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Farming and biodiversity: Why do we think of it as a zero-sum game?

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Blog picture: Farming and biodiversity: Why do we think of it as a zero-sum game?
"At this critical time, we have to get out there and get busy, explaining why biodiversity is a key part of the toolkit for addressing these global crises rather than a burden that we can’t afford to support"

The war in Ukraine has focussed global attention on issues of food security and the resilience of supply chains in the modern global marketplace. The UK’s high dependence on imported food and animal feed had already been highlighted by the COVID-19 pandemic, but I’m probably not the only person to be additionally surprised by just how much food was produced and exported by Ukraine. In addition, we’ve had shocks to fuel supply, coupled with rising fuel demand as economic activity increases following the widespread easing of Covid restrictions. In turn this has driven increases in the cost of producing food and animal feed, particularly the costs of fuel and transportation, and in key inputs such as synthetic fertilisers. So, in short there’s less food and feed available, and what there is costs more.

These huge shocks to food and fuel markets come at a critical time for the relationship between nature and farming. This is a globally important year for biodiversity, with the upcoming COP15 for the Convention on Biological Diversity scheduled for late 2022 in Kunming, China. Multiple reports indicate that a key driver of biodiversity loss in countries such as Scotland is the continuation of intensive farming practices. The great risk is that farmers are blamed for biodiversity losses. We need to understand that in many countries farmers are locked into market systems which have forced them to intensify in order to survive as businesses, a situation clearly and painfully illustrated in James Rebanks’s recent book English Pastoral: An Inheritance. Intensive farming practice is now also perpetuated through farmer training and farming infrastructure. However, we’ve got to be brave enough to call a plough a plough and admit that modern intensive farming has driven biodiversity loss.

Why emphasise “has driven”? Because it needn’t be like this. We do have approaches - like those explored in the SEAMS and Plant Teams projects - that enable us to integrate farming and biodiversity with benefits that can also directly address current food system challenges. These benefits include reducing synthetic fertiliser inputs and losses, and our current levels of reliance on global supply chains for protein, and increasing diversity and resilience in farming and food systems. A particular challenge that Russia’s war on Ukraine is creating, however, is a framing of the narrative which paints the relationship between farming and biodiversity as a ‘zero-sum game’ – a situation where both players cannot benefit simultaneously.

This type of pushback against integrating conservation and farming can be seen in recent concern about the possible watering down of the green elements of future English farming policy and reminds me of the “pause” put on biodiversity conservation following the financial crisis because - it was argued - we couldn’t afford to do it. But this is a fallacy – we cannot afford to NOT do it, in the same way we can’t afford not to tackle climate change. So, what can scientists do? A farm is a complex system that, if it is functioning sustainably, has diversity at every level from its crops and inputs to the whole landscape in which it sits. At this critical time, we have to get out there and get busy, explaining why biodiversity is a key part of the toolkit for addressing these global crises rather than a burden that we can’t afford to support. And we will be doing just that with our stall focussing on crop mixtures and sustainable cropping at the upcoming Royal Highland Show. I hope to see you there.

Disclaimer: The views expressed in this blog post are the views of the author(s), and not an official position of the institute or funder.

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Printed from /blogs/EcologicalSciences/farming-and-biodiversity-why-do-we-think-it-zero-sum-game on 29/11/22 01:26:13 AM

The James Hutton Research Institute is the result of the merger in April 2011 of MLURI and SCRI. This merger formed a new powerhouse for research into food, land use, and climate change.