Biodiversity and Food Production: The Future of the British Landscape
Find out why the link between biodiversity and food production is important right now and what challenges are faced by the farming and growing communities; and read about international perspectives, supply chain innovations, related funding opportunities and new innovations.
Biodiversity and food production are both hot topics and it’s essential to understand how they influence each other. That’s why we brought the UK AgriFood community together to discuss this important link in December 2021. 200 people including stakeholders from industry (ranging from tech start-ups to large supermarkets), government, academia, and farming & growing communities joined us to share their views.
Biodiversity and Food Production – The Future of the British Landscape was the theme of our 6th annual event that the Innovate UK KTN AgriFood team organised with the Institute for Sustainable Food at the University of Sheffield.
Why is the link between biodiversity and food production important right now?
Around 70% of land in the UK is used for agriculture. As such, conversations about how to maintain and promote biodiversity in our landscapes must include voices from the AgriFood community. The need to improve biodiversity is clearly stated in the Biodiversity Intactness Index produced by the Natural History Museum. According to the Index, the UK is in the bottom 10% globally when it comes to maintaining its natural ecosystems.
However, efforts must be balanced with the need to maintain domestic food security, as recent global events have clearly demonstrated the potential fragility of our supply chains. It is also worth noting that food produced in the UK must meet high environmental and welfare standards, and that imports are not always held to these same standards.
Several recent policy documents (e.g. Defra’s Agricultural Transition Plan, National Food Strategy Part 2, G7 2030 Nature Compact) further demonstrate the importance and timeliness in addressing this topic.
Here are some highlights from our “Biodiversity and Food Production – The Future of the British Landscape” event, which was held online on December 1st 2021.
Setting the scene
Bhavani Shankar (University of Sheffield) kicked things off with the first of two scene-setting talks. He discussed the inherent trade-offs within food systems, which are increasingly interconnected and global. Feedback loops result in complexity; for example, land use change can impact pollinator abundance and diversity, and these changes can subsequently impact landscapes. He also stressed that trade solutions may simply outsource biodiversity loss to areas where loss is even more critical.
Next, Catherine Boyd (Defra) explained the upcoming changes to agricultural subsidies in England. The ‘Environmental Land Management’ schemes will provide ‘public money for public goods’, rewarding environmental outcomes in addition to food production to support sustainable farming. She emphasised that these approaches are aimed at land sharing, not land sparing. Defra plans to have these schemes ready for 2024, and they are now undertaking pilots with 1,000 farmers in England to develop the schemes.
Challenges faced by the farming & growing communities
A lively panel session was chaired by Ruth Bastow (CHAP). Panellists included Sophie Alexander (Hemsworth Farm), Jerry Alford (Soil Association), Harriet Henrick (National Farmers Union), Ruth Little (University of Sheffield) and Bill Parker (AHDB). The conversation covered a wide range of topics, including definitions of biodiversity, how it must be balanced alongside other environmental concerns (e.g. emissions), and what key indicators are most important. Panellists also discussed the potential impact of the Environmental Land Management schemes on rural communities, landscapes and livelihoods.
All five panellists weighed in on how innovators can help farmers and growers champion both food production and biodiversity. Alford described how technologies need to be suited to the end-user, and Parker advised against creating a solution first then looking for a problem. Little added that innovation is needed across spectrums, “from evolution to revolution”. A few areas were highlighted as being of particular interest; Alexander is excited about machinery that doesn’t use fossil fuels, and Henrick thinks feed additives that reduce methane emissions from livestock are promising. The main take-away, noted by Bastow, is that “co-development is key” when developing new solutions.
International perspectives & supply chain innovations
Frédéric Baudron (International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center, or CIMMYT) provided an international perspective, highlighting the role agriculture has played in creating the biodiversity crisis. However, he also described the potential for synergies where agriculture can support biodiversity and vice versa. Baudron criticised the narrow focus on yield in measuring agricultural performance, as many farmers may prioritise other considerations (e.g. access to markets, labour productivity).
Sarah Blanford and Celia Cole (Sainsbury’s) next provided a ‘double-act’ presentation on the supermarket’s supply chain innovations that help promote biodiversity. Cole described the company as a UK retailer with a global footprint, and described their efforts towards certifying the sustainability of products. Blanford provided several case studies where Sainsbury’s has employed technology to tackle innovation challenges. She also described their partnership with the Woodland Trust, which has helped fund the planting of over 4 million native trees via sales of eggs from free-range woodland chickens.
Related funding opportunities
Chris Danks (Innovate UK-UKRI) shared an overview of related funding opportunities. He started by describing UKRI’s Transforming Food Production challenge, reviewing impacts from the programme thus far. He then talked about the Farming Innovation Programme, which is being delivered jointly by Defra and UKRI. Several funding competitions are anticipated as part of this programme in 2022. Danks also mentioned opportunities available through Horizon Europe, the Innovate UK Smart Grant programme, and the upcoming AgriFood Global Business Innovation Programme trip to Singapore.
The final session showcased six start-ups. Each of the companies (AgriSound, Bio-F, Bx Earth, Iceni Earth, Nature Metrics, and Seawater Solutions) provided a three minute video describing their technology and the type of collaborations they are looking for to fast-track their ideas. From sensors that track pollinators to using environmental DNA to monitor biodiversity, these companies provide a range of solutions that aim to tackle biodiversity and food production challenges from a variety of angles.
If you’d like to further discuss opportunities related to biodiversity and food production, please contact Kaeli Johnson, one of our AgriFood experts.