Today we are publishing the summary report for our Science for Defra: excellence in the application of evidence conference.

Farmed land

Today we are publishing the summary report for our Science for Defra: excellence in the application of evidence conference. To accompany this, we are also publishing the final blog post in our Sci4Defra series. Both food and farming and the natural environment were topics that featured heavily in the conference and here Charles Godfray FRS and Georgina Mace FRS summarise their respective sessions. We then go on to consider how food and farming and the natural environment should be considered jointly if we are to design and sensible land use policy to replace the Common Agricultural Policy post-Brexit.

Charles Godfray FRS – Food and Farming

The food and farming sector is a critical part of the British economy and has major effects on numerous other aspects of our life, from the environment to health to national identity. How can the sector adapt to the challenges it faces, including EU exit, climate change, increasing global demand for food and the obesity crisis?

Take food security first. Food scarcity will be signaled by increasing prices and the sector will respond by increasing supply through the workings of the market. Two market failures may lead to inefficient responses. First, the sector may lack the human and intellectual capital to increase production and productivity efficiently. There is a role for government and other bodies in stimulating research, translation and training. Second, the market response may be economically efficient but harm the environment because of uncosted externalities. We need a regulatory and incentive system that ensures any intensification of production is genuinely environmentally sustainable.

Farming occurs in the countryside which provides not just food but a host of other private and public benefits. There are many non-farming rural businesses and we rely on the countryside for recreation and ecosystem services such as water purification and flood mitigation, as well as a home for wildlife and for their embodied cherished landscapes. As we craft new ways to support rural economies as we exit the EU might it be possible to use the greater flexibility this will allow to both maintain a vibrant farming sector and obtain greater public goods from the public money we invest in the countryside?

Georgina Mace FRS – The Natural Environment

The natural world is constantly changing, due to climate change, human activity and the natural evolution and expansion of populations. This has implications for environmental policy. It means that we cannot simply strive for our natural world to remain unchanged, but should instead embrace and value positive change.

I opened the session by asking the audience ‘What is the natural environment?’ In my experience this is not an easily definable term and I had given it some thought.

Much of what we think of when we think of the natural environment actually has the finger (or boot) prints of people all over it. We have managed the land for thousands of years and the countryside we see today is the product of these many years of intervention, including the species and habitats within it. There is nothing natural about many peoples’ view of the countryside.

So back to my original question, what is the natural environment? I proposed:

“The natural environment encompasses all living and non-living processes that are not man-made.”

But perhaps what is most important, is that the term natural environment creates fond, nostalgic feelings towards the green and blue world that people have experienced and come to know and love. These thoughts and motivations should be at the heart of all natural environment policymaking and feed closely into debates surrounding the Common Agricultural Policy and the framework which might replace it post EU exit.

A unified approach

There were certainly commonalities between Charles and Georgina’s sessions. Agriculture, as well as providing food, can provide other ecosystem services which could be rewarded under a new agricultural policy framework.

Throughout the conference there was a theme of land use and balancing food and farming needs with those of the natural environment; competing but yet often complimentary objectives. There was also the sense that interdisciplinary working and public engagement will be absolutely essential for future agricultural and environmental policy in the future.

But what are society’s needs and demands from the natural environment? A sophisticated debate in the public sphere and involving all stakeholders will be required to determine this. However, below we attempt to condense the areas that will require consideration into three broad categories:

 1. Public goods

Many of our interactions with the countryside provide health and wellbeing benefits, from walking the dog, climbing a hill, breathing in fresh air, feelings of community and simply looking at a blue and green (as opposed to grey) space. In addition, the countryside can have less immediately tangible benefits to our health and wellbeing such as the maintenance of genetic resources through biodiversity, carbon sequestration and resilience to extreme weather, for example, flood protection.

All of these can be considered public goods. Public goods are those where if one person receives the good, it does not reduce the value of that good to anyone else. In this respect, it is almost impossible to create an economic market for these.

Farmers and land owners can often be seen as custodians of the countryside, tasked with maintaining and protecting these diverse benefits as well as productively farming the land for profit.

2. Agricultural productivity

It is widely acknowledged that the UK is unlikely to ever be fully self-sufficient, due to the size of the population and the available land and resources. However despite its small size, the UK has a world leading, innovative agricultural sector.

We are tasked with maximising the agricultural productivity of our land and promoting the economic success of our farming sector whilst also minimising the environmental impact and maintaining a countryside that we can all recognise and enjoy. It turns out there are actually many ways to manage the land where environmental and agricultural benefits go hand in hand.

New technologies were described which will allow increases in the efficiency of farming practice, often alongside minimising environmental impacts. Precision farming (see the previous Science for Defra blog post on data) through the use of satellite technology and drones can reduce soil compaction and allow more targeted application of fertilisers and pesticides. Land sparing and land sharing was also outlined; cleverly configuring land use so that we prioritise the right things in the right places (see previous blog post on this topic).

 3. Rural communities and economy

Some policies cannot simply be made at a national level. Local areas and communities often have a good understanding of the public goods that their land provides and how best to manage them effectively. No two rural areas are the same, and methods which work in one area may not be directly transferrable to another. For any future agricultural policy, consideration of the broader community and the local context should help to avoid the creation of box-ticking exercises and allow farmers to be valued as both food producers and environmental custodians across a variety of contexts.

Knowledge sharing and professional development for farmers as well as attracting young people into the industry is a huge challenge for the farming industry and rural economy. The average age of a farmer in the UK is 58. With the advent of new technologies and the multifaceted role of farmers in the modern world, a very different set of skills is now required.

Next steps

These three elements are all about how we use the land, and many conference attendees called for a coherent land use policy in the UK. Future conversations should consider of how we use the land for human health and wellbeing as well as its role in food production and ecosystem services.

Watch this space for more on these topics as we develop these ideas during the coming months.


  • Charles Godfray FRS

    Charles Godfray FRS

  • Georgina Mace FRS

    Georgina Mace FRS

  • Sarah Giles

    Sarah Giles

  • Gabrielle Laing

    Gabrielle Laing