Our response to the Defra discussion document “An invitation to shape the nature of England”

October 2010

This response is made on behalf of the Soil Association and produced by its policy department. The Soil Association is the main organisation for organic food and farming in the UK, and is a membership charity with over 27,000 members including approximately 4,000 producer members. The Soil Association also owns an accredited organic certification company.

Given the priorities of the Soil Association, our response focuses on the relationship between food and farming systems and the protection of the natural environment.

1. What do we need to do to embed the true value of our natural resources in decision making at all levels? How can we reflect all the different kinds of value described above?

The Soil Association welcomes Defra’s acknowledgement that the natural environment, as well as having an intrinsic personal value to us all, has a broader national value that underpins our food security and our health.  The cheap price of food from conventional intensive and industrialised farming systems fails to reflect the true value of our natural resources and the critical role they play in our food production systems. The negative externalities associated with conventional agriculture in the UK have been estimated at £1.51bn1 a year; this includes water pollution, greenhouse gas emissions, soil erosion, loss of biodiversity as well as the adverse effects of human health. Such impacts subsequently affect our ability to ensure our own food security.

Organic food better reflects the true value of the natural resources on which our agricultural systems depend.  By working with natural systems and making use of natural biological and ecological processes,  organic farming systems not only avoid many of the negative environmental impacts associated with intensive farming systems, but can also enhance the natural environment.

2. The discussion document identifies three overarching challenges for the White Paper to consider. These are:-

-Climate Change
-Demographic Changes
-Incremental Impacts

Have we chosen the right challenges to focus on?
2.a) If not, what should we focus on?
2.b) How should we approach these challenges?

Climate Change

Climate change is clearly a priority challenge. As the discussion document recognises, climate change will have a significant impact on how we produce food in the UK.

Organic farming systems can make a significant contribution towards both mitigating and adapting to climate change. A significant contribution to the potential of organic farming systems to mitigate climate change comes from the carbon sequestration in soils. Several field studies have proven the positive effect of organic farming practice on soil carbon pools2 and a recent review of 39 comparative studies of soil carbon levels found, on the basis of evidence so far available, that organic arable farming practices produce 28% higher soil carbon levels than non-organic farming in Northern Europe, and 20% for all countries studied.3

There are several key aspects of organic farming that produce these higher soil carbon levels: There is the production of additional organic matter sources on farmland (grass leys, green manure crops). This additional organic matter is in forms that are more effective at raising soil carbon levels (grass, legumes, root systems, composting and farmyard manure instead of slurry and straw). The common integration of crop and livestock production (mixed farming) on organic farms ensures the use of temporary grass in the rotations and that much more of the livestock waste produced is farmyard manure instead of slurry, and that much more of the collected manures are applied to the cultivated land. Further, the greater vegetation cover and less bare soil of organic systems (due to the use of grass leys, more weeds, green manure/cover crops), provides a greater and more continuous supply of the root exudates that support the soil’s micro-organisms which build the soil carbon store.4

Current intensive livestock systems in Europe are reliant on imported soy for animal feed which is helping to drive the destruction of South American rainforests, not only impacting on biodiversity but releasing carbon dioxide and further contributing to climate change.5 A shift away from such systems, to grass-based systems avoids this.

Another potential contribution comes from the careful management of nutrients and thus the possibility of reductions of N2O emissions from soils. Artificial mineral fertilisers (causing about 10% of agricultural GHG emissions) are not used in organic systems, whilst catch and cover crops extract plant-available nitrogen unused by the preceding crops and keep it in the system.6

We are pleased that there is recognition that a balance needs to be struck between achieving our climate change mitigation and conservation goals. Suggested solutions to reducing greenhouse gas emissions by the further intensification of the livestock sector through zero-grazing systems, for example, fall foul of this balance, reliant as they are on intensive agricultural practices for the production of vast quantities of imported feed, with the associated negative impacts on biodiversity.

Organic farming systems on the overhand, offer the balance needed between climate change mitigation and conservation targets (see answer to question 3a).

Demographic - and diet change

In addition to demographic changes, it should be recognized that the dietary shift of a growing population will also have a significant impact on the natural environment. Business-as-usual global projections assume that with economic growth populations in the developing world will increase their consumption of meat and dairy products, extending the nutrition transition that is already occurring in the developed world. Whilst the human health costs of such a shift are already being felt in terms of increased rates of obesity, and non-communicable diseases such as Type-2 diabetes and some types of cancer7, the impacts on the natural environment should also be considered. Such diets involve the rapid expansion of livestock numbers, causing increased greenhouse gas emissions, and expansion of grain production as feed, putting further pressure on important bio-diverse habitats.

Resource constraints – Peak Oil and Peak Phosphorus

Another key challenge that the Government should recognise is that we are now living in a resource-constrained world and this will impact on our ability to produce food and to protect the natural environment.  Whilst there is mention of water shortages, there is no recognition in the discussion document of the reality of Peak oil and the impact this will have on our current food and farming system. On top of increasing the costs of food transportation and operating farm machinery, increases in the price of oil have already pushed up the cost of nitrogen fertiliser.

Peak phosphorus is the second critical resource constraint not mentioned in the discussion document, and which will be a key challenge in the future. The supply of phosphorus from mined phosphate rock could ‘peak’ as soon as 20338, after which this non-renewable resource will become increasingly scarce and expensive.  Thus, we are facing the end of cheap and readily-available phosphate fertiliser on which intensive agriculture is totally dependent. The impact of this is likely to be an increase in the price of food as production levels drop.

In this light, attention to the resource-use efficiency of our activities should be key to any approach to protecting and enhancing the natural environment.

3.What are the existing policies and practices aimed at protecting England's natural assets that currently work most effectively?
3.a) What works less well- what could we stop doing or do differently?

Our biodiversity

It is recognised that farmland bird populations in the UK continue to decline and are now 53% lower than the starting value in 19669. As Defra states bird populations are considered to be a good indicator of the broad state of wildlife because birds occupy a wide range of habitats, they tend to be near or at the top of food chains and there is considerable long-term data on changes in bird populations which helps with the interpretation of shorter term fluctuations.

Research, much of it Government funded, has identified that agricultural intensification led to these declines in farmland bird numbers.10 Current conventional farming systems and policies implemented to improve trends on such farms do not seem to be delivering the required improvements. Organic agricultural systems however, have the ability to reverse this trend. There is now scientific evidence to show the biodiversity and wider environmental benefits of organic farming systems compared to conventional system:

In 2005, a literature review of 66 published studies that compared organic and non-organic farming systems, concluded that on average wildlife is 50% more abundant on organic farms and there are 30% more species, than on non-organic farms.11 Another 2005 scientific literature review by scientists from English Nature, the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB), and others, found evidence of the biodiversity benefits of organic farming systems (compared to non-organic systems) for a wide range of wildlife including birds, mammals, spiders, earthworms, beetles and plants.12 An extensive survey by the British Trust of Ornithology in 2005 of English lowland farms growing cereal crops, found that organic fields held more plant species and a greater abundance of weeds than non-organic farms. It found up to 48% more spiders in crops before harvest, up to 62% more birds in the first winter, and up to 75% more bats.13 

The UK Government too has recognised the organic food and farming offers real benefits for the environment.14   A 2003 study by Defra found that organic farming systems had benefits over conventional farming systems on several environmental indicators including higher levels of biodiversity, lower environmental pollution from pesticides, energy efficiency and controlled wastes.15 

5. How best can we reduce our footprint on the natural environment abroad, through the goods, services and products we use?

The mantra of eating local, seasonal and organic food offers a good way to reduce our footprint on the natural environment abroad. Avoiding the consumption of intensive meat from livestock fed on imported feed that has been grown on deforested areas in the developing world is critical.

6. What best practice and innovative approaches to protecting and enhancing our natural environment do you think should be considered as we develop the White Paper?

The Soil Association Land Trust is an innovative approach to protecting and enhancing the countryside by acquiring and managing farmland sustainably. It also connects the public with the stewardship of the land.

The Land Trust helps people who are new to farming and growing to make a first successful step on the farming ladder by giving them access to land, skills and resources, helping them develop viable and sustainable businesses. By developing an innovative range of land tenure models, training programmes and shared capital opportunities, the Land Trust can respond flexibly to the individual needs of both farms and farmers.

The Land Trust also ensures that retirement or death does not need to mean the loss of a life’s work. Farmers or landowners who are passionately committed to the ongoing stewardship of their land can ensure their work continues by leaving it to the Land Trust who can ensure peace of mind by offering to hold and manage land in perpetuity. Organic and sustainable farming practices ensure strong stewardship of the land, keeping it in good heart now and for the future.

The Land Trust also promotes public access to farms to connect people with the land and to inspire and educate them about food, farming and the countryside, by working with the farmers and growers to open their farms to the public in ways that work for them – from one-off open days to year-round programmes of school and community group visits.

7. How best can we harness and build on public enthusiasm for the natural environment so people can help improve it through local action, as informed consumers or by shaping policy?

Community supported agriculture (CSA) is a partnership between farmers and the local community, providing mutual benefits and reconnecting the people to the land where their food is grown. These schemes can be beneficial to local communities in a number of ways;

  • consumers benefit from receiving fresh food from a known source;
  • the environmental benefits of fewer 'food miles', less packaging and ecologically sensitive farming with improved animal welfare;
  • a local economy enhanced by higher employment, more local processing, local consumption and a re-circulation of money through 'local spend';
  • educating people about varieties of food, it's production methods and costs;
  • having an influence over the local landscape and encouraging more sustainable farming.

There are also several benefits to farmers:

  • a more secure income which improves business planning and time to concentrate on farming;
  • a higher and fairer return for their products by selling direct to the public;
  • increased involvement in the local community; the opportunity to respond directly to consumers' needs;
  • receive help with labour and planning initiatives for the future.
  • Further information about the Soil Association CSA scheme

9.c) How best can the value of the natural environment be considered within local planning?

Planning policy should ensure that all new housing developments maximise opportunities for market gardens and allotments and offer facilities for farmer’s markets, ensuring greater levels of self-sufficiency and reduced food miles.

Local planning priorities should ensure that agricultural grade land is protected from development and is made available for sustainable commercial or community food production.

Local planning priorities should also consider the provision of the infrastructure needed to provide local food systems such as abattoirs, bakeries, independent retailers and community food hubs.

14. What should be the priorities for the UK's role in EU and international action, to protect and enhance the natural environment at home and abroad?

Reform of the Common Agricultural Policy is critical in protecting the natural environment. The Soil Association wants to see a specific mention of organic farming within the Common Agricultural Policy post 2013, in light of the multiple benefits that the holistic system of organic agriculture provides. Organic farming should be included as a mandatory scheme as part of public goods/agro-environment delivery measures with 100% EU funding. This is because organic farming is the only regulated farming system in the EU, therefore the organic farming approach is a robust basis for the delivery of specific public goods/agro-environment options.

15. And finally, if you could choose just one priority action for the Natural Environment White Paper to drive forward locally, nationally or internationally - what would it be?

The natural environment White Paper should support a national-scale shift in UK agriculture towards the adoption of farming based on organic and agro-ecological principles, which provides healthy food, and protects and enhances the natural environment.


  1. Pretty, J.N., Ball, A.S., Lang, T., and Morison, J., (2005) Farm costs and food miles: An assessment of the full cost of the UK weekly food basket, Food Policy.
  2. Fliessbach  A., Oberholzer, H.R. Gunst L., and Mader, P. (2007) Soil Organic matter and biological soil quality indicators after 21 years of organic and conventional farming, Agriculture, Ecosystems and Environment, 118:273-284; Kustermann, B., Kainz, M., and Hulsbergen, K. J. (2008) Modelling carbon cycles and estimation of greenhouse gas emissions from organic and conventional farming systems. Renewable  Agriculture and Food Systems, 23:38-52; Pimental D., Hepperly P., Hanson, J., Douds D., and Seidel, R. (2005) Environmental, energetic and economic comparison of organic and conventional farming systems. Bioscience, 55: 573-582.
  3. Azeez, G. (2009) Soil Carbon and organic farming. A review of the evidence of agriculture’s potential to combat climate change.
  4. Ibid.
  5. Friends of the Earth (FoE) (2010) Pastures New: A Sustainable Future for Meat and Dairy Farming, July 2010.
  6. Scialabbe, N., E-H and Muller-Lindenlauf, M. (2010) Organic agriculture and climate change, Renewable Agriculture and Food Systems, 25 (2) 158-169.
  7. Friel, S. et al (2009), Public health benefits of strategies to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions: food and agriculture, Lancet, 2009, 374: 2016–25.
  8. Cordell, D., Drangert, J., and White, S. (2009) The story of phosphorus: Global food security and food for thought, Global Environmental Change, 19, pages 292-305.
  10. Defra (April 2009) Information note – Farmland birds index How the farmland birds PSA target was formulated.
  11. Bengtesson  J,  Anhstrom J, Weilbull A (2005)  The effects of organic agriculture on biodiversity and abundance: a meta-analysis, Journal of Applied Ecology, 42: 261-269.
  12. Hole D G, Perkins A J, Wilson J D, Alexander I H, Grice P V and Evans A D (2005) ‘Does organic farming benefit biodiversity? Biological Conservation 122, 113-130.
  13. Fuller R J, Norton L R, Feber R E, Johnson P J, Chamberlain D E, Joys A C, Mathews F, Stuart R C, Townsend M C, Manley M J, Wolfe M S, Macdonald D W and Firbank L G (2005) Benefits of organic farming to biodiversity vary among taxa, Biological Letters, Published online.
  14. Defra (2002) The Action Plan to develop organic food and farming in England.
  15. Shepherd, M., Pearce, B., Cormack, B., Philipp, .L, Cuttle, S., Bhogal, A., Costigan, P.,   and Unwin, R. (2003) An assessment of the environmental impacts of organic farming: A review for Defra-funded project OF0405.