustainable intensification of our agriculture in the UK. This means, basically, getting more food from the UK’s farmland, and letting nature thrive in protected areas. The authors of the Foresight Report calculate that there is a huge capacity to increase crop and livestock yields from agricultural land, globally. And this is needed to feed the world’s burgeoning population. I noted that the phrase “sustainable intensification” in the summary report was almost exclusively used in the context of agricultural land in the developing world.

Recently an All Party Parliamentary Group has been formed to promote Agro-ecology.  Agro-ecology is defined as”applying ecological concepts and principles to the study, design and management of sustainable agroecosystems”. So agro-ecology could be seen as the alternative to “sustainable intensification” for the future of farming, if we all accept that the current model ie unsustainable intensive farming, is broken. Agro-ecology places values on the public goods and services that all agricultural land could provide to humanity; sustainable intensification is more about spatial zoning of land so agricultural land focusses on one ecosystem service, the intensive production of food (I call this ecosystem servitude), and the others have to happen elsewhere.

I can see that Sustainable Intensification might work in a country where this is still a good deal of primary habitat, such as tropical rainforest. The idea is that rainforest, its wildlife and the ecosystem services it provides, would be protected; no further inroads would be made into existing forest, and production would increase on the existing agricultural land.

But we have no rainforest, in fact we have practically no primary habitat in the UK. Everything here has been substantially modified by human activity over the past 6000 years, at least. What we have at best is semi-natural habitats like meadows, chalk downland or heathland, and intensively managed agricultural land. Our wildlife is adapted to live in agricultural systems, or at least it was until everything changed over the past 50 years, when the agricultural production systems developed to a point where they could remove the wildlife very effectively.

As a country we are not producing anywhere near enough to feed ourselves – the final food report from the Sustainable Development Commission is pretty damning – there is no sustainable food policy and now 40% of the UK’s food is imported. The recommendations of the report are all very sensible, including tackling sustainable consumption, producing more fruit and vegetables and reducing GHG emissions from livestock. Tellingly, the SDC felt that “sustainable intensification” needed to be carefully defined for the UK context, rather than having it bandied about thoughtlessly. Unfortunately the SDC has now been abolished.

One final thought – WWF and WRAP have just published this report on the water and carbon footprint of food and drink waste in the UK. It’s shocking actually. 8.3 Million Tonnes of food waste is thrown away annually in the UK  – worth at least £12 billion. The carbon footprint of this waste is 20 million tonnes of CO2 equivalent each year. A useful comparison is with the entire GHG emissions from UK farming, estimated to rise to 27 million tonnes of CO2 equivalent by 2020 under a business as usual model.

The authors of that report are EBLEX, the livestock industry’s part-publicly funded flag bearer, who are pushing for Sustainable Intensification of the livestock sector, using GHG emissions as a key argument in their favour  – the argument being that cattle and sheep eating less nutritious wildflowers and grasses produce more methane and “cost” more carbon by less efficiently converting forage into meat. But the “savings” in GHG emissions moving from extensive livestock farming to intensive systems (Nocton superdairy being an example of such a system) are entirely dwarfed by the “costs” of unsustainable food consumption (obesity, and other health problems) and food waste.

Agro-ecology gets my vote Mary!


About grasslandstrust

The Grasslands Trust is the only national UK charity that focuses entirely on saving grasslands that are valuable because they are rich in wildlife, history, or for other reasons.
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