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.

Recent Grants

Neil Ranson, Mark Harris, Ade Whitehouse, Peter Stockley, Sheena Radford, Alan Berry, Wellcome Trust (Mar 2016), £1,000,000

Katie Field, BBSRC (Jan 2016), £830,381

Alan Berry, Alex Breeze, Adam Nelson, BBSRC (Jan 2016), £479,490

Alan Berry, Wellcome Trust (Oct 2015), £752,365

Julie Aspden, MRC (Oct 2015), £633,020

Steve Sait, NERC (Oct 2015), £386,061

Urwin, Howard Atkinson, BBSRC (Oct 2015), £200,293

Eric Hewitt, Andrew Macdonald, Yorkshire Kidney Research Fund (Oct 2015), £46,621

Ade Whitehouse, Alison Ashcroft, Ian Carr, BBSRC (Sep 2015), £438,975

Dave Westhead, Leukaemia & Lymphoma Research Leukaemia & Lymphoma Research (Sep 2015), £430,567

Shaunna Burke, Andrea Utley, Sarah Astill, Arts Council of England (Sep 2015), £80,594

Samit Chakrabarty, Ronaldo Ichiyama, Intl Foundn for Research in Paraplegia (Aug 2015), £93,000

Eileen Ingham, John Fisher, EPSRC (Jul 2015), £1,458,439

Anastasia Zhuravleva, BBSRC (Jul 2015), £483,019

Alex O'Neill, MRC (Jul 2015), £249,822

Ade Whitehouse, Richard Foster, Cancer Research UK (Jul 2015), £201,034

Ronaldo Ichiyama, Jim Deuchars, Sue Deuchars, Wings For Life Spinal Cord Research (Jul 2015), £123,895

Helen Miller, ABNA Ltd (Jul 2015), £22,968

Martin Stacey and colleagues in FMH, MRC (Jun 2015), £426,475

Adrian Goldman, Sarah Harris, Roman Tuma, BBSRC (Jun 2015), £420,693

Elwyn Isaac, EU (Jun 2015), £238,915

Christine Foyer, BBSRC (Jun 2015), £160,401

Adrian Goldman, EU (Jun 2015), £116,331

David Brockwell, Sheena Radford, Innovate UK (Jun 2015), £113,378

Yoselin Benitez-Alfonso, EPSRC (Jun 2015), £93,672

Michelle Peckham, Peter Knight, Thomas Edwards, BBSRC (May 2015), £404,987

Michelle Peckham, Ed White, Peter Knight, BHF (May 2015), £208,184

Dave Westhead, Sheena Radford, Alex Breeze, BBSRC (May 2015), £51,021

Steve Clapcote, Vitaflo International Ltd (May 2015), £33,703

Les Firbank, Joe Holden, Pippa Chapman, NERC (Apr 2015), £388,726

Samit Chakrabarty, David Steenson, BBSRC (Apr 2015), £120,103

Paul Millner, Gin Jose, Sarah Aickin, DSTL Porton Down (Apr 2015), £63,407

Chris Hassell, David Lewis, The Physiological Society (Apr 2015), £6,900

Andrew Tuplin, Royal Society (Mar 2015), £15,000

Yoselin Benitez-Alfonso, Royal Society (Mar 2015), £14,770

Patricija Van Oosten-Hawle, Royal Society (Mar 2015), £13,960

Stuart Egginton, BHF (Mar 2015), £272,979

Keith Hamer, Department of Energy & Climate Change (Mar 2015), £58,066

Andrew Macdonald, Yorkshire Kidney Research Fund (Mar 2015), £41,171

Les Firbank, DEFRA Dept for Env. Food & Rural Affairs (Feb 2015), £20,000

Ian Hope, Marie-Anne Shaw, BBSRC (Jan 2015), £381,998

Paul Knox, BBSRC (Jan 2015), £5,000

Andrew Peel, BBSRC (Jan 2015), £359,077

Christine Foyer, BBSRC (Jan 2015), £408,334

Dave Westhead and colleagues in Experimental Haematology, Cancer Research UK (Jan 2015), £700,521

Mike McPherson, Christoph Walti, DSTL Porton Down (Jan 2015), £625,125

Sheena Radford, Mark Harris, Peter Stockley, Alan Berry, Alex O'Neill, Thomas Edwards, Adrian Goldman, Anastasia Zhuravleva, Wellcome Trust (Jan 2015), £443,015

Alison Ashcroft, Peter Stockley, Sheena Radford, Nicola Stonehouse, David Brockwell, Darren Tomlinson, BBSRC (Jan 2015), £340,937

Bill Kunin, EU (Jan 2015), £157,490

John Colyer, Leeds Teaching Hospitals Charitable Fund (Jan 2015), £40,000

Chris Hassall, Royal Society (Dec 2014), £14,500

Ryan Seipke, Royal Society (Nov 2014), £13,700

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


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