Paying farmers to create woodland and wetlands is the most cost-effective way to meet UK environmental targets: Working

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Encouraging farmers to restore some land as habitat for nature could bring UK climate and biodiversity targets to half the cost for taxpayers of integrating nature into managed land for food production, according to a new study published today in the journal Nature. Man and Nature.

This research is also being presented today at the British Ecological Society’s annual meeting in Edinburgh by Professor Nicholas Hanley, an environmental ecologist at the University of Glasgow.

Research led by the universities of Cambridge, Leeds and Glasgow provides the first evidence of taxpayer savings by focusing on food production in specific areas to allow for the creation of new forests, wetlands and scrub habitats on some currently used land. farming

The study suggests that this “land conservation” approach will only cost 48% of the funds needed to achieve the same results for biodiversity and climate through an approach known as “land sharing”; reducing pesticides, etc. – all of which reduce food yield.

In addition, the researchers say that trying to share land with nature by making agriculture more wildlife-friendly would result in the UK losing 30% more of its food production capacity, compared to encouraging farmers to allocate some of the land to create fully semi-natural habitats.

The UK government has legally binding commitments to reverse the decline in nature by 2030 and achieve net zero carbon by 2050, the researchers said. Allocating land for habitats could hit these targets at half the cost of trying to farm on land shared with nature, the researchers say.

“Currently, only a fraction of the £3.2 billion annual public money paid to farmers, about £600 million a year, goes towards biodiversity and climate mitigation,” said Lydia Collas, who led the study as part of her PhD. at the Cambridge Department of Zoology.

“Nearly all of the funding supports land-sharing approaches that can do little to benefit species or sequester carbon, but typically reduce food yields. So far there has been no research into whether this is the most cost-effective solution to provide environmental targets.”

“More incentives for farmers to create woodlands and wetlands will lead to the taxpayers half the cost of the currently ten times more land-sharing approach for wild species and climate mitigation,” said Prof Andrew Balmford of Cambridge, senior author of the study. public finance.”

The researchers are co-author of the study, Prof. .

The researchers conducted a selection experiment study with 118 farmers, who are responsible for 1.7% of all England’s arable land, and asked them to estimate the payments they would need to implement land-sharing practices or “conservative” approaches that create habitat on their land.

Farmers chose from a variety of agricultural approaches, nature interventions, and most importantly, pay rates. The study also evaluated the government’s costs of administering and monitoring these programs.

The team used three bird species (yellow hammerheads, bullfinch, and lapwing) as representative of the impacts on biodiversity, and also used a variety of ways that could help farmers slow climate change, such as creating woodlands and hedges.

On average, farmers in the experiment accepted lower payments per hectare for land-sharing practices. However, habitat creation schemes deliver much more environmental results per hectare, so creating woodlands, wetlands, and scrubland will give the taxpayer the same overall biodiversity and climate reduction benefits at half the cost.

“We’ve found that enough farmers are willing to significantly change their jobs to take advantage of payments for public goods in the form of habitats, provided the government rewards them as needed,” Balmford said.

Collas, who is now a Policy Analyst at the Green Alliance, said: “Current evidence suggests that semi-natural habitats provide much more biodiversity and climate change per unit area, and that creating them has much less of an impact on food production than achieving goals by land sharing. “

“When considering agricultural policy in the UK, this evidence is ignored because of an untested assumption that farmers are unwilling to create habitats. We now have evidence that this assumption is wrong.”

More information:
Paying farmers to create woodland and wetlands is the most cost-effective way to meet UK environmental targets, according to research by Lydia Collas et al. Man and Nature (2022). DOI: 10.1002/pan3.10422

Provided by the British Ecological Society

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