Faculty of Biological Sciences

Research Bulletin

Bigger thinking needed to make farming more sustainable

10th September 2012

A larger-scale approach to sustainable farming could be more beneficial for wildlife than our current system of farm-based payments, according to faculty researchers

As the global population grows, demands on land become ever greater and environmental change is likely to add to the pressure.

The team, working within the UK research councils' Rural Economy and Land Use programme, has been investigating the most effective approaches to optimising sustainable food production while protecting wildlife.

They conclude that conservation of populations of animals and plants requires thinking and planning across the landscape, because it is at this scale, not the farm scale, that many ecological processes happen. A key advance in thinking is not how to make each farm more wildlife friendly in itself, but how to make the landscape as a whole better for producing both food and wildlife.

Farming systems that avoid using chemicals to increase yields are often thought to be the best options from a conservation point of view, but this research has shown that a mixture of high-yield, intensive farming and land managed for nature can, in some instances, produce both more food and more wildlife than the pursuit of wildlife-friendly farming across the whole landscape.

The team argues for more coherent planning of our whole approach to intensive and non-intensive production. Their research provides important pointers for this kind of strategy at farm, landscape, UK policy and European Common Agricultural Policy level.

Within each area some land needs to be managed for wildlife, and how best to do this will depend on the landscape. Across the UK, different landscapes may also be better at producing food or producing ecosystem services, so one approach may be to concentrate more conservation efforts in particular areas, such as the uplands and coastal wetlands, which are particularly wildlife friendly, while enabling areas that are best suited to food production to be farmed intensively.

Landscape level planning requires creating and connecting suitable habitat patches, on farms and off farms, into a larger-scale network. Most conventional farms already have areas that are not farmed or produce poor yields and, as precision farming techniques become more widespread, unproductive land will become very easy to identify. This may be useful for wildlife but only if carefully managed for that purpose within a larger network of habitats.

As the optimal way to manage a landscape to produce farming and wildlife will vary from place to place, a common policy framework may be needed setting overall aims and processes for making decisions, with implementation devolved to county or regional level.

Professor Tim Benton, Professor of Population Ecology in the Faculty of Biological Sciences, said: "Thinking at a larger scale to create sustainable landscapes is the key. Reform of the Common Agricultural Policy provides an important opportunity to create sustainable landscapes, as it is championing 'sparing land' from food production on each farm to contribute to environmental aims. This 'spared land' could constitute a landscape-scale network if properly designed and managed.

"But we also need to plan a strategy that works at national level and look at how intensive farming within sustainable landscapes in some localities could be balanced by prioritising wildlife to a greater degree in others. Only by much larger-scale thinking can we hope to achieve the holy grail of increased production that is sustainable and does not damage irreparably the natural processes that we all depend upon."

The Rural Economy and Land Use Programme is an interdisciplinary collaboration between the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC), the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) and the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC), with additional funding provided by the Scottish Government and Defra.


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Alan Berry, Wellcome Trust (Oct 2014), £749,865

Paul Knox, EU (Oct 2014), £167,229

Andrew Peel, BBSRC (Sep 2014), £371,598

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Neil Ranson, BBSRC (Aug 2014), £355,253

Stuart Egginton, BHF (Aug 2014), £271,094

Darren Tomlinson, Mike McPherson, Technology Strategy Board (Aug 2014), £98,665

Peter Henderson, Leverhulme Trust (Aug 2014), £15,222

Mike McPherson (and colleagues in the School of Chemistry), EPSRC (Jul 2014), £819,880

Peter Stockley, Neil Ranson, BBSRC (Jul 2014), £455,787

Sheena Radford, Univesity of Michigan (Jul 2014), £138,452

Ryan Seipke, British Society Antimicrobial Chemistry (Jun 2014), £11,960

John Trinick, BHF (Jun 2014), £222,614

Chris West, Leverhulme Trust (Jun 2014), £181,241

Jon Lippiat, Darren Tomlinson, BBSRC (May 2014), £125,174

Christine Foyer, Royal Society (May 2014), £24,000

David Brockwell, Sheena Radford, Medimmune Ltd (Apr 2014), £337,661

Peter Stockley, Wellcome Trust (Apr 2014), £251,019

Mike McPherson, Wellcome Trust (Apr 2014), £146,596

Andrew Macdonald, Kidney Research Fund UK (Apr 2014), £127,237

Elwyn Isaac, DEFRA (Apr 2014), £126,512

Mike McPherson (and colleagues in School of Design), Technology Strategy Board (Apr 2014), £114,350

Paul Millner, Peter Stockley, Darren Tomlinson, YCR (Apr 2014), £95,874

Carrie Ferguson, Karen Birch, Shaunna Burke, Heart Research UK (Apr 2014), £60,140

Tim Benton, Technology Strategy Board (Apr 2014), £24,969

Bill Kunin, Technology Strategy Board (Apr 2014), £21,244

Dave Westhead, MRC (Apr 2014), £18,304

Brendan Davies, BBSRC (Mar 2014), £451,829

Jim Deuchars, MRC (Mar 2014), £300,000

Urwin, Howard Atkinson, British Potato Council (Mar 2014), £69,953

Adam Kupinski, Children with Cancer (Mar 2014), £50,000

Anastasia Zhuravleva, Royal Society (Mar 2014), £14,973

Urwin, Howard Atkinson, Agriculture & Horticulture Develpmnt Brd (Mar 2014), £13,990

Alison Baker, Steve Baldwin, BBSRC (Feb 2014), £403,439

Sarah Zylinski, BBSRC (Feb 2014), £355,869

Dave Lewis, Nigel Hooper, Tony Turner, Hugh Pearson, James Duce, Alzheimer's Society (Feb 2014), £29,871

Ronaldo Ichyama, Samit Chakrabarty, International Spinal Research Trust (Jan 2014), £304,600

Brendan Davies, BBSRC/Bayer Crop Science SA-NV (Jan 2014), £470,053

Adrian Goldman, Steve Baldwin, Stephen Muench, Thomas Edwards, Arwen Pearson , BBSRC (Jan 2014), £467,103

Stefan Kepinski, BBSRC (Jan 2014), £359,269

Elwyn Isaac, EU (Jan 2014), £179,445

Dave Westhead, Leukaemia & Lymphoma Research (Jan 2014), £105,937

Eileen Ingham, Joanne Tipper, Depuy International Ltd (Jan 2014), £48,121

John Barr, Thomas Edwards, MRC (Dec 2013), £469,505

Alex O'Neill, MRC (Dec 2013), £349,017

Tim Benton, NERC (Dec 2013), £31,422

Darren Tomlinson, Yorkshire Cancer Research (Nov 2013), £142,334

Nikita Gamper, MRC (Nov 2013), £336,563

Keith Hamer, Alison Dunn, NERC (Nov 2013), £47,233

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