Course:CONS200/2020/Farmers vs. Forests:The Ongoing Conflict Between Agriculture & Conservation in the UK

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Agriculture and conservation are often viewed as dichotomous concepts that are innately contradictory in their goals. Recent years have seen a debate over the ability of agricultural and wild areas to coexist, and the best way to reach the dual goals of food production and environmental conservation. [1] This conflict is apparent within the United Kingdom, where the majority of the land is used for some form of agriculture yet can currently only produce about 60% of the food that the UK needs[2]. The European Farmland Bird Indicator (EFBI), an index that tracks the populations of common bird species on farmland[3], found that the 2017 populations of farmland birds in the UK were at about half the 1970 levels[4]. The presence of these birds can be used as an indicator for the overall health of the farmland ecosystem, with a decline in birds linked to a decline in ecosystem health[5]. The EFBI is just one indicator of the effect that anthropogenic influences and climate change are having on the United Kingdom. This has made it necessary for the UK to simultaneously prioritize agricultural production and the conservation of natural lands.

Throughout the conflict between agriculture and conservation in the United Kingdom, a variety of agricultural policies and conservation mechanisms have been tried or proposed, to work towards a future of sustainable agriculture.


Images from Wikimedia Commons can be embedded easily.

There is evidence that farming has been occurring in the United Kingdom since 5000 BC[6]. An agricultural revolution occurred in the century following 1750, as farming systems adapted to support a rapidly growing population [7]. Agricultural production intensified, as did the amount of land reclamation - the process through which land not suitable for agriculture is transformed into arable land [7]. Wetlands were drained and forests cut down to make room for farmland[8]. By 2015, 70% of all land in the UK was considered Utilized Agricultural Area (UAA), or about 17.1 million hectares [7]. However, according to a 2018 report, agriculture makes up less than 1% of the national economy [4].

While much of the agricultural production in the last 100 years has drastically increased and been industrialized, there has been a recent trend towards organic farming spurred by an increased understanding of the role farms play in conservation and biodiversity in the United Kingdoms.Farms using organic agricultural methods tend to have higher rates of species richness and greater overall abundance of organisms[9]. In 2018, about 474,000 hectares of land in the UK were farmed used organic agriculture methods[4].


Less Favoured Areas Directive

Less Favoured Areas in the United Kingdom, 2019.[10]

The Less Favoured Areas Directive is an initiative aimed to enhance areas where agriculture is not seen as a sustainable or profitable venture by categorizing Less Favoured Areas (LFAs) as Disadvantaged Areas or Severely Disadvantaged Areas.[11] LFAs are very fragile, highland ecosystems containing valuable, rare species where grazing livestock is the primary livelihood of agricultural workers.[11] The directive is aimed towards protecting the fragility of these ecosystems through supporting traditional agriculture and hopefully increasing the productivity of the land in doing so.[11] Most LFAs are in the north of the United Kingdom, with Scotland being almost entirely covered in LFAs due to the natural geography of the region.[11]However, this policy finds itself rooted in political debate surrounding whether or not subsidies towards supporting the Less Favoured Areas Directive should be given to farmers as they are the full-time tenants of the land or to groups concerned primarily with the ecological preservation of this land.[11] The Less Favoured Areas Directive was implemented as a Union-wide initiative by the European Union in 1975 and has been subject of much debate, yet there is enough evidence and research to suggest that it has improved the quality of grazing lands in the United Kingdom as it has directly involved and educated the farmers which are dependent on LFAs.[11]

Common Agricultural Policy-UK

The Common Agriculture Policy (CAP) is a policy introduced in 1962 by the European Union focusing primarily on increasing the the agricultural productivity of rural areas within the European Union by establishing a set of financial and political guidelines for farmers.[12] The CAP seeks to do so by promoting three main tenets of Income Support, Market Measures, and Rural Development Measures each consisting of a variety of respective details and initiatives.[12]

Income Support

The Income Support pillar of The CAP manifests itself within direct payments of a total of 41.74 billion Euros to 6.3 million farms in the European Union.[13] The aim of Income Support is to ensure food security and give farmers the financial support they need as they make almost 40% less money that non-farmers in the European Union.[13]

Financial Breakdown of the Common Agriculture Policy.[12]

Market Measures

The primary tool of the Market Measures pillar of The CAP is price-fixing; specifically maintaining low prices for staple foods.[14] The European Union also provides support to private storage during times of market fluctuation.[14] The legal foundation for intervention in public agricultural markets is rooted in EU regulation 1308/2013.[14]

Rural Development Measures

This pillar of The CAP is the pillar that concentrates on sustaining rural areas European Agricultural Fund for Rural Development (EAFRD).[15] It seeks to reinforce agro-industry and forestry throughout the European Union through the EAFRD by providing services such as micro-loans, reconstruction projects and forest renovation.[15]

However, since the exit from the European Union in 2016, the United Kingdom has failed to create substantive agricultural policy of its own, relying heavily on the framework laid by the European Union.[16]


During the Brexit process, many farmers of the United Kingdom cited financial inefficiency of CAP as a reason to exit the European Union as CAP cost 73% of the budget of European Union and accounted for half of an average farmer's income.[17] It is also believed that CAP was a glaring reason for the degradation of local environments with a variety of animal populations plummeting due to the lack of legislation ensuring their protection.[17] Plenty of Pro-Brexit voters also cited the fault in logic used by the European Union to create public subsidies for agricultural private goods instead of subsidizing the protection of ecosystems, reduction of pollution, and distribution of food.[17] Despite the dominance of agricultural discourse in Brexit discussions across state media, the official Brexit strategy did not contain any mention of British agriculture policy, leaving the United Kingdom at a legislative standstill.[16] Currently, the government agency responsible for agriculture in the United Kingdom, the Department for Environment, Food, and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) is looking for solutions to the existing legislative vacuum and is in the process of ratifying the Agriculture Bill of 2019.[16][18] The future ambition for the United Kingdom is to implement a holistic piece of legislation that ensures the sustainable development of future agricultural areas in accordance with the Less-Favoured Areas directive.[16]

Agriculture Bill 2019

The Agriculture Bill of 2019 has yet to be ratified in Parliament, yet it focuses greatly on consolidating economic authority and simplifying economic processes.[18] The consolidation of economic authority manifests itself in the vested ability of the Secretary of State to manage rural macroeconomic affairs in the form of financial assistance.[18] Furthermore, it introduces routine reports of food insecurity directly to Parliament and subject to action thereafter.[18] Simplifying the economic processes of financial aid and subsidization of sustainable development is present in Part 3 of the Agriculture Bill of 2019, titled "Transparency and Fairness in the Agri-Food Supply Chain".[18] Subsection 22 of Part 3 defines Agro-Food Supply Chain as a "supply chain for providing individuals with items of food or drink for personal consumption where the items consist of or include, or have been produced using (directly or indirectly, and whether or not exclusively), the whole or part of— (a) anything grown or otherwise produced in carrying on agriculture, (b) any creature kept in carrying on agriculture, or (c) any creature or other thing taken from the wild."[18] Despite all this, this piece of legislation still undermines the ecological concerns raised by British farmers as it does not contain any specific literature on the preservation of natural resources and local animal populations.

Conflict Between Agriculture and Conservation

With the many policies currently in place regarding agriculture, there are still holes in the framework that do not take into account the issue of conservation. Land use in the UK is a contentious topic and one that is constantly evaluated as regulations shift and new priorities take precedent, and will only continue to do so, especially in the post-Brexit state of the region. There is growing demand for land to be used for human settlement as the population continues to expand, as well as a need for increased intensification of existing agricultural operations in order to account for the reduction in agricultural land area.[19] As for existing land, the convergence of agriculture and conservation manifests in policies that may or may not include measures that extend to ensure a relationship that benefits both short-term production and long-term sustainability.

Farm at Berkshire College of Agriculture in Maidenhead, England

A key component in the conflict over land use lies in the ideology on which policies are based. Overall, the UK utilizes the land-sharing approach, where land for farming activities and land for environmental conservation are integrated and less land is set aside specifically for either purpose.[20] As compared to a land-sparing approach, where land is designated for one particular use over another, policy based on land sharing aims to encourage planning for the economy, environment, and society in a way that does not isolate each component and instead allows for a system-wide application.[20] The CAP demonstrates this as it incentivizes farmers via financial support to protect ecosystems by preserving environmental areas on their farms, which upholds the integration of agriculture and the environment.[20] However, the current overarching approach from UK regulations is aimed at the intensification of agricultural lands, which includes increasing efficiency in order to produce more food with fewer resources, but may not provide an adequate scheme for protecting ecosystems as compared to an approach such as agroecology which specifically utilizes existing biological interactions to form a coexistence between agriculture and the environment.[21][22] Most current policy fails to recognize the interconnectivity among and between systems and instead succumbs to the compartmentalization of individual sectors, enabling an approach that isolates current issues from future prospects and lacks an integrated systems-thinking rhetoric.[23]

Agricultural policy tends to be focused on yields and input streams in a productivist paradigm that considers maximum food production to be most important and doesn't always reflect long-term ecological sustainability.[20][24] Some UK policies, especially introduced in the second half of the twentieth century and including the CAP, focus on subsidies and other market factors rather than holistic farm management and often explicitly reference an increase in food production as the primary goal, fitting right into the label of productivist.[25] However, some aspects of the newest iteration of the CAP could be considered post-productivist, given the transition towards direct payments to farmers rather than simply providing production support, which has come from the intention of inviting farmers to adopt agri-environmental practices on their farms that are otherwise voluntary.[20] Still, this clash and constant evolution provides challenges to the goal of representing the views of multiple stakeholders involved in agri-systems.

Additionally, much of the existing policy comes from the European Union, so as the UK leaves the EU it will need to forge new policies and craft a new framework to manage rural landscapes. This could include a possible shift towards proactive conservation and away from current risk-based policies that aim to remediate current negative environmental effects and prioritize profits over the protection of soils, ecosystems, and biodiversity.[26] Unfortunately, the bureaucratic nature of politics regarding agriculture means that it may take a long time to draft changes. Any bills that are introduced will necessarily need to act in ways that support unknown future circumstances, especially as climate uncertainties grow and take effect in rural areas.[27] There are many layers of policy, most of which originate from large governmental bodies on a federal or even multi-national level, such as in the case of the CAP from the European Union.[12] This top-down approach inherently leaves policymakers detached from the land for which they are creating regulations and results in policies that may not truly reflect the context in which they were created, and the complex interconnectivity between dozens of policies compounds this factor to form a muddled reality with impacts that are not entirely known.[28] In this sense, the conflict between agriculture and conservation requires change beyond surface-level policy and must utilize strategies to redesign aspects of these systems.

Conservation Practices

There are many practices that could be used to help conserve nature. However, here the focus will be on three conservation practices commonly discussed within the sphere of British environmental management: land sparing, agroforestry, and agri-environmental schemes.[29][30][31]

Land sharing vs. land sparing

There are two different philosophies on how best to conserve land: land sharing and land sparing.[32] Land sharing is the practice of integrating biodiversity into existing agricultural landscapes through agroecological practices.[32] Land sparing, on the other hand, is the idea that agriculture should be intensified in order to preserve remaining natural lands.[32] Some research suggests that land sparing may be the better conservation mechanism.[29][33] In one study, researchers used scenario analysis to determine that under land-sparing policies, eighteen species of UK farmland birds would decline, but 35 species of wildland bird would gain improved status.[33] Another study found that land-sparing policies in the UK’s lowlands would increase the regional population of many bird species, including those that tend to suffer from agricultural activity of all kinds.[29] However, researchers caution that creative land-sparing techniques should be utilized in order to prevent unsustainable intensification of existing agricultural lands and.[32] Land sparing may lead to a productivist model of governance that prioritizes yields over sustainable land management.[20] Additionally, many argue that the land sparing model ignores the interconnected nature of agricultural and natural systems. [23] Because the UK mostly adheres to land sharing policies, implementing land sparing policies may be difficult.[20] Both land sparing and land sharing offer benefits; which approach works best is dependent on social, ecological, and economic context.[20]


An agroforestry operation in Glensaugh, UK.

One interesting practice that could be applicable to farming in the UK is agroforestry. Agroforestry, or the practice of integrating trees into cropping or animal production systems, has a long history of use in Europe.[30] It is generally categorized as a land sharing practice. [32]A meta-analysis of 53 European journal articles found that while agroforestry had a positive impact on ecosystem services and biodiversity, it had a negative impact on biomass.[30] Researchers stress that the effects of agroforestry can vary widely depending on context. [34] Agroforestry could be a promising practice for conservation in the UK, but there are limitations: most farmland at risk of overgrazing and overexploitation is based in LFA moorlands.[11] In these cases, agroforestry would have little potential.

Agri-environmental schemes

Finally, post-Brexit UK could embrace a program similar to the Agri-environment Schemes of the EU era. Agri-environment schemes involve paying farmers to implement ecologically sustainable practices on their farms.[31] While these schemes do have a generally positive impact on biodiversity, they can be quite costly.[31] Implementing effective schemes can be quite challenging, as policymakers must deal with complex socioeconomic and ecological factors.[31] UK researchers are currently developing a new Environmental Land Management scheme in collaboration with the UK Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs[35], which may involve a program similar to the EU's Agri-environment Schemes.[36]

Conclusion: The future of sustainable agriculture in the UK

Nearly a half-century of farming under the Common Agricultural Policy led to frustration among UK farmers, who have cited the the CAP as ineffective.[17] However, Brexit presents an opportunity to remake UK agricultural policy.[37] Researchers and government are working to determine what a new governance model would look like in the UK.[35] Additionally, new literature suggests conservation mechanisms that could help balance the needs of nature and the agriculture sector; this research has spawned productive debate on the best practices for land management.[32][30][31] [30] However, while the new Agriculture Bill of 2019 provides funds for sustainable development, it does not address ecological concerns of farmers in the UK.[18] These issues could be remedied by taking a more participatory approach to agricultural governance.[37] Sustainable agriculture in the UK rests upon the ability of British policymakers to create more nuanced, holistic policy than its EU predecessors.[37]


Please use the Wikipedia reference style. Provide a citation for every sentence, statement, thought, or bit of data not your own, giving the author, year, AND page. For dictionary references for English-language terms, I strongly recommend you use the Oxford English Dictionary. You can reference foreign-language sources but please also provide translations into English in the reference list.

Note: Before writing your wiki article on the UBC Wiki, it may be helpful to review the tips in Wikipedia: Writing better articles.[34]

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Seekiefer (Pinus halepensis) 9months-fromtop.jpg
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