Farming News - Concentrate farming to leave room for species & carbon

Concentrate farming to leave room for species & carbon

Farming should be as high-yield as possible so it can be limited to relatively small areas, allowing much more land to be left as natural habitats while still meeting future food targets, according to a major new analysis of over a decade of research.

Most species fare better under this “land sparing” approach than if farming tries to share land with nature – as wildlife-friendly agriculture still damages most biodiversity and requires far more land to produce the same amount of food.

This is the conclusion of research that takes into account over 2,500 individually assessed plant, insect and vertebrate species from five continents. The review, conducted by Prof Andrew Balmford, also suggests that “land sparing” sequesters more carbon, and may well benefit marine life if applied to oceans.

“Figuring out how to feed, clothe and power 11 billion people without causing mass species extinction and wrecking the climate is this century’s greatest challenge,” he said. “Preserving diverse life while meeting humanity’s needs will mean enormous trade-offs, but the evidence is starting to point in one direction.”

In a paper published in the Journal of Zoology, Balmford lays out the case for securing the highest levels of production we can from land – and water – already farmed, in order to spare remaining wilderness from cows, ploughs, chainsaws and trawler nets.

“Most species fare much better if habitats are left intact, which means reducing the space needed for farming. So areas that are farmed need to be as productive as we can possibly make them,” he said.

Some species thrive on traditional farmland, particularly in Europe, where light grazing by livestock can imitate “disturbance” once caused by large prehistoric mammals, creating habitats for many species that otherwise struggle. As such, some low-yield farming should be factored in, says Balmford, but at a low level.

The UK Government-commissioned National Food Strategy (NFS), published in the summer, recommended that Balmford’s “three-compartment” model – harnessing high-yield farming in order to leave space for many more protected habitats, with pockets of traditional agriculture to preserve farmland-associated species – should form the basis of a new “Rural Land Use framework”.

The NFS points out that around 21% of farmed land in England will need to be re-wilded to some extent or used for biofuel if the UK is to meet its net zero targets, and that the entire bottom third of farmed land produces just 15% of English agricultural output.