In just three decades, the agrochemical industry, aided by the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP), has led farmers to scrub hitherto biodiverse farmland largely clean of nature. But nature is set for resurgence with the UK’s withdrawal from the CAP, a growing public and political appetite to support nature-friendly farming, and developments in cell-cultured meats.
The closing agrochemical age
For around thirty years, multinational agrochemical firms, deploying agronomists to ‘help’ farmers choose the right cocktail of toxic chemical inputs to sweep away non-crop species, have transformed nature-rich cultural landscapes into sterile deserts. A few short decades ago, your typical pasture field of cattle would have supported a dense community of wildflowers everywhere you looked. Arable crops were awash with poppies and other annual species. Landscapes buzzed with insects and reverberated with the sound of songbirds.
Most farmers remain locked into this high-input, high-output, hostile form of ‘farming’. But a growing number are breaking free and, as they do, nature is showing its capacity for resurgence.
High nature value farmland as the source for resurgent nature
A sufficient numbers of farms have shunned the agrochemical age in favour of farming amongst and with nature, and these farms, together with scattered nature reserves, nurture wildlife that can then re-colonise landscapes as the agrochemical age ends. These farmers are the true champions of the coming age of resurgent nature.
Public support for nature-friendly farming
Farmers practicing nature-friendly farming deserve and must receive generous public support because they deliver baskets of benefits to people and nature. The Environmental Land Management (ELM) schemes must we simplified and farmer-friendly, and government must work with farming and nature organisations to offer the best possible, unified advice to farmers requesting it.
Rare livestock breeds are central to nature’s resurgence
Just as agrochemical-fuelled ‘techno-farming’ pushed out nature, it also shunned traditional livestock breeds in favour of a few often imported high-yield livestock breeds. Our own native, and often threatened, breeds are supremely well-adapted to local landscapes and must play a central role in high nature value farming going forward. Just as new farming will foster nature resurgence, it’ll enable rare breeds to expand and recover.
People can help nature to reclaim the countryside
Many species will need help to spread out from high nature value farmland and nature reserves into hitherto depleted landscapes. We scrubbed nature from such areas and have a responsibility to help it re-colonise.
We’re very good – often rather too keen – at kicking off shrubland and woodland resurgence by planting nursery whips in plastic tubes. This practice needs to give way to a more sophisticated approach to aiding the spread of trees and shrubs. The dense thatch of a tussocky grassland field can present a formidable barrier to the seeds of many tree and shrub species, even if source plants are nearby. Some species can successfully surmount this barrier – oaks planted by forgetful jays; blackthorn and bramble spreading via suckers. The bare ground of arable is often a much easier starting point for natural tree and shrub colonisation.
Where grassy thatch defeats incoming seeds, short-term mob-grazing can break up the thatch and enable woody plant seedlings to gain a toe-hold and get away. Taking a hay crop and lightly scarifying the ground surface might also work. The colonisation process could be aided if teams of volunteers collect tree and shrub seeds and sow these into broken ground. And a community tree nursery in every District could collect seeds locally and grow on some seedlings for planting in patches, leaving areas unplanted for natural colonisation. These are often – though by no means always – better options than the traditional default of wall-to-wall planting of imported whips encased in tree tubes.
We’re less practiced in the art of flower-rich grassland re-creation. Herbaceous species are often far less capable of re-colonising grassland (and indeed woodland) habitats than the woody species we tend to focus on planting. Humans really need to be far more industrious – we need armies of people intelligently helping wildflowers to re-colonise species-poor grasslands. Harvesting seed-rich green hay can be an excellent way to aid wildflower spread. All species-poor grassland now devoted to high nature value farming should be considered for such treatment. I sometimes despair looking at grasslands owned by the RSPB and National Trust where so little if any effort is made to assist herbaceous wildflowers to re-colonise. Flowering plants are the foundation for invertebrate recovery and the subsequent re-building of higher trophic levels including birds and mammals. And they lift the human spirit.
A role for cultured meat and precision fermentation?
The suggestion that nature will begin to expand from pockets of high nature value farmland and scattered nature reserves assumes that chemical-drenched farmland will soon be re-deployed for nature friendly farming. A fair amount of the produce from chemical-intensive livestock and arable farming is designed to supply low-quality, often highly processed foods for mass consumption. Ground meat in burger patties and sludge(sausage) rolls etc. Cell-culturing – producing high volumes of meat for mass consumption without the intensive rearing and subsequent killing of animals – could drive intensive chemical farming out of the countryside, making space for high nature value farmers. Cell-culturing will produce high volumes of ground meats, high nature value farmers will produce high welfare, high quality meat for restaurants and more discerning consumers. In this sense, cultured meats could be just what the countryside, authentic farmers and resurgent nature needs.
The role for policy
All UK countryside support must be re-focused to support farmers to embrace low-input, quality-output farming. Because, until just thirty years ago, such farming systems occupied the entire UK (and European) countryside and delivered a multitude of benefits to people and nature as a by-product of food production. If, through supportive payments, farmers are able to re-instate high nature value farming, wildlife will resurge across the countryside, negative externalities such as soil loss and river pollution will dissipate, and the quality of life in our countryside will immeasurably improve.
A matrix alongside rewilding on a grand scale
I see high nature value farming as a favourable matrix embedded within which will be scattered rewilding sites and landscapes, some small (a few hundred hectares), some very large (a few tens of thousands of hectares and larger). High nature value farming might come to occupy, say, sixty or seventy percent of the countryside. There are very good reasons for large-scale rewilding, one obvious one being that many farmers still cannot accept some species, such as lynx, and these will need safe havens. There are currently limits to how nature friendly farmers are willing to be, although their fears may dissipate with time, as shown by the return of white-tailed eagles to southern England and Irish farmland.
It could well be that the agrochemical industry, aided by the wrong-headed National Famers Union, successfully lobby against such a transformation. And consumers could turn against cultured meats. In that case, high chemical input farming will continue to dominate the British countryside and accelerate its inevitable march across the tropics and global demand for meat continues to rise. Biodiversity will be increasingly confined to fragmented nature reserves and scattered high nature value farms. River pollution and floods will worsen. Prospects for tackling climate change will narrow.
It’s decision time….
The UK has withdrawn from the CAP and policy makers are working to re-frame farm support, and cultured meat startups are close to scaling-up production of both terrestrial and marine meats. The next decade will be decisive. We could perpetuate the folly of agrochemical food production, or we could return to the era of people and livestock friendly, high nature value farming.