Memorandum submitted by The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (SFS 60)

 

Summary

1. The environment must be recognised as the productive base of agriculture. Protecting and enhancing the environment will in turn secure the ecosystem services it provides, including food.

 

2. Intensive farming systems which maximise production produce negative environmental outcomes including greenhouse gas emissions, biodiversity declines and degraded water and soil quality, which can significantly degrade food production capability. Climate change will also drastically alter the way food can be grown in the future.

 

3. Although the global population is projected to increase significantly by 2050, there is no immediate need to significantly increase food production as current production levels are expected to satisfy global calorific demands until approximately 2030.

 

4. Meeting the challenge of growing food sustainably will require producing nations to develop productive systems which respect the carrying capacity of the land and enhance environmental quality within a context of climate change.

 

5. Governments should develop strategies to address unsustainable or inequitable consumption and food distribution patterns, including food waste.

 

6. The UK has limited capacity to contribute to doubling global food supplies by 2050 but its continued food production is important to maintain domestic supplies and a stable global trading system.

 

7. Developing countries must have support to develop their own productive capabilities in a sustainable way. The findings of the IAASTD report should be fully assessed as a contribution to this process.

 

 

How well placed is the UK in responding to the challenge of increasing global food production, while ensuring that such production is sustainable

 

8. The need to grow more food for a growing global population must be viewed within a broader context: by the time food production must be doubled, climate change will have started to radically alter the way food can be grown. The recently published UN and World Bank sponsored IAASTD report (International Assessment of Agricultural Science & Technology for Development) has made it clear that conventional, industrial agricultural systems have degraded the environment to such an extent that 'business as usual is not an option'. A new approach to agriculture is required which combines enhanced productivity with improved resilience of the natural environment.

 

9. The UK Government's response to the food supplies debate must clearly distinguish, and be informed by, the short, medium and long-term realities. In the short-term, the world is not running out of food: the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation states that the average adult requires 2500 calories (kcal) per day. Current global food availability stands at around 2800 kcal per person and is projected to rise to 3050 kcal by 2030. Therefore, current global food production would be sufficient to feed everyone in the world, even with increasing population and consumption, at least until 2030.

 

10. The short to medium-term priority must be to prepare for increased demand which is produced in a sustainable way. In the longer-term, farming systems around the world must be adapted to produce sustainable, safe and adequate quantities of food that are not dependant on diminishing oil supplies and can respond to the challenges of climate change as well as protecting wildlife, water and soils.

 

11. Current rates of UK self-sufficiency are high (60% in all foods and 74% for foods that can be produced domestically). The UK has exceeded these rates only once in the last century, peaking, in the 1980s at almost 80% and over 90% respectively. This heightened production, driven by subsidies and market measures within the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP), facilitated a suite of negative impacts:

i. Market distorting dumping of EU surpluses on international markets, which helped to suppress the development of food production in developing countries;

ii. Inflated food prices for consumers; and

iii. Further intensification of agricultural production systems (e.g. increased fertiliser and pesticide applications, simplified landscapes) with negative environmental impacts (e.g. loss of natural and semi-natural habitats, increased greenhouse gas emissions, degraded water quality).

 

12. Following recognition of these impacts, the CAP has substantially changed. A series of reforms have removed the incentive to over produce and land-managers in receipt of direct payments must respect baseline environmental standards (cross-compliance). Pillar 2 of the CAP has also been established which provides financial support to farmers undertaking measures to positively manage land for environmental benefit.

 

13. These changes were informed by the growing realisation that maximising production, well in excess of the natural carrying capacity of the land and reliant on high levels of chemical input, was degrading its environmental quality and putting at risk its productive capability. Although positive, these reforms are still framed within a 'business as usual' approach which does not adequately reduce the current system's contribution to environmental degradation or plan for the necessary changes to farming which will arise from changing climatic conditions in the coming decades.

 

14. The Government has recognised that "Bird populations are considered to be a good indicator of the broad state of wildlife and the countryside". Farmland bird populations (the Farmland Bird Index - FBI) have declined sharply in the era of industrial agriculture, and numbers continue to fall.

 

15. Agriculture and conservation are not incompatible and it is possible to design systems that are both productive and benefit the environment. Measures taken at the RSPB's Hope Farm in Cambridgeshire, such as skylark plots, have a negligible effect on crop yields, whilst massively boosting bird numbers. Overall, the farm's FBI has more than doubled against a background of national decline, with no impact on crop yields. Within a context of heightened concern over global food supplies Defra should be commended for developing a set-aside mitigation measure, which will combine productive agriculture with biodiversity benefit.

 

16. Although the UK will need to increase food production over the coming decades it is vital to acknowledge that individually, we cannot contribute significantly to doubling global food supplies by 2050. Ortiz et al[1] argue that, in order to accommodate a growing global population, average global wheat yields will need to increase over the next 25 years from 2.6 to 3.5 tonnes per hectare. In 2007, average wheat yields in the UK were 7.2 tonnes per ha. Increasing this already exceptional efficiency may still be achievable but the productive capacity of the UK is tiny in global terms: the UK holds only 0.34% of the world's agricultural land and is responsible for 0.8% of global cereal production.

 

17. Domestically, it is essential that the UK continue to grow food, both to secure local supplies and to play a role as part of a stable global economy. However, there is little rationale for immediately pursuing maximum production levels and disregarding the other roles agricultural land performs, as the net impact on food supplies would be negligible and the environmental consequences dire. Food security is also about more than just the levels of food grown. Every year, UK households waste 6.7 million tonnes of food, a third of the total bought. 61% of this waste is avoidable and could have been eaten if it had been managed better. A simple way to contribute to available food supplies is to address unsustainable levels of waste.

 

18. Globally, the priority for improving food supplies must be to help developing countries increase their own productive capabilities through supporting research and development into ways to sustainably increase yields and reduce post-harvest waste.

 

19. The RSPB believes that policy-makers around the world must better recognise that food production systems and the environment are not mutually incompatible but rather inter-dependant and key to attaining genuine food security. The UK has a key role in leading the development of low carbon, productive systems with high environmental standards that increasing proportions of the world's temperate agricultural regions will need to adopt in the future.

 

 

Supply side challenges faced by the UK

 

Soil quality

20. Intensive crop cultivation has been made possible through the application of significant quantities of pesticides and artificial fertiliser, both associated with ecosystem disruption, water pollution and rising greenhouse gas emissions. Inversion tillage and drainage have reduced the amount of organic matter left within many soils in the UK. This has reduced both its natural productivity and stability, in turn leaving it more vulnerable to erosion.

 

21. Soil loss, whether through erosion or degraded quality has the potential to significantly affect our capacity to grow food in the future. Modern cultivation methods, including larger field sizes, have led to agriculture being responsible for 95% of the 2.3 million tonnes of soil lost in the UK between 1995-1998. Intensive irrigation can also lead to soil salinisation, which interferes with plant growth, is a major contributor to desertification and affects an estimated 1-3 million hectares across the EU. In the EU, Spain is particularly affected but the problem is starting to emerge in East Anglia.

 

22. The RSPB believes the content, stability and quality of soil must be improved if the UK's productive capacity is to be maintained. A stable and healthy soil bank becomes especially important if we look ahead to farming systems which will need to rely less on greenhouse gas emitting fertilizers and changeable water availability.

.

Water availability

23. According to the Environment Agency[2]:

"Farmers use less than 1% of the total amount of water abstracted in England and Wales for spray irrigation. The biggest demand for spray irrigation is in East Anglia, where abstraction can average 20% of the total for all uses over a typical summer (when water resources are most scarce). Sometimes more water is used on a hot dry day for spray irrigation than for public water supply. Nearly all the water used for spray irrigation is used by crops or lost by evaporation and can therefore have a much greater impact on the environment compared to other forms of abstraction where water is returned after it has been used."

 

24. The demand for irrigation is likely to increase with climate change, just as the resources available are likely to decline. The south east of England is already considered to be under severe water stress.

 

25. Even if Government targets for increased water efficiency are met, population growth and demographic shifts to the southeast will place new demands on water resources.

 

26. The farming industry can make water go further with improved irrigation scheduling and technology and developing on-farm reservoirs etc. However there is no doubt that water availability will limit the quality, quantity and type of produce grown in England and may also affect the quality of our soils.

 

27. The issue of water quality must also be considered: the UN Millennium Ecosystem Assessment has identified eutrophication, the pollution of watercourses by plant nutrients, as one of the three most serious threats to biodiversity and ecosystem function alongside climate change and habitat loss. In 2002, it was estimated that agriculture was responsible for around half of the phosphorous and 70% of the nitrogen entering water in England. As future farming systems must be able to maintain productivity, it is vital that valuable plant nutrients are not allowed to escape into the wider environment, where their ability to boost crop production is lost and harm is caused to the natural environment.

 

28. Environmental stresses produced by unsustainable water use in agriculture will be exacerbated by climate change. Practical and effective solutions must therefore be developed as of part of the development of farming systems with reduced environmental footprints.

 

The marine environment

29. In 2007, Defra produced 'Fisheries 2027 - a long-term vision for sustainable fisheries' which aspires to a scenario in which stocks are 'plentiful and sustainably harvested', and to catch levels which optimise long-term economic benefits and ensure stocks are not over-exploited. As fishing is a trans-boundary activity, the capacity of the UK to contribute to growing food demands should be viewed under the aegis of the Common Fisheries Policy (CFP).

 

30. The main objectives of the CFP are to 'ensure exploitation of living aquatic resources that provides sustainable economic, environmental and social conditions'. These objectives are far from being achieved, with productivity at best running to standstill, and arguably declining. Currently 30% of fish stocks for which sufficient information exists are outside safe biological limits, which means that recruitment levels to the adult stock cannot guarantee future sustainability. 80% of Community stocks are fished so intensely - above maximum sustainable yield (MSY) - that yield is reduced.


31. Against this background, the UK's fortunes are inextricably linked to those of other European fleets, whose fishing capacity the Commission currently estimates to be 40% in excess of that needed to balance exploitation with available resources. Much will depend on the success of the 2012 reform of the CFP in finding measures to reduce fishing effort substantially, otherwise doubling fish landings by 2050 is a vastly unrealistic aspiration.

 

32. This forward projection also needs to take account of several related factors: (1) the increasing (and uncertain) impact of climate change on fish stocks (Defra's 2007 vision already acknowledges that 'Climate change has altered the abundance and distribution of fish stocks in EU waters'). (2) Increasing pressures on fishing space from other human activities in our waters, notably from renewable energy developments. Both of these trends are likely to make it harder to achieve the productivity increases sought, and at the very least adds to uncertainty. (3) The increasing onus to take an ecosystem-based approach to fisheries management (which some regard as a constraint on traditional fishing practices).

 

33. The number of fish stocks subject to abundance assessment in UK waters has also declined markedly in recent years and this needs to be rectified, otherwise we cannot judge what level of exploitation they can sustain.

 

The science base

34. Agricultural research and development is necessary in order to determine how, and if, crop yields can be improved. However, investment in has been reducing steadily in recent decades, along with a shift from public to private sector investment in developed countries. In the UK, there was 45% decrease in funding for MAFF (Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food) between 1986 and 1998. The decline in public investment in agricultural research and development has mirrored a fall in the rate of productivity gains.

 

35. Research and development is vital if the UK is to maintain food production and adapt to future climate challenges. However, as the IAASTD report highlights, current forms of industrial agriculture are unsustainable, and will become increasingly impractical as climate change impacts begin to manifest.

 

36. Instead of trying to adjust the current system to improve yields, governments must commission research which takes a broader, system-level approach. The recent announcement by Defra to direct 4.3 million to bee disease and surveillance research is an encouraging indication that the value of biodiversity to food security is being recognised (pollination services provide by bees are estimated to be worth 153 billion each year but global bee populations are in steep decline).

 

37. Through the SAFFIE project (Sustainable Arable Farming For an Improved Environment), the RSPB worked with partners to demonstrate practical ways of combining productive agriculture with positive biodiversity delivery. Since Hope Farm was brought under RSPB control in 2000, farmland bird numbers have increased by 119%, against a backdrop of national decline. This has been achieved in parallel with exceptional cereal yields, which reached a record 11.69 tonnes per hectare for 1st wheat in 2008. This demonstrates that it is possible to manage modern farms to yield both food and environmental goods.

 

38. Within this broader framework, The RSPB believes the development of new technologies, must be governed by the following key principles:

i. The health of biodiversity and the natural environment is integral to securing and maintaining productive increases;

ii. Any novel technology must be fully assessed for its environmental, social and economic impacts before being approved for cultivation.


Trade barriers

39. Trade barriers, used in 2008 when key food producing countries imposed export bans and tariffs to buffer their consumers from global price increases, both intensified price fluctuations and restricted food availability in certain parts of the world. When operating as it should, international trade is important for national food security as it provides a means of spreading risk.

 

40. The current trading system has however failed to internalise the environmental costs associated with industrial agricultural systems.

 

41. Trade rules must not prohibit or limit measures taken by governments to correct the market's failure to value the environment (via WTO Green-box proof agri-environment schemes for instance) or to meet domestic or multilateral environmental commitments.

 

The way in which land is farmed and managed

42. Farmers, responding to economic signals, can be relied upon to produce the types and quantities of food that the market demands. The role of government must be to remove obstacles to this process (e.g. market distorting production related subsidies). It is not the role of government to set or support specific levels of production, this should be determined by a country's natural (i.e. productive) and competitive (i.e. food quality and safety) advantages.

 

43. There is however, a role for government to reward the environmental outputs from farming which are not recognised by the market. In 2005, Defra and HM Treasury produced a joint paper entitled 'A vision for the Common Agricultural Policy'. This vision sets out clearly that sustainable agriculture should be "rewarded by the market for its outputs, not least safe and good quality food, and by the taxpayer only for producing societal benefits that the market cannot deliver."

 

44. The RSPB believes the Government must proactively take this 'public money for public goods' vision forward at the European level, taking full advantage of the forthcoming EU Budget review as an opportunity to spotlight the need for a new focus. When this has been established, new market mechanisms or techniques (which may build upon current cross-compliance rules and agri-environment schemes) should be developed, along with an adequate budget allocation, to facilitate the move towards a new, sustainable system of land management in the UK.

 

Demand side trends

 

45. Global demand for meat and dairy is projected to double by 2050, with developing nations' consumption patterns moving closer to that of the UK. The environmental impacts of livestock production are significant, both in terms of land-use change (such as habitat loss to create cattle grazing), greenhouse gas emissions and the diversion of cereals for feed.

 

46. These projected levels are unlikely to be sustainable but without government intervention, patterns are not likely to change. The RSPB believes that full life-cycle analyses should be undertaken for all production systems to determine their environmental impacts. This should then be used to develop mechanisms that encourage more sustainable consumption patterns. Support for equivalent government action in developing nations such as China and India, must also be provided otherwise the global impact of action within the UK will be extremely limited.

 

47. Local food networks have real potential for both establishing more sustainable production systems and re-connecting consumers with agriculture. However, such networks should not be encouraged at the expense of wider trading systems which provide a cushion against local crop failures/extreme weather events etc.

 

Action to meet challenges

 

The role of Defra

48. To address the weaknesses highlighted in this response and to capture the strengths, Defra must drive the CAP reform process at the EU level and lead the development of environmentally sensitive production systems.

 

Leadership and assistance from Defra

49. Within the context of secure food supplies, the key role for Defra must be to continue to support and develop sustainable production techniques. Agri-environment schemes are extremely important as they provide an incentive for farmers to view the management of their land in both environmental and commodity terms. Although there is significant scope for scheme improvement, it is vital the Government continues to place an emphasis on agri-environment measures.

 

50. In terms of the UK food industry, consumer interest in the 'environmental footprint' of food is growing and many retailers are accessing this by developing marques or brands which highlight the 'sustainability' benefits of certain products (such as Freedom Food, Leaf Marque, Fair-trade). The RSPB welcomes the development of mechanisms that enable farmers to access a premium price for a production method that supports the delivery of ecosystem services. However, there is significant scope for the retail and food sector, crucially regulated by government, to better regulate marketing to avoid misleading messages (e.g. implying a product is 'greener' than it is) and to strengthen existing standards.

 

Engagement across Government and internationally on food policy and the regulatory framework

51. The principle cross-department issue with potentially significant impacts on food supplies is biofuels, in particular the impacts of governmental targets on land use. Biofuels should not be grown on land currently used for food production or on land which is important as a carbon store or for biodiversity.

 

52. At present, the tools required to properly address the adverse impacts of UK and EU biofuels policy have not been developed and the only logical response is to stop setting targets in this area. The Government's response to merely slow down the rate of increase in the Renewable Transport Fuel Obligation (RTFO) will still lead to adverse impacts on land use, greenhouse gas emissions, biodiversity and food security.

 

53. It is essential that Defra is fully engaged in policy debates and decision-making on biofuels, biomass and other areas that impact on agriculture, forestry and land use.

 

54. The recent establishment of Defra's Council of Food Policy Advisors has significant potential to contribute to the food supplies debate. As the Council's remit includes assessing how increased production can be achieved while maintaining climate change goals and targets, the opportunity should be taken to investigate sustainable production systems that deliver multiple benefits.

 

 

 

RSPB

January 2009



[1] Ortiz et al. Climate Change: Can wheat beat the heat? Agriculture, Ecosystems & Environment 126 (2008) 45-58

[2] Environment Agency (2008) Water resources in England and Wales- current state and future pressures