The future of environmentally-friendly farming?

Our first paper on the agri-environment has just appeared in this month’s issue of PLoS Biology.  This is an important piece for us as it provides a foundation for empirical work being carried out by several group members.

The paper essentially makes three main points.  The first is that we spend a lot more money subsidizing farming than trying to mitigate its environmental impacts.  We’ve tried to plot this out below.  What you can clearly see is that the purple (mitigation expenditure) is nearly invisible relative to what is spent on subsidizing farming (shown in the orange slices).

Financial support to farmers from taxpayers and consumers associated with agricultural policies as a proportion of the total value of agricultural production (VoP) at the farm gate.

The figure now provides what is essentially a map of the ‘perversity‘ of agricultural subsidies – showing where we spend money to do things that are often bad for the environment and costly to the economy.  A first step in reducing conflict between agriculture and the natural environment would be to do away with the subsidies in orange.

The second major point is that paying farmers to do things that are good for the environment actually seems to work when looking at national-level data.  I think that this is the first time that this has been shown at this scale – albeit we do so with only about 6 observations because data are really limiting.  Regardless, there has been considerable controversy about how well agri-environment schemes work when aggregating smaller plot-level measurements at a country- or regional- scale, as done previously.

Our results now suggest that the debate around agri-environment schemes might dissolve when averaging across a national-scale because we are essentially smoothing over the noise associated with local studies.  For example, the response of biodiversity in a given plot will depend on landscape context and species-specific associations in that region.  Thus, a second step in reducing conflict between agriculture and the natural environment would be to pay farmers for delivering positive environmental actions.

Of course, paying farmers for better practice won’t solve the problem of food security – especially if those practices reduce yields, for example because paying farmers to reduce pesticide use results in more crops damaged by pests.

Giant pivot irrigator transforming Central Otago, New Zealand (from Peter Scott’s brilliant website).

The third main point that we make isn’t a new one but it emerges from our train of logic.  If we pay farmers to do things that are good for the environment but are costly to agricultural yields – we need to increase production elsewhere.  But increasing production elsewhere will often mean land conversion or displacing the impacts that we are paying some farmers to mitigate.  The result is that we end up spreading out (or sharing) land for farming and the natural environment without always benefiting the latter (and sometimes making it worse, e.g. if soybean production moves from the US Midwest to the Amazon rainforest).

A lot of research, much of which has been driven by the Conservation Science Group in Zoology, shows that this sharing of land is less effective in protecting the environment than simply ‘sparing’ land for conservation.  Therefore, the most logical solution would be to intensify production on existing lands, trying to minimize environmental impacts partly by removing harmful production subsidies, while protecting land elsewhere for conservation, consistent with the idea of outcome-based agri-environment schemes.

These three main ideas are just part of the components that we envision will be needed for a more sustainable future and we’re looking forward to testing them further!

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