Globally, land use has been identified by the IPBES as one of the big drivers of the nature emergency (Global assessment report on biodiversity and ecosystem services of the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services)

The food system, in meeting society’s nutritional needs, is responsible for many impacts on the environment. Examples include emissions of pollutants, depletion of resources, loss of biodiversity and degradation of ecosystems in Wales and beyond (The European environment – state and outlook 2020).

Options for making the existing food system more efficient are limited within the ecosystem and economic spheres. It is in the social sphere, with the broad range of action civil society organisations can take, that Wales has the most options for transforming its food system.

The ecosystem sphere

The starting point for addressing the environmental impact of the food system lies in changing the way land and seas are managed, with the adoption of more sustainable farming, forestry and fishing practices.

Precision farming, agroecological systems, agroforestry, low-impact silvicultural systems and innovative horticultural systems, are options being looked at to change land use.

Promoting sustainable agricultural and agroecological practices that work with nature, will reduce artificial inputs, leading to a reduction in pollution. While the volume of production may also be reduced, profitability for landowners is often improved due to a reduction in costs (The economic potential of agroecology: Empirical evidence from Europe. Journal of Rural Studies).

Low carbon management practices include:

  • Precision farming of crops
  • Preventing soil compaction
  • Applying biochar
  • Anaerobic digestion
  • Controlled release fertilisers

These will deliver a range of benefits including improved productivity, improved air, water and soil quality, reduced pests and diseases and improved soil structure. Water and energy-smart production systems will become increasingly important as water scarcity increases and as agriculture seeks ways to reduce the emissions of greenhouse gases.

Increased biodiversity-friendly management practices include:

  • introducing flowering legumes to grasslands
  • leaving fallow crop margins
  • planting hedgerows
  • retaining and increasing areas of semi-natural habitat within and around production systems

Productivity may be positively or negatively affected or be balanced by benefits from improved ecosystem services such as drought tolerance or disease control, depending on the particular agricultural practice.

A refocused food system, and the opportunities for changes agricultural policy post-EU exit, would increase biodiversity in the farmed environment and free up land to expand woodland cover. Similarly, the use of agroforestry and hedgerow expansion, by boosting the numbers of trees and hedges, will sequester carbon and increase ecosystem services, while maintaining the primary purpose of food production.

Action in the economic sphere by both the public and private sectors can help deliver this change.

The economic sphere

A range of incentives and regulatory mechanisms have been used to steer the food system to secure a range of public policy objectives, from agri-environment schemes to Environmental Impact Assessment and fish quotas.

Sustainable farming methods offer huge potential and opportunities for farmers and could provide the basis for the transformation of agricultural policy. Sustainable methods not only provide healthier food but also considerably improve farmers' incomes. Studies show that throughout Europe, systems employing a range of more sustainable farming practices delivered between 10 and 110% increase in farm income (Van der Ploeg, and others, 2019)

A focus on improving the measurement of natural resources and the ecosystem services they provide is needed. This can help to better balance the improvement of ecosystem health alongside the provision of food, fibre and public benefits. What a ‘good’ state for the farmed environment looks like needs to be set out, monitored and modelled.

While natural resource modelling and monitoring to steer land management develops, and the EU exit brings new options for agri-environment support, a wider focus on the other components of the food system is also necessary. To totally transform the food system and do so quickly, focused effort within civil society and the social sphere is necessary.

The social sphere

Looking at the food system, from the perspective of the social sphere, encourages civil society to start engaging in redesigning the food system. This wider view of the production and consumption system considers options such as dietary changes and reducing food waste (The European environment – state and outlook 2020).

Currently farmers and consumers across Europe are targeted by governments and their agencies to deliver change. A wider focus on the social sphere would target other actors in the food industry such as suppliers, retailers and the distribution sector. This could help accelerate progress towards sustainability, as retailers, such as the large supermarkets, have a large influence on the food industry (European Environmental Agency, 2019)

Options to enable changing land use practises, mitigating climate change and securing increased woodland cover and biodiversity, include:

  • Changing diets
  • Reducing in food waste
  • Increasing food production from a smaller area of land

Society reducing its consumption of carbon-intensive foods, such as reducing meat and dairy consumption, would have a positive impact on the carbon balance. Increased plant production can drive a release of land to support more tree planting or bioenergy crops. These measures imply a shift towards meeting healthy eating guidelines that would also have a positive impact on human health.

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