Setting aside farmland for nature does not have a negative effect on food security, according to a study.
A 10-year project by the UK Center for Ecology and Hydrology found that nature-friendly farming methods increase biodiversity without reducing average yields.
Scientists spent a decade intensively monitoring the impacts of a large government-funded experiment at Hillesden, a 1,000-hectare commercial agricultural farm in Buckinghamshire. Beginning in 2005, this involved the creation of various wildlife habitats, including seed plants for birds, wildflowers for pollinators, and bushy grass margins to support a variety of birds, insects, and small mammals.
In the longest-running study of its kind, researchers were able to increase the amount of wildlife essential to agricultural production, such as pollinators and predators of crop pests. The numbers of some species of butterflies, including the Guardian and Green-veined White, doubled, and birds that usually feed on insects benefited from the shelter provided by hedgerows and grass margins, including Great Tit, with an increase of 88%, and the blue tit, with an increase of 73%.
They also found that overall yields in Hillesden were maintained, and improved for some crops, despite the loss of farmland to habitat creation. The areas left out of production were difficult and unproductive to farm, and the other areas benefited from increased numbers of pollinators and birds and insects that feed on pests.
This goes against claims by many politicians that new post-Brexit agri-environment schemes would be “paying farmers to produce less food” and harm food security. Rishi Sunak, the former foreign minister who is currently running for prime minister, said recently he would “protect” farmers from rebuilding their land for nature.
Jake Fiennes, head of conservation at the Holkham estate in Norfolk and author of the book on nature-friendly farming. earth healerHe said he was not surprised by the report’s results.
He told The Guardian: “Historical policies in England tried to get us to produce food everywhere. But now we are realizing that we can increase our average yield by not growing food on areas of land that are not productive, and in these areas we can make room for nature. We know that there are benefits to having more nature on the farm, we know that we can improve the biodiversity of the farm without affecting yields.
Fiennes said: “Take a field. If you have forest on the southern edge of that field, invariably the first 15 to 20 meters of that edge will not produce the average yield, they will produce up to 50% of the average. But when you have all the species that would benefit from that edge of the woods, it’s a no-brainer to give it to nature. This is the poorest land for food production, and when you don’t focus on that area, you increase your average yield on the rest of the field.
“We know we have a biodiversity crisis, we know we have a climate crisis, we know the two are linked, and this is an opportunity to increase our yields and take care of nature.”
Dr John Redhead of the UK Center for Ecology and Hydrology and lead author of research published in the Journal of Applied EcologyHe said: “Investigating changes in populations over a significant period of time and comparing them to other sites means we can be confident that agri-environment options can bring long-term benefits to bird and butterfly populations.
“Hillesden is a typical large arable farm with conventional farming practices, in an ordinary landscape without large patches of natural habitat. Therefore, the results of our long-term study are likely to indicate what can be achieved on other commercial farms with good planning, implementation and management of agri-environmental measures.”