Food production depends on nature, so let’s protect it

By Natasha Yorke-Edgell, Campaigns Officer at RSPB Cymru 

Let’s make food in a way that is as good for the planet as it is for us. It sounds like common sense, but we are still not doing it. Whenever I ask myself why, it always comes back to three things:

  1. These days it’s difficult to know exactly where our food comes from and the impacts it has on the environment, largely because our shopping experience separates us from where our food comes from and how it is produced.
  2. Because of this lack of transparency, people don’t make the link to the damage that food production can cause and the policies which influence food and farming.
  3. Even when the link becomes clear, the food supply chain can seem so complex that as individuals we can feel outside of the system and powerless to do anything about it.

These three combine to create a rift between the food we eat and the impact it has; they take away the story behind our food’s journey in the world, and they reinforce the idea that people are powerless consumers, rather than influential citizens. So how do we bring back our value for and understanding of our food to improve our lives? What’s more, how do we make sure that this conversation doesn’t miss out a vital element – the nature that we, and our food, depend on? One of the starting points might be to simply start telling the story about how these things are all connected.

Every stage in the journey of a piece of food has an impact on how good it is for our health, how good it is for the environment, and how much the planet can provide for us. For example, right at the beginning is the space needed to produce the food: an increase in demand may result in more land being used and this may result in a loss of wildlife habitat. (Particularly for meat production, which demands much more land, water and feed than growing vegetables.) The first step towards a more nature friendly food system must be to reduce our ‘food footprint’. The simplest ways to do this are to eliminate all waste and move to a ‘less but better’ meat approach, as we know that this substantially reduces the climate change impact of diets.

Equally important is that we manage our productive land in as nature friendly a way as possible. For example we rely on pollinators like bees, butterflies and flies to help grow much of our food, and we need earthworms, small insects and bacteria to help nourish our soils. These organisms also form the basis of the food chain that a host of other animals depend on. This is why it is important to avoid the use of chemicals, which can harm pollinators, and to sustainably manage our soils so that they remain healthy and productive for the long term.

Unsustainable farming (largely due to the outdated Common Agricultural Policy – or CAP) is one of the biggest drivers of environmental degradation; since 1970, farmland wildlife has declined by 52% and 12% of farmland species are now threatened by extinction in Great Britain (State of Nature 2016, p.16). This environmental degradation has huge implications for our future. Our Wellbeing of Future Generations Act (2015) recognises this and includes an important goal – to build a ‘resilient’ Wales. This is defined as: a nation which maintains and enhances a biodiverse natural environment with healthy functioning ecosystems that support social, economic and ecological resilience and the capacity to adapt to change (for example, climate change) (See Wellbeing of Future Generations Act: The Essentials, p6)

However, the State of Natural Resources Report (SoNNaR) revealed that none of Wales’ ecosystems are resilient (this means they can’t withstand or adapt to change). So we have a lot of work to do to bring our ecosystems back to a place where they can sustain us in the long term. We need to develop productive farming systems which work with nature, embracing complexity to ensure resilience and providing a variety of sustainable and healthy food.

How do we create such large-scale change in Wales to meet the needs of future generations? Over 80% of Wales is farmed, so if all our farmers produced food in a way that restored nature, we would be on our way to reversing the SoNNaR statistic – we could make almost all of our ecosystems resilient. To make this vision a reality, the Wales Environment Link network (of over 28 environmental NGOs) are asking the Welsh Government for a ‘Sustainable Land Management‘ policy to replace the CAP, which could deliver the systemic change in our food and farming system. It becomes clearer and clearer, that food is at the heart of saving nature, but more than that, it is a cross-cutting issue that could be the key to delivering our sustainable development legislation, impacting our social, economic and environmental wellbeing.

For all of these reasons, changing our food and farming system has become a priority area of work for the RSPB. In Wales, we provide conservation advice to upland farmers, including the Migneint (from Ffynnon Eidda to Y Gylchedd) in Snowdonia National Park, helping them to manage the important habitats on their farms for wildlife whilst still producing food. We also work with farmers across Wales, from Betwys-yn-Rhos to Abergavenny, to better integrate food production and conservation by working together on land management projects and influencing policy. We farm sustainably for nature on our RSPB reserves, in particular Lake Vyrnwy and Ramsey Island, where we combine farming with conservation practices to bring back nature to its full glory. As a result, we’re quite good at talking about the way food production can save nature, but we’re only just starting to look at the role food itself has to play in that mission, which is why we’re talking to Food Network Wales to explore what nature-friendly food is, how we start talking about it, and how we collaborate with others to promote the possibilities of a new nature-friendly food system.

If you would like to find out more about nature-friendly farming in the UK, have a look at the Nature-Friendly Farming Network, or if you would like to know more about farming and wildlife in Wales contact RSPB Cymru.

Natasha Yorke-Edgell is the Political Campaigns Officer at RSPB Cymru responsible for building public support for nature-friendly food and farming in Wales, to influence post-Brexit land use and food policy. Her background is in communications and environmental campaigning.

Picture: Lake Vyrnwy, by Eleanor Bentall

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