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Climate challenges push farmers towards nature-friendly solutions

Nature-friendly farming solutions could offer a way forward for farmers dealing with the impact of climate change and the need to keep their farms profitable, according to a recent webinar organised by the Nature Friendly Farming Network (NFFN).

Is regenerative agriculture the answer?

While it was acknowledged that there is still work to do to convince some people of the merits of nature-friendly approaches, the webinar heard that changing weather patterns, problems with drought and flooding and the increasing struggle for farms to turn a profit are all driving people to look at alternative solutions.

Martin Lines, CEO of NFFN, said: “We have a really large mountain to climb but a lot of people are going up the mountain at various paces. There’s a growing awareness our current models are not resilient, are having an impact and are in need of change.

“The impact of climate change on food production is here and now, it’s already happening in my business and in the businesses of my farming colleagues. We can see it on the shelves when we go to buy food.”

He added: “We wouldn’t have heard much about regenerative agriculture several years ago but there’s a groundswell of opinion right across the UK and farmers who often haven’t felt represented but are doing amazing things. There are voices saying it is challenging but there are thousands of farmers delivering solutions now. There’s growing interest around this consensus and in bringing people together to show how it works.”

Farming can be about much more than just producing food

He told the webinar how his own father farmed right up to the edges of the fields to maximise production, the approach that dominated thinking in agriculture from the Second World War onwards, but how he had stepped away from that.

He spoke of the benefits of a diverse farmed landscape that serves a variety of purposes and expressed his hope that the Government’s Environmental Land Management (ELM) schemes currently being shaped will evolve to fairly reward farmers for providing ambitious environmental delivery and offer support to deliver the sort of agriculture being championed by the consensus.

He said: “The role of a farm is feeding the stomach, the heart and the mind. We need food but we also need a beautiful landscape to make the heart flutter and access to landscapes improves wellness and makes us feel better. We can play a real role in delivering all that we need to nourish ourselves. Farming is the most exciting industry with the most opportunities for the future, if we think differently.”

Nature-friendly farming can help farmers by reducing their fossil-fuel based inputs such as fertilisers, which have recently rocketed in price due to events such as the war in Ukraine. It involves prioritising soil health, sustainable and nutritious food and making space for nature, particularly to address biodiversity losses such as the declines of pollinating insects.

However, the webinar acknowledged that debates around issues such as land use and food production have become polarised. The consensus movement began in the margins of the Oxford farming conferences when farmers who were frustrated by the tone of debate and didn’t feel their voices about a nature-friendly approach were being heard reached out to other organisations about building a platform to share a common message.

We need one clear, strong, unified voice

Helen Browning, CEO of the Soil Association, told the webinar: “We need one clear, strong, unified voice. At the moment it’s just too easy for us all to be picked off and sidetracked into sterile and binary debates. When politicians are vying with each other to de-green their policies it’s crucial we show the investment we want to make will repay quickly and bring huge benefits to society.”

Webinar attendees also gave their views on three questions related to the future of farming. There was a consensus that “ecological security is crucial for food production, human wellbeing and prosperity”. A massive 91% of  those who answered the question strongly agreed with this statement.

Opinions were decidedly split over the importance of the role technology has to play in the future of agriculture. Just 5% strongly agreed that technology “will have the most important role in helping the agricultural sector meet net zero”, with 19% agreeing, 32% neutral, 32% disagreeing and 12% strongly disagreeing.

Finally the meeting threw down a challenge to politicians as 66% of those who answered strongly agreed that the current UK government “has overlooked the link between food and a resilient society”. A further 24% agreed, while 7% were neutral and 4% disagreed.

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