The importance of sustainable agriculture

The majority of UK land is farmed and UK farmers produce more than half the food that we eat. But there is increasing pressure on farmers to produce more food for an ever growing population. And farmers are expected to increase production without damaging the environment (UK Centre for Ecology & Hydrology). How can they do that and ensure sustainable agriculture?

Farming forms a familiar landscape in the UK, but farming has seen change, and not all of it has been good. Increasingly intensive farming has had an impact on nature. The Nature Friendly Farming Network says over 600 farmland species have been reduced in the last 5 decades. They have also seen problems with soil and water degradation. 

In their report Rethink Food (PDF), they admit that agriculture is a ‘major driver of nature loss’ and that the food system contributes a third of global emissions. They suggest that business as usual cannot continue. Food systems are not providing a healthy outcome. Our food security is affected by world events. And agriculture contributes significantly to global warming.

Increases in energy prices, labour shortages, agricultural inputs and the rising cost of imports are pushing food prices up and sending more people into a cost of living crisis. 7.3 million adults and 2.6 million children (13.6% of UK households) experienced food poverty in April 2022 (Food Foundation). Poor diet already costs the UK an estimated £54 billion and an increase in food poverty will exacerbate that. 

Photo credit: Nature Friendly Farming Network

Sustainable agriculture & nature friendly farming

Despite this, the Nature Friendly Farming Network believes that nature-friendly farming is a viable solution. It could help ensure a resilient food supply, provide for healthy diets and counter the climate and ecological emergency. They have seen farms reverse the changes and restore farmland. 

Their report recommendations include 

  • leading with a pro-nature strategy for farming, 
  • supporting farmers with funding and education, 
  • developing land use strategies and 
  • encouraging overseas trade to fit in with a pro-nature strategy.

Intensive farming also impacts biodiversity. The UK is one of the worst countries on earth for loss of biodiversity. High yields require high levels of fertilisers which impact on soil, water and air and contribute to loss of species. 

The State of Nature Report 2019 is coordinated by the RSPB and has input from a partnership of over 70 organisations, have a read: National Biodiversity Network State of Nature Report.

High density livestock farms in the UK can also have a detrimental effect at home and abroad. For example pig farming requires large soy feed crops to be grown. 40% of arable land in the UK is used for feed crops and in addition, we import feed from other countries. 

By contrast, natural farming systems produce fruit and vegetables with higher concentrations of antioxidants, vitamins and minerals and lower concentrations of pesticides. Beef from grass fed cattle have higher omega 3 and 6. 

As individuals, we can drive changes to agriculture by changing our diets to include more fresh fruit and vegetables and less animal protein. This would have two major benefits: 

Diets with less animal protein result in less obesity and related health complaints e.g. heart disease (British Heart Foundation). 

In addition, by reducing animal feeds, we could feed more people. Currently 50% of UK wheat harvest is used for animal feed. That’s the equivalent to 10.7 billion loaves of bread! (World Wildlife Fund Future of Feed, PDF)

Read more ways you can improve food sustainability in our blog post. 

In June 2022, the UK Government published a Food Strategy which says that “Our future agriculture policy will seek to financially reward sustainable farming practices, make space for nature within the farmed landscape, and help farmers reduce their costs.”

The strategy lays out ambitious plans to maintain existing food production at 75% of food consumed, halve childhood obesity by 2030, reduce greenhouse gas emissions from food production, increase exports and pay.

Annette Clubley

Annette is a keen wildlife conservationist, mindful of sustainability and our impact on the environment. Outside of work, family is her focus and she loves teaching the next generation to enjoy the outdoors.