Incentivising farmers to put aside farmland for nature could cut taxpayer costs in half, while delivering for climate and food production targets, a new study suggests.
Restoring some farmland as habitats for nature could deliver UK targets at half the taxpayer cost of integrating nature into land managed for food production, researchers say.
They add that the study's findings should inform a rethink of England’s new Environmental Land Management Scheme (ELMs).
Led by the universities of Cambridge, Leeds and Glasgow, it provides the first evidence for the taxpayer savings offered by focusing food production in certain areas to allow the creation of new habitats on some of the land used for farming.
The study suggests that this “land sparing” approach would cost just 48% of the funds required to achieve the same outcomes for biodiversity and the climate through an approach known as “land sharing”.
This is where conservation measures get mixed into farming by adding hedgerows to fields, reducing pesticides, and so on – all of which lowers food yield.
Additionally, the researchers say that trying to share land with nature through making farming more wildlife-friendly would see the UK lose 30% more of its food production capacity than if farmers are encouraged to spare portions of land entirely for creating semi-natural habitats.
The UK government has legally binding commitments to reverse nature declines by 2030 and reach net zero carbon by 2050.
The researchers say that sparing land for habitats could hit these targets at half the cost of trying to farm on land shared with nature.
“Currently, only a fraction of the £3.2 billion of public money annually paid to farmers goes on biodiversity and climate mitigation, some £600m a year,” said Lydia Collas, who led the study at Cambridge.
“Almost all this fraction of funding supports land-sharing approaches that may do little to benefit species or sequester carbon, but do typically reduce food yields.
"Until now there has been no research on whether this is the most cost-effective solution to delivering environmental targets.”
Prof Andrew Balmford, senior author, added: “Greater incentives for farmers to create woodlands and wetlands will deliver for wild species and climate mitigation at half the cost to the taxpayer of the land-sharing approach that currently receives ten times more public funding.”
The researchers conducted a choice experiment study with 118 farmers responsible for 1.7% of all England’s arable land, asking them to estimate the payments they would require to implement land-sharing practices or habitat-creating “sparing” approaches on their land.
Farmers chose from a variety of agricultural approaches, nature interventions and, crucially, payment rates. The study also considered the government's costs of administering and monitoring these schemes.
The team used three bird species – yellowhammers, bullfinches and lapwings – as a proxy for effects on biodiversity, as well a range of ways farmers could help slow climate change, such as woodland and hedgerow creation.
On average, farmers in the experiment accepted lower payments per hectare for land sharing practices.
However, habitat creation schemes deliver far greater environmental outcomes per hectare, so creating woodlands, wetlands and scrublands would deliver the same overall biodiversity and climate mitigation benefits at half the cost to the taxpayer.
“We found that enough farmers are willing to substantially change their business to benefit from payments for public goods in the form of habitats, provided the government rewards them properly for doing so,” said Prof Balmford.
The study was published in People and Nature.