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UK research shows diversity gives ‘greater stability’ to farmers

The negative impacts of climate variability on food security and farm incomes could be offset by encouraging farmers to grow a wider range of produce according to latest UK research.

This would also allow growers to use pesticide and fertiliser more efficiently, according to the study of farms across England and Wales.

The study compiled by research teams from Rothamsted Research, University of Reading and Newcastle University examined cereal farms, arable farms, and farms that grew a mix of crops which, in some instances, also reared livestock.

The report shows that on some farms, government subsidies linked to environmental stewardship helps make incomes and food production more stable, compared to schemes that just pay farmers for how much land they farm.

The authors say their results highlight the need to consider farming practices, government policy and climate change when examining the outlook for UK food security.

Dr Caroline Harkness, who was a joint Rothamsted and Reading PhD student when she led the study, said:

“Under current conditions, farm management decisions may provide opportunities for farmers, supported by policy makers, to tackle the instability caused by climate volatility which are outside their control.

“Our results show that greater agricultural diversity is associated with more stable farm incomes and food production.

“The relative strength of these associations, in comparison to the impact of other farming practices and climate conditions, indicates that maintaining or increasing agricultural diversity is very important for the future sustainability of farming systems and food security.”

She also said that the intensity of farming has a larger relative effect on food security compared to the impacts of climate change.

According to the study for general cropping farms in particular the use of agrichemicals had a larger impact than either subsidies or climate variability in influencing the variability in food production.

The researchers linked 13 years of data on yields and incomes from 929 farms across England and Wales, with local climate data to understand the relative effects of climate variability, subsidies and farming practices on the stability of food production and farm incomes.

The analysis showed that variability in temperature and rainfall reduced the stability of farm income and food production.

However, farms with a greater variety of crops and/or livestock showed greater stability in both food production and incomes, whereas farms which spent more on chemical inputs (fertiliser, pesticide and concentrated animal feed) had more variable incomes but less variable yields.

“Spending more on chemical inputs therefore helps maintain food production but reduces the stability of income,” said Dr Harkness.

She added: “More precise application of pesticides and fertilisers, to where they are specifically needed, may help reduce costs and address this apparent trade-off, as well as, reducing negative impacts on the environment.”

The study found that agri-environment schemes improve stability for mixed farms, whereas the opposite effect was found for cereal farms – and the effect of subsidies is a much less important factor than what farmers produced or how intensively they farmed.

This underlines the need for flexibility in future government agricultural policy, according to Dr Harkness:

“Future climate impacts and adaptation will vary between farm types, therefore agricultural policy targeting stability should be tailored to allow for different types of production.”

The latest research indicated that larger farms were also associated with greater stability of both food production and farm incomes across most farm types.

Dr Harkness said: “Farmers are facing a more unpredictable environment, with climate change affecting food production and global food prices.

“Government policy could be targeted to combat production risks, including those from climate variability, and move towards greater agricultural sustainability.

“Greater emphasis could be given to support agricultural diversification, as well as more precise chemical application.”

She believes that these factors could “improve the stability of food production and farm incomes” and also have ecological and environmental benefits for both soils and for pollinators.

According to Dr Harkness, more information, training and advice about the options for, and implications of, agricultural diversification could promote understanding, provide ecological expertise and access to different markets for farmers.


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