We must empower rural communities to integrate food production and the environment

By Richard Kipling

This summer, drought severely affected Welsh farming. When the grass doesn’t grow, farmers are forced to buy in expensive feed, and to use up supplies put aside for the winter months. Animals need more water just as it is least available and wildfires are a constant risk. The full impacts of the drought are described in a recent report by the Agriculture and Horticulture Development Board (AHDB). Our reliance on the environment for our food could not be more starkly highlighted.

Evidence is growing that global warming is, and will continue to, increase the severity and frequency of events such as droughts and flooding. Recent research suggests change might be more rapid than expected, as greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions push us towards environmental tipping points. Up to now, for livestock farmers, climate change has been something that they can help tackle by cutting emissions from farms. Extreme events like those of this summer demonstrate that it is also a growing threat to their livelihoods. Reducing GHG emissions and ensuring farming systems are resilient to climatic extremes becomes a focus for urgent change.

With growing climatic volatility and threats to ecosystem services and natural resources,  change is needed. Through the Environment Act Wales, The Well-being of Future Generations Act and the Cymru Wales Brand, Welsh Government have demonstrated commitment to reducing GHG emissions, and to developing policies based on sustainability and resilience, specifically associating food production with the unique Welsh landscape and culture. In this context, the current ‘Brexit and Our Land’ consultation document  incorporates many positive elements. But it could go further.

Firstly, it must be recognised that the old opposition between maximising production and protecting the environment is false. Increasing production at the expense of resilience does not sacrifice fluffy idylls of nature to meet the practical need for food and the economic needs of farmers. Instead, taking more today comes at the expense of our ability to feed ourselves and make profits in the longer term.

Support for farm economic resilience and for the delivery of public goods needs to be integrated, because in the long-term the first is not possible without the second.

Agricultural production is dependent on healthy soils, good water and nutrient management, and biodiversity. Practices like improving soil management, adding hedgerows and trees to agricultural landscapes and nurturing mixed-species grasslands rather than turning to monocultures reduce the impact of extreme conditions on production, increase the long-term resilience of agricultural systems, reduce GHG emissions, and sequester more carbon. Farmer-led projects like Pontbren show that such approaches can work in Wales. So why isn’t everyone adopting these practices?

Many barriers hinder the implementation of climate-friendly or ‘public good’ farming.  Recent work in the Climate Smart Agriculture Wales project asked stakeholders about the challenges to change. Some are practical: many climate-friendly approaches bring long-term rewards but require short-term investment of money and time. These issues exist alongside knowledge limitations – how much farmers know about available options, how to implement them and what the risks and benefits are. Sometimes, the impacts of change are not fully understood or quantified by researchers.

Farmers also have their own interests to consider – like supporting family, surviving short-term economic challenges, reducing the burden of the business as they get older, and maintaining traditional practices. They manage complex systems, deal with multiple targets and regulations, and process and evaluate information and advice that might not always be independently given. This can be hugely challenging. It can make it hard to follow their own interests effectively, and reduce their ability to consider long-term strategies and problems amid the deluge of immediate challenges.

Considering solutions to these challenges, brings us to the second point that Welsh agricultural policy needs to incorporate. Top-down regulations are often appropriate tools for change, and payments are vital in providing the economic security farmers need to safeguard long-term productivity and ecosystem services. But we need to understand when they are effective and when they are not.

Truly sustainable change can only occur when rural communities, farmers, policymakers and other stakeholders are empowered to act together at the local level to develop shared goals and shared solutions to the challenges we face. This means bottom-up solutions giving ownership of change to all groups involved in the countryside. This type of power can be framed by top-down rules and incentives at some level; it’s not a case of ‘either-or’.

Outcome-driven payment schemes are a good example of this kind of rebalancing. Take the Burren Programme in Ireland, through which farmers agree to the goals they’ll deliver to secure funding. It’s up to them how to achieve those goals, and they receive local support to help them find the best strategies. Positively, this type of approach is included in ‘Brexit and our Land’. We need to go further, empowering farmers – working with other stakeholders – to both determine and drive change. But will farmers be interested in thinking about anything other than profit?

Recently, I heard a farm advisor speak about his experiences implementing climate-friendly practices in agriculture in Uruguay. Using videos and in workshops with different stakeholders, he shows farmers the impacts of climate change and poor agricultural practice on other groups in society. He finds they respond positively and make changes. Farmers need to make money, but that doesn’t mean they’re not open to change, once they realise their own role in the problems facing others, and in the solutions to them. When we add the growing impact of climate change on farm businesses, demonstrated by this summer’s drought, we find there are strong motivations to work differently, beyond the basic need to make a profit.

Richard Kipling is an inter-disciplinary researcher at Aberystwyth University, with experience in a range of fields including ecology, livestock agriculture, conservation, politics and economics. For the last five years, his research has focussed on issues relating to climate change and farming in Welsh and European contexts.

Image: Richard Kipling

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