What agricultural practices could deliver “sustainable intensification”?

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Many farms already implement environmental practices aimed at increasing agricultural productivity while delivering environmental and societal benefits. This shows promise for a move towards Sustainable Intensification.

In their paper “What agricultural practices are most likely to deliver “sustainable intensification” in the UK?” a team of researchers led by Lynn Dicks of UEA analysed practices likely to deliver sustainable intensification. They were looking to identify promising practices that are currently available for UK farms but not yet widely adopted.

The study looked across a set of 18 practices, covering most elements of Integrated Farm Management  but with a greater focus on crops, animals, soil and inputs, than on other elements.

They found that technological solutions featured highly across the priority interventions, with only one of the 18 practices relating to natural habitats, wildlife or ecosystem services. For example, “Wildflower strips”, “Grass margins or beetle banks for pest control”, and “Reduce cutting of hedgerows” were all ultimately rejected by the groups.

The 18 priority practices were found to correspond well to Weltin et al.’s (2018) “agronomic development” and “resource use efficiency” fields of action, with almost all the SI approaches defined by Weltin et al.  represented in the set of practices.

Since Welton et al.’s framework was based on a systematic literature review of 349 papers, over 20 years of research, this fit adds considerable strength to the set of priority practices.

Priority practices for Sustainable Intensification (SI).

  1. Grow crop varieties with increased tolerance to stresses such as drought, pests or disease
  2. Reduce tillage to minimum or no till
  3.  Incorporate cover crops, green manures and other sources of organic matter to improve soil structure
  4. Improve animal nutrition to optimise productivity (and quality) and reduce the environmental footprint of livestock systems
  5. Reseed pasture for improved sward nutrient value and/or diversity
  6. Predict disease and pest outbreaks using weather and satellite data, and use this information to optimise inputs
  7. Adopt precision farming: using the latest technology (e.g. GPS) to target delivery of inputs (water, seeds, pesticides, fertilisers, livestock manures)
  8. Monitor and control on‐farm energy use
  9. Improve the use of agriculturally marginal land for natural habitats to provide benefits such as soil improvement, pollution control or pollination, and allow wildlife to thrive
  10. Provide training for farm staff on how to improve sustainability/environmental performance
  11. Use soil and plant analysis with technology to use fertiliser more efficiently
  12. Plant legumes—includes peas and beans, for forage and other products
  13. Use animal health diagnostics to enhance livestock productivity and animal welfare
  14. Keep more productive/prolific livestock—genetics, breeding technologies
  15. Controlled traffic farming to minimise soil compaction and energy use
  16. Reduce the risks associated with pesticide use by adopting IPM technique
  17. Optimise grazing management to reduce bought‐in feeds and increase nitrogen use efficiency
  18. Benchmarking of environmental, in addition to financial, performance

Conclusions

Although it is  likely that a different group of stakeholders would select a slightly different set of priority practices, the team made a concerted effort to represent a wide range of different viewpoints and expertise. For many of the practices there was strong agreement,  illustrated by the fact that only 18 priority practices emerged when three separate groups selected their top 10 in the workshop, indicating substantial overlap between the groups.

Greater adoption than thought

Dicks comments that the most surprising point about the uptake of the 10 selected practices is how widely practiced they seem to be in the study areas.

“Seven of the 10 practices were already being used by more than half the surveyed arable farmers and seven of the 10 practices were already being used by one quarter or more of the livestock farmers.

“The most widely used practice was actively managing natural habitats on marginal land for wildlife or ecosystem service benefits (used by 76% of livestock farmers, 86% of arable farmers in England and Wales).

“Minimum or no till agriculture was used by 81% of arable farmers while 73% of livestock farmers said they were improving animal nutrition to optimise productivity and reduce the environmental footprint of livestock systems.”

Innovative farmers

This finding is supported by other research. In a recent survey of 271 farmers from seven European countries, including 20 UK farms (Kernecker, Knierim, & Wurbs, 2017), 77% of farmers said they experimented on their farms. Cover cropping, including green manure, trying new crop varieties and rotations and testing new cultivation techniques, including tillage and soil management methods, were frequently mentioned among experiments being conducted.

These authors classed 130 (48%) of the 271 farmers surveyed across seven European countries as “adopters” of Smart Farming Technologies (explicitly including precision agriculture), based on their attitudes and preferences.

These findings support the survey results, indicating that European and UK farmers are innovative and keen to adopt new practices to improve sustainability and productivity.

Inconsistent definitions?

There are, however, at least three reasons why our survey might have over‐estimated the UK‐wide uptake of the practices identified. One possible explanation for the apparent high uptake of some practices is that the descriptions of them were too broad or generic, encompassing a spectrum of practices.

Farmers underestimated?

A second, alternative interpretation to explain why practices considered not widely adopted by this group of stakeholders turned out to be widely adopted by this set of farmers, is that the original stakeholder group was not well informed. Perhaps our results represent a disconnect between the world of agricultural research and the actual business of farming, or an exaggeration in the perception of farmers’ reluctance to take up new practices.

Self selecting farmers?

A third plausible explanation for reported high uptake rates is that the farmers responding to our survey were a biased, self‐selected set of farmers interested in, and enthusiastic about, SI.

There is some evidence to suggest this is not the case. The surveyed farmers were also asked questions about their understanding and level of engagement with SI and many showed very low awareness and poor understanding of the concept, indicating they are not a self‐selected group of farmers engaging with sustainability issues.

Indicates potential for SI

If the greatest potential for SI is reflected by a larger than expected number of farmers saying they would consider a particular practice, then “Predict pest and disease outbreaks” on livestock farms, and “Provide training for farm staff on how to improve sustainability/environmental performance” on arable farms are where efforts should be focused to enable innovation.

Decision support

For predicting pests and diseases, some kind of decision support tool is likely to be required. As examples, online tools are available for both arable and livestock farmers in the UK to support decision‐making around disease and pest control, based on monitoring and forecasting of current problems.

Incentivise training

The majority of farmers in our survey do not train staff on how to improve sustainability or environmental performance. Indeed, most (62% of livestock farms and 37% of arable farms) saw this practice as “not applicable”. For some farms, this could be because they have very few, if any, staff.

We suggest that policymakers keen to enable SI consider ways to encourage or incentivise sustainability training for farm staff.

In summary, this set of priority practices for SI provides policy makers, researchers and farmers with a starting point for thinking about how to implement SI in practice.

It does not represent a blueprint for a SI strategy, because different sets of practices are appropriate for different production systems, and another set of stakeholders, at a different time, would be likely to have chosen a different set. However, together with data on uptake on existing farms, this can provide some strategic guidance on which practices might be useful to promote through education, awareness‐raising and incentives.

The paper is available to read:

What agricultural practices are most likely to deliver “sustainable intensification” in the UK?

Lynn V. Dicks David C. Rose Frederic Ang Stephen Aston A. Nicholas E. Birch Nigel Boatman Elizabeth L. Bowles David Chadwick Alex Dinsdale Sam Durham John Elliott First published: 25 August 2018

https://doi.org/10.1002/fes3.148

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