4 Sustainability and 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 intensificationincreasing 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."
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.
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.
The NFU view was that sustainable intensification
was about smart land useusing all the available technology
and innovation. 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.
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
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.
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
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.
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.
PROTECTING SOIL QUALITY
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.
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.
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 technologynew
genomic and DNA technologieswhich allowed us to understand
a lot more about the biological functions of soil.
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.
ORGANIC FOOD PRODUCTION
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,
and of the need to reduce our dependence on such phosphates in
order to meet our Greenhouse Gas reduction targets.
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 biodiversitythis used farmland birds as its indicatorwas
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 
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 cropsmuch of fruit and
veg, and protein crops like peas and beansyields 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 inputsthe fertiliser, the fossil fuels, the phosphate
that you have had to put in per hectare to get a ton of wheat
outI think it is arguable that organic wheat will be more
efficient in terms of resource use per hectare.
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 resourcesusing 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.
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 yieldscertainly for extensive
crops such as cereals and also for potatoes and some fruitare
generally lower than those for conventional agriculture.
Sustainable intensification in
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.
 Some examples
of innovative ways of increasing yields sustainably are set out
in the two boxes below.
The NFU told us about Thanet Eartha large greenhouse complex in Kent which uses glass house production, a computer-controlled irrigation system and hydroponics to increase production. 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. 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."
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.
|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. The sector had made significant gains in productivity over the last 25 years without having access to CAP subsidies. It had done this by making significant improvements in feed-conversion ratios which meant less feed was required per bird.
Poultry also had a low environmental impactpoultry production was water-efficient. Mr Large thought the poultry industry was in a good position to help reduce emissions and to become more sustainable.
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 stockthe average age was 25 yearswith the latest innovations in heating, climate control, ventilation, feed management and water management. 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.
66 Q92 Back
Crop Protection Association (FSY 0031) para 5 Back
Q14 Thanet Earth has clarified that it supplies 12% of the UK
market for cucumbers, peppers and tomatoes. Back
Prof Tim Benton (FSY 0054) para 14 Back
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