Flying the flag for nature-friendly farming at COP15

Flying the flag for nature-friendly farming at COP15

Last week,the Soil Association joined other environmental NGOs in Westminster for a Parliamentary Reception hosted by the Environment APPG and convened by Green Alliance and RSPB to discuss ‘Standing up for a Nature Positive World at the Convention on Biodiversity (CBD) COP15’.

We spoke with MPs and Peers on the critical importance of the Biodiversity COP to be held in Kunming, China hopefully later this year.

It was a fantastic event, and wonderful to see so many parliamentarians engaged on such an important matter. Lord Goldsmith’s keynote speech was peppered with genuine optimism, noting that ‘there is almost nothing we need to do that isn’t already being done somewhere’.

Chris Skidmore, as new chair of the APPG, outlined what COP15 should and must achieve, and Alex Sobel, Shadow Nature Minister, highlighted how environmental and human rights are so closely intertwined. We then heard from Caroline Lucas, Chair of the Climate Change APPG, who spoke passionately about the closing window of opportunity we have in which to act to halt biodiversity loss. The thirst for genuine action was palpable.

The forgotten piece of the jigsaw

And for us, it was an opportunity to highlight how food and farming both drives, but can also reverse, biodiversity loss. Much discussion is rightly directed towards conservation initiatives like 30x30 which aims to ensure that at least 30 percent of land and sea areas globally are conserved.

All too often however, food systems remain the forgotten piece of the jigsaw. This matters, because our industrial food system is the leading cause of biodiversity loss.

This stems from two key drivers. The first is habitat loss. Ultimately, land used for agriculture is less biodiverse than natural ecosystems. Almost unbelievably, half of the world’s land is used for agriculture- placing immense pressure on natural ecosystems- no wonder that agricultural expansion drives almost 90% of deforestation nor that 92% of the world’s natural grasslands have been occupied by farming already.   

The second is that industrial agriculture, reliant on industrial quantities of pesticides and synthetic fertilisers is about the most efficient way we’ve found to utterly devastate biodiversity both on and off-farm. These inputs, over-applied to an industrial degree, aren’t just benignly absorbed into the environment, instead, they leach nefariously into waterways, soils, meadows or forests, and are ingested by creatures big and small.

60 years on from Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, we’ve seemingly learnt nothing. Even insects in conservation areas are contaminated with high levels of pesticide residues corresponding with a vast drop in insect biomass (with knock-on effects throughout the ecosystem).

Rivers that were once refuges for nature just decades ago are now so polluted by nutrients from industrial agriculture they're ecological disaster zones. And crucially, actions we take at home have far-reaching consequences too. Our campaign, Stop Poison Poultry, highlights how demand for soya feed from Brazil for chickens on sale in UK supermarkets is linked to excessive pesticide use harming biodiversity and people.

Farming must become more ‘nature-friendly’

For COP15 this is all critical. We’ve absolutely zero chance of meeting any of the conservation targets at COP15, nor coming even close to becoming nature-positive by 2030 unless we drastically reform our food and farming systems to make them more nature-friendly. It is why it is so important that the farming sector is represented at these types of events, not just conservation organisations. 

According to Professor Tim Benton of Chatham House, to achieve this only a full systems shift will do, enabled by three key levers:

  • Contain, and where possible shrink, agricultural expansion into natural ecosystems.
  • Make farming more nature-friendly to reduce its impact on surrounding biodiversity
  • Drastically shift diets to reduce the pressure on land-use (eating less and better meat) but also radically reduce wastage in the system.

And each of these are interlinked too: a shift in diets would enable more space for nature and more nature-friendly farming. Ultimately, we need to move to a world in which there is a widescale uptake of productive and resilient farming systems underpinned by agroecology, with an accompanying shift in consumer demand. Louise Payton, our Senior Policy Officer, recently unpicked the assumptions underpinning this shift, and explained how simply driving up production could make things far worse (through the supply-demand phenomenon commonly known as the ‘Jevon’s Paradox').

COP15, whenever it is held, must champion agroecological farming and commit to support for farmers that are already pioneering this shift. A vital part of this will be Target 7 of the CBD post-2020 framework, which (as currently drafted) aims to reduce nutrients lost to the environment by at least half, and pesticide-use reduction by at least two-thirds by 2030.

We are calling on the UK Government to support these targets and ensure they are implemented domestically as soon as possible.