A study has found that setting aside farmland for nature does not have a negative impact on food security.
A 10-year project by the UK’s Center for Environment and Hydrology has revealed that nature-friendly farming methods enhance biodiversity without reducing average yields.
Scientists have spent a decade closely observing the effects of a large government-funded experiment on Helisden, a 1,000-hectare arable commercial farm in Buckinghamshire. Beginning in 2005, this included the creation of several wildlife habitats, including seed-bearing plants for birds, wildflowers for pollinators, and edging of flying grass to support a range of birds, insects, and small mammals.
In the longest-running study of its kind, researchers have succeeded in increasing the numbers of wildlife essential to agricultural production as pollinators and predators of crop pests. The numbers of some species of butterflies including the gatekeeper and the green-veined white have doubled, and birds that usually feed on insects have taken advantage of the shelter provided by hedges and grass margins, including the big tit by 88% and the bluebird by 73%.
They also found that overall yields in Hillesden were maintained – and enhanced for some crops – despite the loss of farmland to create habitat. The areas that went out of production were difficult and unproductive for agriculture, and other areas benefited from increased numbers of pollinators, birds, and carnivores.
This contrasts with claims made by many politicians that new post-Brexit agro-environment schemes will “pay farmers to produce less food” and harm food security. Rishi Sunak, a former chancellor who is currently running for prime minister, recently said he would “protect” farmers from rebuilding their land for nature.
Jake Fiennes, head of conservation at Holkham Farm in Norfolk and author of Land Healer, said he was not surprised by the report’s findings.
He told the Guardian: “Historical policies in England have tried to get us to produce food everywhere. But we now realize that we can increase our average yield by stopping growing food in areas of unproductive land, and in these areas we can make room for nature. We know That there are benefits from having more nature on the farm, and we know we can improve the biodiversity of the farm without affecting yields.
“Take a field,” said Fiennes. “If at the southern edge of that field you have a forest, the first 15 to 20 meters from that edge always won’t produce the average yield, it will produce anything up to 50% of the average. But when you have All species that might benefit from that edge of the forest, don’t even think about giving 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 in 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 as well as provide nature.”
Dr John Redhead from the UK Center for Environment and Hydrology and lead author of the research published in the Journal of Applied Ecology said: ‘Investigating population changes over a long period of time, and comparing them with other sites, means we can be so. It can bring long-term benefits to bird and butterfly populations.
Hillesden is a large arable model farm with traditional agricultural practices, in a natural area that does not contain 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 measures Agro-environment.