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State of Nature 2019: Losing the fight to save nature

Losing the fight to save nature

The latest State of Nature Report sadly confirms what we all know – despite valiant efforts by many conservationists, farmers and landowners, we are losing the battle to save nature.

This report, using data compiled by thousands of volunteers, is the most compelling evidence yet that the abundance of wildlife, and many charismatic species, continues to decline relentlessly.

Since 1970 there has been a 10% average decline in the abundance of species and a 5% decline in the area different species occupy. In other words, less wildlife found in ever smaller areas.

Changes in agricultural practice, along with climate change and pollution, are highlighted as the major cause of this decline, and while the report proposes some responses to this crisis, I’m not convinced they are enough.

We must avoid complacency

The report rightly highlights some amazing success stories such as the cirl bunting in coastal Devon and stone curlews in the East Anglian Brecks, where farmers supported by conservation bodies have turned around the fortunes of rare and localised farmland species. I fear, though, that these success stories have led to a sense of complacency about the wider state of nature.

It says that “government sponsored agri-environment schemes (AES) have provided the main impetus” for change in farmland wildlife, along with voluntary efforts from farmers, but then goes on to say that “the effectiveness of AES has been hard to demonstrate”. Hardly a ringing endorsement.

I am a great fan of agri-environment measures - my experience is that they are immensely helpful in helping farmers retain and manage agriculture features like hay meadows. But, by and large, agri-environment schemes do not help farmers address the root cause of wildlife declines.

System change is needed

If this State of Nature report tells us anything, it is that the time has come to lift our sights and change the way we produce and consume food, so we can improve sustainability across the board, not just engineer the recovery of a few species while continuing business as usual elsewhere.

Solutions are being found through initiatives like the Innovative Farmers network, in which the Soil Association is a lead partner, where conventional and organic farmers are coming together to find practical solutions on their route to sustainability – getting off the pesticide treadmill, building soil organic matter and biodiversity, reducing the use of artificial nitrogen, integrating arable and livestock farming, and increasing crop diversity through rotations.

We all have a role to play as citizens and consumers. Our diets need to be aligned with what is healthy and what the planet can sustain. Are we actively seeking out products that support more sustainable farming and better farm incomes, or are we happy to buy imported chickens for a couple of quid and close our eyes to where and how they are raised?

Hope for the future

The recent report from the IDDRI think tank models a transition to an agroecological farming system that:

  • Slashes pesticide use
  • Recycles nutrients
  • Integrates trees into the farmed landscape and
  • Rebuilds soil carbon

It concludes that, if we are prepared to shift to sustainable and healthy diets, this is the best route to rebuilding biodiversity while also tackling climate change.

I hope the bodies publishing this excellent and ground-breaking report will conclude that fundamental change to our food and farming systems is required – I fear that without that, the next update will be just as depressing as this one.

Find out more about how we can save the Earth together - starting from the ground up

Gareth Morgan is Head of Farming and Land Use Policy at the Soil Association.