Regenerative agriculture and landscape innovation
By Fran Southgate
Living Landscape Advisor
There is an urgent need to find high impact, landscape scale, community based solutions to the climate and biodiversity crises. With around 70% of UK land designated as farmland, many eyes have naturally focused on the farming world to come up with the solutions. Indeed it makes sense to investigate the potential for climate change mitigation within this land holding.
There are clear cases where commercial agriculture has contributed to both these crises, but so have many other sectors of society. There are also clear cases where farmers and landowners have been the ones protecting our natural environment. We know we need to create future farming solutions in partnership with the stewards of our land, through what are challenging and uncertain times for everyone, the question is, how?
Many farmers and land owners are already a step ahead with creating an adaptable food and farming culture with positive solutions to current climate, biodiversity and food issues. Fantastic organisations such as Agricology, Groundswell and the Oxford Real Farming Conference, have been fast tracking regenerative and sustainable agriculture, with outstanding results. Regenerative agriculture is clearly out-performing other farming systems in many areas, including food production and wildlife enhancement.
This holds huge promise for future climate proofing and farming in tune with nature. Much of regenerative agriculture is a re-learning of traditional soil conservation, herbal forage and mob grazing techniques, which respects and intuitively works with valuable natural resources such as plants, soils, and water, to build and conserve natural capital and soil carbon. As conservation organisations we recognize the influence and innovation of this farming approach and are trying to support it wherever we can.
It is mooted that if 5.8% of farmland can be converted into tree canopy (pasture woodland or agro forestry), it could significantly contribute to achieving net zero carbon in the UK. Likewise, if between 1 & 4% of non productive farmland were set aside for rewilding and the creation of natural capital (water storage and natural flood management, natural scrub regeneration, soil and peat restoration etc.), we could create a significant climate buffer in a relatively short period of time. Integrating farming, forestry, and organic land management is vital to this process. The overall productivity of a piece of land in agroforestry can be up to 30% greater than a land which is either in forestry, or agriculture alone, and organically farmed land has been shown to have up to 50% more wildlife than non organic.
It’s not just about what we farm either, it is about who farms, where their markets are, and how we consume what is produced. Often we put food and farming together, but they are two very different things in the modern world. With up to 50% of UK food wasted every year, local people have enormous power to reduce the carbon footprint of food and agriculture and to influence what is produced/consumed and where. The UK imports around 50% of its food – so if local communities and individuals all support local food markets, the carbon footprint of our imports would crash.
Cooperative community land ownership and share food schemes with in-built climate resilience are also growing in momentum. Enabling access to land and food production for the non-land owning community is supported by organizations like the Ecological Land Coop and the Plunkett Foundation. Farm mentoring schemes and share farming where we grow the potential of our communities to create circular, self supporting economies and local food are another solution growing in strength.
To some extent, we are starting at ground zero. Our landscapes naturally incline towards abundance, so the degradation and paucity of wildlife and natural capital currently in them is of huge concern – but this also provides huge potential for positive change. At our Landscape Innovation Conference in January 2020, our keynote speakers, will be exploring themes of sustainable farming. We hope that you will join us for some interesting discussions on how to bring farming and conservation together for the future benefit of wildlife and local people.