New report sheds light on how UK farming can meet the sustainability challenge

Farming systems that work with nature can be profitable and productive, the report said
Farming systems that work with nature can be profitable and productive, the report said

A new report urges farmers to meet the sustainability challenge by 'redesigning' their farming systems by utilising natural resources.

The report aims to show farmers how they can become more sustainable using natural resources, such as clover grass leys in the crop rotation.

It was written by two UK farming research institutions; the Organic Research Centre and the GWCT’s Allerton Project.

The aim was to investigate how the science of agroecology can play a central role in the way farmland is managed in the future.

Analysing the practical experiences of a group of farmers from England, Scotland and Wales, the report aims to unravel farmer expectations, risks and opportunities to help form future policy in the UK based on agroecological farming practices.

The group of fourteen farmers involved in the study were diverse and wide ranging – from small scale to large commercial enterprises with on-farm approaches covering agroforestry, pasture-fed livestock systems, organic and integrated farming with direct drilling and/or integration of livestock in arable operations.

'Environmentally aware'

The case studies of those farmers involved in the research showed that transition is an active learning process.

Generally, the farmers were seeking a long-term economic perspective on future-proofing their farms, for example through investment in the natural capital of soil and soil fertility as well as through premium prices from quality labels, direct marketing or engagement with supply chains as well as seeking cost-savings on inputs.

They also reported shifts in their understanding of farming (“change in mind-set, “weeds as forage” and “accepting mess”).

Having started with some agroecological practices and seeing positive outcomes, the farmers then considered adopting others to ‘redesign’ their farming systems.

Dr Susanne Padel from the Organic Research Centre and a co-author of the study said farmers who are "environmentally aware, skilled and knowledgeable have much to offer".

“Transition to agroecology is a learning process for any farmer which can take time. Various personal, farm specific and external events can trigger farms into thinking about such change and the farmers that participated in our report illustrate quite clearly the benefits to the environment, the productivity achievements as well as the challenges and risks,” Dr Padel said.

'New business ventures'

The report concludes that farming systems that work with nature can be profitable and productive while providing both environmental, social and personal benefits.

Meeting inspirational people in the UK and abroad, valuing peer to peer exchange of information with like-minded people rather than top-down knowledge transfer were crucial factors.

Rob Cooke from Natural England and Chair of LUPG said: “More environmentally sustainable farming such as the agroecological approaches considered in the study provide opportunities to develop new business ventures, in turn helping to develop the rural economy.”

The report has recommendations for further action to support agroecology, including the need to develop a support programme to facilitate the transition towards more sustainable farming systems.