50% of habitable land is farmed, including 70% of the UK. If current consumption trends continue, we’ll need to produce 80% more over the coming decades to meet dietary and industry demand.
Agriculture is arguably the industry most intertwined with nature. It’s ironic then, that agriculture is also the industry most rapidly driving biodiversity and habitat loss. The irony continues because sustainable agricultural production is reliant on healthy ecosystems. Almost a third of farmland has already been lost through desertification. In the UK, some scientists have predicted we have only 60 harvests left.
Farmers know this, industry knows this and, increasingly, consumers know this. Yet systems and incentives prevent change – this is changing.
Why nature: for consumers
Brands are already cashing in on their positive environmental credentials. Patagonia, a sustainable clothing brand, was recently valued at $3bn. Unilever, the FMCG conglomerate, says brands “taking action for people and planet” grew 69% faster than peers in 2019. Similarly, Deloitte, a management consultancy, claim brands with purpose grow three times faster than their purposeless competitors.
These organisations have enjoyed a significant first-mover advantage, having effectively positioned themselves to take advantage of an increasingly eco-conscious consumer. There are and will be copycats. However, even brands not looking to boost revenues by improving and promoting their sustainability credentials will have to act.
At COP15, representatives from 188 countries agreed the Global Biodiversity Framework (GBF). The GBF will require organisations to disclose their impact on nature, and to consider the risks of nature loss to their businesses. It also lays the groundwork for mandating the restoration and protection of natural habitats.
Mandatory disclosure of nature-impact would be a powerful incentive for organisations to source soft commodities in a more sustainable way. Consumers are already punishing poor behaviour. 77% of people said they had switched, avoided or boycotted products due to their environmental policies, according to Kantar, a brand analytics consultancy. Young people – tomorrow’s majority consumers – are more likely to hold these views.
Why nature: for business
77% of consumers may have avoided a brand due to its environmental policies, but many companies know better. Consumers may say sustainability is a leading factor in their purchasing decisions, but actual shopping habits demonstrate something else. Price is king. Recently, Kantar reported that consumers had become less brand loyal and eco-conscious in response to the cost-of-living squeeze.
However, consumer loyalty is not the only benefit of nature-friendly supply chains. Farming in a nature-friendly way has other financial drivers too.
Regenerative farming systems require fewer inputs than their conventional peers. This may reduce yields but does not seem to harm profitability. According to the Food, Farming and Countryside Commission, yields are 29% lower than conventional farms, but a study cited in Forbes found regenerative farms to be 78% more profitable.
And the financial incentives don’t stop there.
Farming regeneratively sequesters more carbon and is better for nature. Just how much better is uncertain (see next section), but the visible improvement is enough to draw investment.
The Green Farm Collective, a regenerative farming group, recently sold carbon credits with a “biodiversity co-benefit” for £100/credit. That was 5 times the market rate. Other players include start-up CreditNature and Wilder Carbon, a Wildlife Trusts’ spin-off. Verra, the world’s leading carbon trading platform, plans a biodiversity credit standard for late 2023.
But progress must be proved before it can be rewarded, and the efficacy of management changes evidenced before they can be scaled. As markets mature, the burden of proof will increase – traditional approaches to biodiversity monitoring may not be enough.
The nature measurement problem
Management decisions have repercussions for nature. Some obvious (land use). Some complex (stocking densities). And others, until recently, largely unknown (tillage). To understand the impact of these decisions, we need to measure what’s happening on the ground. This includes taking a comprehensive baseline and employing robust multi-year monitoring.
Unfortunately, measuring nature is hard. On farmland, measurements are frequently limited to wild bird and butterfly surveys, often conducted by volunteer naturalists. Even if professional ecological monitoring is commissioned, traditional methods are time-consuming and frequently miss hard-to-detect species.
Environmental DNA (eDNA) has changed this. Land managers can now gain a full picture of biodiversity within an area by sampling small amounts of soil and water. The data gained from these samples is more accurate, robust and less invasive than traditional methods. It’s also more affordable, making regular monitoring – that gives real insights into the impacts of management actions – more accessible.
Understanding soil health
Soil is the most biologically diverse material on Earth. A teaspoon might contain 9 billion microorganisms. And soils that contain more species are generally healthier and perform a wider range of agronomic and environmental functions.
This diversity builds resilience. Diverse soils better cope with adverse weather conditions, which will become increasingly important as climates change. Soil biodiversity helps to maintain soil structure and fertility by enhancing soil aggregation, aeration, and water retention. They also require fewer inputs and sequester more carbon. Healthy – biologically diverse – soils are essential for both food security and climate change mitigation.
We can start to understand this community of life – an essential component of productive and sustainable agricultural systems – using eDNA. And when we do this, the results can be surprising.
Conventional wisdom says intensive horticulture and tillage negatively impact soil carbon and biodiversity. However, recent studies – that survey soil carbon in tandem with below-ground biodiversity – challenge these asumptions.
NatureMetrics and AgriCarbon, a start-up that measures soil carbon stocks, recently worked with organic farmer Ian Tolhurst. Tolhurst is well known for his innovative use of ‘green manures’ and recently drew wider attention thanks to a profile in George Monbiot’s ‘Regenesis’.
The study found carbon stocks in horticultural land to be comparable to permanent pasture when using green manure. An increase in the soil’s biological community is a possible explanation. The study illustrates a significant knowledge gap regarding the impact of management changes – and demonstrates the value of sampling soil biodiversity alongside carbon.
Understanding the impact of management changes in agricultural systems can take years. This is because feedback loops are long. It will be 8 or 9 months before the yields of Autumn-drilled crops are known and around two years to rear a calf to slaughter. Farms transitioning to regenerative systems typically see no benefits for the first 5 years. (Oxbury, an agricultural bank, offers a 5-year bridging loan to cover the transition.)
For this reason, early indicators of performance are highly valuable. Farmers and their advisors perform regular crop walks and welfare checks to look for early signs of problems. Technologists have tried to solve this too.
Agrimetrics, a UK start-up that receives Government funding, uses artificial intelligence and earth observation data to predict crop yields. Xarvio, part of BASF, the world’s largest chemical producer, uses similar techniques to monitor crop health. Agremo, a Serbian company, spots early signs of drought.
However, decision support tools relying on satellite data have not seen widespread adoption. Low-tech adoption by the agricultural sector in general partly explains this but there are other reasons too. These include clouds and concerns around accuracy.
Soil and farm biodiversity can be indicators too. The benefits of worms and beetles are understood ubiquitously. Some larger predators, such as buzzards and owls, signal well-functioning ecosystems because their success relies on healthy trophic cascades.
Unfortunately, despite the potential, the nature measurement problem has prevented biodiversity from being considered a serious measure. eDNA has changed this.
Invertebrates, fungi and microbes provide valuable agronomic and ecosystem services. This includes filtering water, decomposing organic material, transporting nutrients to plants, and helping plants fight pests and disease. The diversity of these species, therefore, is a useful measure of farmland health.
These species have very short lifespans, which means their numbers fluctuate significantly in response to environmental changes. This can be useful because fluctuations can be seen in the context of management actions. The presence of some invertebrate species could inform integrated pest management. Declining soil diversity following heavy cultivation has persuaded many farmers to explore min- and -till.
However, to yield real benefits, biodiversity surveying must not be treated as a novelty. Land managers must establish a robust baseline followed by frequent sampling. If new agricultural practices are being trialled – such as cover cropping or min-till – then a control site should also be sampled to increase analytical rigour. Professional eDNA survey design can help.
Closing nature’s yield gap
Caring about nature is no longer optional. There are major economic incentives for brands to work towards nature positive. First-movers are already enjoying a nature premium – and there is plenty of value left for early adopters. As for the laggards, regulation will soon force them to act.
There are benefits for land managers too. The reductionist view of agriculture, which sees soil as an apathetic growing medium to which chemicals are added, is coming to an end. We’re increasingly recognising the importance of soil biodiversity for nutrition and resilience. Intensive agriculture is not going away, but its now not the only way to farm productively and profitably.
These intrinsic and commercial drivers for reducing nature impact have existed for some time. Unfortunately, the technology to cost-effectively measure biodiversity at scale (above and below ground) wasn’t there. This is no longer the case. Nature’s yield gap is closing. The nature premium is there for the taking.
Get in touch with Tom Ludwig, Sector Head – Regenerative & Sustainable Agriculture