Sustainable Intensification Project

Viewpoint: Why nature is one of farming's best assets

29 Nov 2016

James Petts, Senior Specialist - Farming and the Environment, Natural England on the synergies to be found between good agriculture and ecosystem services.

Around 7,000 species of plants have been eaten by humans at one time or another. In many cases, the wild relatives of these foods still occur in the natural environment, including oats, beet, carrot, parsnip, radish and asparagus. These wild relatives of crops are invaluable to our food security, as they provide the ‘gene bank’ which is required to develop new crop varieties capable of responding to the challenges of climate change, water scarcity, and land availability. It’s estimated that 20-40% of the increase in crop yields since 1945 has been due to genetic improvement, with 30% of this increase due to crossing cultivated plants with their wild relatives[1].

Similarly, a genetic diversity of domesticated and wild animals is vital for future food security. Worldwide, over 6,500 breeds of domesticated mammals and birds are under immediate threat of extinction, reducing the genetic diversity for options in a changing environment. In order to maintain this genetic resource, and allow its evolution in response to changes in climate, the protection and enhancement of our natural environment is vital.

As well as containing the genetic codes for crop varieties and livestock breeds, our natural environment also provides many of the ‘ecosystem services’ upon which food production relies: whether it’s the regulation of nitrogen cycles, purifying water and air, or helping to recycle organic wastes, the protection of the terrestrial and marine environments will underpin food security by maintaining these services upon which we depend.

Research by the Rural Economy and Land Use (RELU) programme concluded that it is possible to balance farming and wildlife objectives in ways that appeal to farmers. For example, a variety of management techniques (such as habitat management for natural enemies) exists to reduce the need for pesticide use, improving sustainability without sacrificing yield[2],[3].  Nonetheless, reconciling increased agricultural productivity with an enhanced natural environment is a key challenge of the 21st Century.

Of course, some organisms can have a detrimental impact on agricultural yields in the form of pests and diseases, but other organisms can regulate these pest species, encouraged by the provision of appropriate habitat and resources. In an analysis of sixty two Integrated Pest Management (IPM) projects in developing countries, yields increased by an average of 42% in 47 of the projects[4]. Similarly, without some organisms, our food choices would be quite limited: it is estimated that a third of all our food relies on the pollination services provided by bees and other insects, and in the UK, the value of crops grown outdoors commercially which depend upon insect pollination is estimated to be between £186 million and £567 million a year[5].

Our soil and water resources are also essential to produce our food. Water use in agriculture is highly dependent on ecosystems and biodiversity, in particular the role vegetation and soils play in water flow regulation. Good soil management can increase yields and soil fertility whilst helping to reduce the impacts on the environment. Evidence suggests that improvements in the management of soil organic matter can provide financial returns for farmers between £31 and £66 per hectare[6].

Soils also have an important role in storing and releasing carbon, with consequences for climate change. Over 10 billion tonnes of carbon is stored in UK soils[7], but an estimated 13 million tons of this is lost annually[8]. There are many opportunities for improving soil and water management in food production, to maintain or increase yields whilst lowering environmental impacts.

In 2012, the Natural England commissioned report 'Ecosystem services from Enironmental Stewardship that benefit agricultural production', found that agri-environment schemes in England are delivering a range of ecosystem goods and services, which provide benefits to agricultural productivity and farmers[9]. The report shows how agri-environment schemes are helping to protect soil and water, regulate pest species and improve pollination, which in turn support crop production. More recently, in 2015, a Land Use Policy Group report by the Organic Research Centre and Game and Wildlife Conservation Trust found that agroecological practices and systems, such as cover crops, minimum tillage, organic farming and agroforestry have an essential role to play in sustainable intensification[10].

We do not yet have all the answers as to how agricultural productivity can be improved alongside the enhancement of the natural environment. Research is required into quantifying and valuing the ecosystem services provided by the natural environment and agri-environment schemes of benefit to agricultural productivity. In addition, further research into genetic resources, agricultural practices and technologies, and integrated farming systems is essential to address the challenges of ensuring food security, ecosystem health and the reversal of biodiversity decline.

This is why the work of the Sustainable Intensification Research Platform is so important: to find viable ways of improving productivity whilst enhancing the natural environment and the ecosystem services it provides. Natural England is heartened to see such a broad range of researchers across numerous disciplines working on the Platform, sharing their knowledge with farmers, conservationists and other stakeholders. We have contributed our evidence to the Platform and will continue to work with others to find ways of meeting one of the biggest challenges of the 21st Century.


[1] UN Food and Agriculture Organisation/UN Environment Programme (2001) Convention on Biological Diversity: Agricultural Biological Diversity

[2] Relu research project.  Re-bugging the system: Promoting Adoption of Alternative Pest Management Strategies in Field Crop Systems

[3] Bale, J.S. et al (2008) Biological control and sustainable food production.  Phil. Trans. R. Soc. B (2008) 363, 761–776. doi:10.1098/rstb.2007.2182

[4] Pretty J, et al, Resource conserving agriculture increase yields in developing countries, Environ. Sci. Technol, 2006.

[5] Food and Environment Research Agency, Ecosystem Services from Environmental Stewardship that Benefit Agricultural Production. Natural England Commissioned Reports, 2012

[6] Gaunt et al, To develop a robust indicator of soil organic matter status, Defra Project SP0310, 2004.

[7] Natural England, Carbon Management by Land Managers, Review of evidence, NERR026, 2007

[8] Bellamy J, UK Losses of Soil Carbon: due to climate change?, Cranfield University, 2007

[9] Food and Environment Research Agency, Ecosystem Services from Environmental Stewardship that Benefit Agricultural Production. Natural England Commissioned Reports, 2012

[10] Lampkin, N.H., Pearce, B.D., Leake, A.R., Creissen, H., Gerrard, C.L., Girling, R., Lloyd, S., Padel, S., Smith, J., Smith, L.G., Vieweger, A., Wolfe, M.S., 2015.  The role of agroecology in sustainable intensification. Scottish Natural Heritage Commissioned Report, 2015