Food security - Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee Contents

4  Sustainability and sustainable intensification

Sustainable intensification

59. In the context of a changing climate, we need to ensure our food production and systems are sustainable and resilient. The Foresight report recommended that one response be sustainable intensification—increasing the global food supply while minimising negative consequences for the environment. Professor Beddington explained: "intensification is more from less; sustainable intensification is not to harm the environment in a way that you cannot continue forever."[66] He discussed the importance of sustainable intensification in the agricultural sector:

    The idea of intensification is manifestly sensible. We do not have much land; we do have an issue of food production; we need to get more from the same amount of land. On the other hand, it would be a pretty daft thing to do to be getting more by having very large inputs of fertiliser, pesticides and so on. The intensification and the increase in product per unit area need to be balanced against how you actually do it.[67]

60. Peter Melchett from the Soil Association stressed the importance of conservation. He told us:

    We will not have food security if we simply produce more but destroy soils, use up fresh water, destroy wildlife, and do things to farm animals that the public will not accept. All of those things are huge challenges, and are linked together with the overarching fact that climate change is now affecting farming and will affect it more in future.[68]

The NFU view was that sustainable intensification was about smart land use—using all the available technology and innovation.[69] Mr Kendall also said that different types of agricultural land would should have different measures of productivity so that sustainable intensification would mean different things in different parts of the country.

61. The Government sees sustainable intensification as a key policy solution to the challenges to our food security arising from climate change in a country where agricultural land is limited. The Minister talked about the importance of investment in research and development to help to identify ways of improving output per hectare without destroying the natural habitats on which farming depends.[70]

Increasing yields

62. A key component of sustainable intensification is increasing yields or output per hectare using fewer inputs. A number of witnesses discussed the fact that for cereal crops, such as wheat, yield levels have been stagnant for some time. We were told there had been an extended period of time where cereal and other crop yields increased exponentially, but that this had changed over the last ten years. For example the Crop Protection Association wrote:

    The period from the 1940s to the 1990s saw national average yields rising from 2.7 t/ha to 7.6 t/ha. Since then farm wheat yields have stalled, varying between 7.0 and 8.0 t/ha but with no rising trend. The reasons for these yield plateaus are not well understood. […]Since the 1990s, wheat yields have essentially been the same.[71]

63. Professor Beddington told us about research at Rothamsted Research Institute which was seeking to increase wheat yields from 8 tonnes per hectare to 20:

    That would be a mix of breeding, agricultural practice, precision agriculture and so on, and they want to do that in 20 years. I think they started in 2012. There is a real recognition that this can be done. Elsewhere in the world, you are seeing these sorts of increases in the level of productivity.[72]

However, Mr von Westenholz, Chair of the Crop Protection Association, told us that the EU regulations acted against technologies which could improve yields with negative consequences for other regions:

    […] it appears to me that Europe is actually nobbling its own productive capacity, therefore actually requiring other areas of the world to provide.[73]

64. The Minister said that the agriculture levy boards spent a fair amount of their funding on research and development, and trying to get new varieties of crop that might be higher-yielding. He suggested that it may simply be that we have reached the limit of yield increases without taking advantage of new technologies.


65. There are many ways to increase yields. One aspect of this which we discussed with witnesses in the context of sustainable intensification, was about ensuring that the integrity of our soils was not diminished through the greater application of artificial fertilisers, herbicides and pesticides, or by overstocking and overgrazing by cattle or sheep. Professor Welham from the Biotechnology and Biological Science Research Council (BBSRC) said that the research councils have recognised the importance of soil quality:

    soils actually provide a whole lot of services to us that we would not perhaps think about. They are the medium for growth; they are a location where microorganisms and other organisms live; and, obviously, they are key to food, fodder and fuel production.[74]

She said that NERC was developing a soil-security programme, which BBSRC, Defra and the Scottish Government were also involved in. This was trying to build up a series of approaches to understand how our soils function, what determines their function and how those functions change when either the climate, land use or nearby land use change.[75] We saw some research measuring the run-off from soil on the farm platform in North Wyke. Professor Hartley, from the University of York, pointed out that we now had the technology—new genomic and DNA technologies—which allowed us to understand a lot more about the biological functions of soil.[76]

66. We need to increase agriculture output without increasing the amount of land used. It is clear that in some key crops this is not happening and yield levels have stagnated. We also need to ensure our agricultural production systems preserve the soil on which these crops are grown and ensure it retains key nutrients.

67. Sustainable intensification in relation to key UK cereal crops has made limited progress. The plateauing of yield levels in wheat must be addressed a matter of urgency. As part of its efforts towards sustainable intensification, we recommend the Government also direct greater funding to research on maintaining and improving soil quality.


68. Given the need to increase yields, we also discussed with witnesses yield comparisons between conventional and organic production and the role of organic production in contributing to food security and sustainability.

69. One of the arguments in favour of organic production is that it eschews as far as possible the use of agrichemicals and therefore has a less harmful impact on the environment. Peter Melchett from the Soil Association talked about the reliance of conventional agriculture on imports of mined mineral phosphates, nitrogen fertiliser, and animal feed,[77] and of the need to reduce our dependence on such phosphates in order to meet our Greenhouse Gas reduction targets.[78]

70. We were told by the Crop Protection Association that the situation in relation to reducing environmental impact, such as through the Environmental Stewardship schemes was slightly more nuanced:

    Some of the best results in terms of biodiversity—this used farmland birds as its indicator—was through either environmental stewardship approaches or conservation grade-specific wildlife-management approaches to farming, and not organic approaches. However, if you had an organic farming approach that actually followed those same criteria, that would then have equally positive effects. It is not about organic farming or the use of pesticides or not; it is about the specific approach you take to creating a habitat alongside your farming and food production that encourages biodiversity [79]

71. In relation to yields Mr Melchett said that although organic yields were lower, they used fewer inputs which meant organic products might be more efficient in terms of resource use:

    In the UK, milling wheat yields in organic systems would be about 30% to 40% less than non-organic yields, but for some other staple crops—much of fruit and veg, and protein crops like peas and beans—yields would be the same, 100%. Lamb finished on grass may be even higher in organic systems. It varies a great deal. If you look at the output of milling wheat, to take your example, and you take into account the inputs—the fertiliser, the fossil fuels, the phosphate that you have had to put in per hectare to get a ton of wheat out—I think it is arguable that organic wheat will be more efficient in terms of resource use per hectare.[80]

72. Nick von Westenholz, Chair of the Crop Protection Association, said that because yields of many organic products were lower than conventional crops, we needed to focus on using new technologies and methods of production:

    We are talking about increasing output on the same, or even less resources—using less resource, so less land being an obvious one. I do find it hard to see, […] how we would achieve that through entirely organic approaches. Having said that, I do think it is not just about being able to use more inputs or more pesticides or even fertilisers; it is about taking quite an integrated approach. So it is about taking new approaches in terms of cultivation, rotations, precision technology, but also using, in a targeted manner, technology through things like pesticides and fertilisers.[81]

73. Organic production uses fewer pesticides and inorganic fertilisers and, in so doing, makes an important contribution to environmental stewardship. We believe organic production also has a place in the market in adding to consumer choice. However, organic yields—certainly for extensive crops such as cereals and also for potatoes and some fruit—are generally lower than those for conventional agriculture.

Sustainable intensification in practice

74. Developments in technology are allowing us to farm land much more intensively, by using the right products in the right place, at the right times to increase output. [82] Some examples of innovative ways of increasing yields sustainably are set out in the two boxes below.
Thanet Earth

The NFU told us about Thanet Earth—a large greenhouse complex in Kent which uses glass house production, a computer-controlled irrigation system and hydroponics to increase production.[83] Professor Benton was keen on the project which he said now supplied a third of the UK market for tomatoes and cucumbers giving consumers competitively priced, locally produced fruit and vegetables.[84] He said it had "the potential to diversify production in a viable way and reduce our reliance on imports. Incentivising relatively small land areas, given to modern, efficient, under-glass horticulture could produce a significant amount of UK demands."[85]

NFU pointed out that for such investments to be successful the supply chain needed to send the right signals to farmers so that they had the confidence to invest.[86]

Case study of poultry sector

Andrew Large, Chief Executive of the British Poultry Council, a trade association, representing about 90% of the UK industry, for the poultry meat sector, told us the industry was around 70% self-sufficient overall, with a thriving import and export trade.[87] The sector had made significant gains in productivity over the last 25 years without having access to CAP subsidies.[88] It had done this by making significant improvements in feed-conversion ratios which meant less feed was required per bird.[89]

Poultry also had a low environmental impact—poultry production was water-efficient.[90] Mr Large thought the poultry industry was in a good position to help reduce emissions and to become more sustainable.[91]

However the sector was dependent on UK wheat for feed. If the price of wheat increased significantly this would lead to increased prices for poultry.

Mr Large had concerns about the viability of existing housing stock. He said there were opportunities to improve efficiencies by modernising the poultry housing stock—the average age was 25 years—with the latest innovations in heating, climate control, ventilation, feed management and water management.[92] We visited Mountstephen Farm in Devon where we saw one of these modern poultry housing systems. The farm regularly reared 30,000 free range birds, using Freedom Foods Standards, for the market. The waste was fed into an anaerobic digester which produced electricity to run the farm and fertiliser for the fields. We were told the business was profitable and the farmer would expand his poultry business if he had the room.

In relation to different production systems Mr Large was keen to stress that consumers would make the choices which would determine how poultry was produced. He said there was demand for all the different production systems: indoor, barn-reared birds, free-range and organic.[93]

66   Q92 Back

67   Q92 Back

68   Q186 Back

69   Q120 Back

70   Qq304-7 Back

71   Crop Protection Association (FSY 0031) para 5 Back

72   Q94 Back

73   Q221 Back

74   Q247 Back

75   Q247 Back

76   Q247 Back

77   Qq185-6 Back

78   Q191 Back

79   Q230 Back

80   Q200 Back

81   Q229 Back

82   Q15 Back

83   Q118 Back

84   Q14 Thanet Earth has clarified that it supplies 12% of the UK market for cucumbers, peppers and tomatoes. Back

85   Prof Tim Benton (FSY 0054) para 14 Back

86   Q118 Back

87   Q114 Back

88   Q124 Back

89   Q115 Back

90   It took one unit of water to produce one kilo of poultry meat. For lamb the figure was 1.6 and for beef 2.5. Back

91   Q124 Back

92   Q124 Back

93   Q129 Back

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Prepared 1 July 2014