Laurence Scott, a Funding Manager in Esmée's Our Natural World team, writes about our support for nature friendly farming and how it can be part of a better food system that is positive for nature and communities.
This blog is part of a series sharing our roadmap for improving our natural world.
With over 70% of UK land used for agriculture, the food and farming system has the potential to play a vital role in combating the climate and nature crises. As well as helping to restore biodiversity in the UK, farming differently can also positively affect flood management, provide increased levels of rural employment and support local communities. But this potential is unlikely to be achieved without a change in current farming practices, policy and support.
There is, however, a growing movement of nature friendly farmers and community-led initiatives leading the way – demonstrating that it is possible to produce food sustainably that is better for nature, and has benefits for both the local economy and consumers.
Our ‘nature friendly farming’ priority aims to help stimulate the necessary change. Through our work, we’re looking to support measures that encourage farmers to farm agroecologically. That is likely to mean less intensive production methods, use of different types of livestock on farms, longer and more diverse crop rotations, lower inputs and on-farm habitat restoration – all whilst preserving or enhancing farm incomes.
In this blog, we share what we’ve been focused on since the launch of our strategy in October 2020.
Farming practice will be heavily influenced by policy and funding. We work with a number of partners such as Sustain, Nourish Scotland, Greener UK and the Environment Links network, who are working to influence post-Brexit food, farming and environmental policies, and support schemes across the UK. The design of these is critical for supporting a transition to more nature friendly farming. Our partners at the Food Farming and Countryside Commission (FFCC) have worked hard to evidence and identify measures for the UK to make a transition to agroecological methods of farming. For more on their work on this, see their report: Our future in the land.
More than one approach to nature friendly farming
When it comes to nature friendly farming – there is no ‘one size fits all’ model. We partner with a range of organisations to reflect a range of approaches: for example, the Soil Association, Pasture Fed Livestock Association and Nature Friendly Farming Network. We're also working with community-led organisations that are highly responsive to local needs, and who work with local farmers on flood mitigation and farmland biodiversity restoration such as Ullswater CIC, Foundation for Common Land, and wider landscape partnerships such as those led by the North Pennines AONB. More recently, we have partnered with Students Organising for Sustainability to look at how the significant land holding owned by universities can be better managed for people and nature.
Supporting farmers to make the change
Our contacts in the farming world tell us that many farmers will require advice and support to make the change, and that current advice and business planning mechanisms are not adequate. In some cases, new skills may be required. Many of our existing partners, such as the Nature Friendly Farming Network provide an informal network for farmers to share learning and secure positive changes in policy and practice. We have also supported national efforts to share information and advice with and between farmers, for example through our support of the Real Farming Trust.
We’re keen to understand what advice, in what quantity and to what standards, is currently available to farmers and how it will need to be developed to meet the challenges of the future. We are commissioning a piece of work to explore this in detail and we’ll work out how best to respond when that is completed.
A Land and Nature Skills Service
In Cumbria, the FFCC is working to identify the mechanisms necessary to enable a transition to agroecological farming in the region. The enquiry recognised a shortage of the many skills necessary to enable such a transition. Consultation with stakeholders suggested the need for a Land and Nature Skills Service to provide training and expertise to fill these gaps. The service would potentially train new environmental surveyors to undertake farm and land assessments and to work with stakeholders to plan and contract work that supports farm viability alongside environmental gain. It would also provide specific training in woodland, forestry, peatland and upland management, upland tree planting, and provide the skills necessary for wetland and river restoration projects. We’re supporting FFCC to carry out a detailed study exploring the feasibility of such a service.
Financing the transition to nature friendly farming
We recognise that farmers may need alternative income sources to enable them to farm in a more nature friendly way. New markets and forms of financing are emerging - this could mean locking up additional carbon on agricultural land and trading sequestered carbon in the carbon markets or other emerging natural capital markets. We have been working with the National Farmers Union and other partners on a pilot in Poole Harbour to explore how farmers can access nutrient trading schemes. You can learn more about the Poole Harbour Nutrient Management Scheme in a webinar we hosted on innovative funding to restore nature.
We’re working with the Sustainable Soils Alliance to support the development of a Farm Soil Carbon Code that will provide confidence to the market that soil carbon capture schemes are credible, properly verified and that the impacts are positive and permanent.
We’re also exploring the emergence of farmer-owned, landscape-scale soil-carbon capture collectives – aggregation schemes that will ensure that all farmers in an area can benefit proportionately and offer at-scale investment opportunities to institutional purchasers of soil carbon credits.
Supporting the local economy and the people who live there
If we are to see a widespread transition to nature friendly farming, the development of additional and alternative routes to market for sustainable producers is key. For instance, local food hubs, which aggregate produce from small scale producers and sell it to local or regional markets can often offer small-scale agroecological producers a better return than selling to supermarkets. A brilliant example of this is Tamar Grow Local, a food hub situated close to Plymouth, who are working with two other local food hubs to cross supply, rationalise distribution and expand into new markets.
Working with our partner, Growing Communities, we’re supporting the development of a Better Food Traders network to identify, support and promote retailers of nature friendly farming food. Retailers are an important link between producers and consumers – influencing food choices, marketing and telling the stories about where and how the food was produced.
We also recognise the importance of organisations such as the Land Workers Alliance and the Community Supported Agriculture network. Both do great work in bringing together and engaging small-scale producers, other land-based workers and consumers to create a better food system.
A framework for measuring and reporting on sustainability
In the UK, there is currently no reliable mechanism by which to demonstrate on-farm sustainability. This is significant as most of the major grocery retailers have made environmental commitments while banks and other investors, seeking to reduce their environmental impacts, are seeking to ‘green’ their investment and lending portfolios.
We’ve supported the Sustainable Food Trust, which has formed a 60-strong coalition of NGOs, Government bodies, banks, food businesses and farmers to help develop its Global Farm Metric (GFM). The GFM will aim to measure on-farm sustainability across a range of criteria, providing data with the capacity to encourage improvements in practice among farmers, shape retailer supply policies, enable informed investment decisions in sustainable production and provide easy to understand sustainability information for consumers.
In an associated project, we are supporting CLEAR (Consortium for Labelling for the Environment, Animal welfare and Regenerative farming initiative), a coalition of over 40 farming and civil society bodies that is calling for the UK Government to tighten regulation around food labelling. Coordinated by the Pasture Fed Livestock Association, CLEAR is working to improve food labelling requirements in the UK, aiming to eliminate the use of food labelling terms that are misleading or imply environmental or health benefits where none exist.
What more can we do?
Working alongside our partners, we’re excited about building on this work. We hope it goes some way in demonstrating the immense value of nature friendly farming as part of a better food system, which is good for nature and can also support communities to thrive.
If you have ideas, opportunities or feedback on our work, do get in touch.
Learn more about what we're hoping to achieve in our nature friendly farming priority.