Food: Making space for nature

Making space for nature is a concept many people embrace in their everyday lives. This might be by feeding the birds, creating a wildlife garden or via membership of a wildlife charity. Indeed, at this time of crisis nature can provide solace. But how often do we consider the potential to make space for nature in the businesses we operate and the food system they create? At a time when we may have more distance to reflect Lucy Bjorck, Senior Policy Officer at the RSPB, explores making space for nature in the food value chain.

UKSSD’s report Measuring up: How the UK is performing on the UN Sustainable Development Goals highlighted the impact we are having on nature in the UK. Nine out of twelve targets under SDG 15 - Life on land, were assessed as inadequate or poor.  SDG 15 includes key targets related to protecting, restoring and sustainably managing species, habitats, ecosystems and farmland. But the UK is not on track to meet these targets. Nature is in trouble.  

There is no getting away from the fact that the way we extract, process, consume and waste resources is eroding not only space for nature but the very resources we depend on for a healthy life on earth. The food system has a big responsibility here — policy-driven agricultural change and climate change — are the key drivers of wildlife declines.

What can we do differently to reverse this trend, safeguard nature and begin to build a more resilient planet and meet our SDG goals? Relying on personal actions will not deliver the scale of change we require. How we choose to manage our food system is crucial - this is what the UKSSD Roadmap for the UK food sector that is currently under development is designed to address.

What nature needs

On the eve of a new Agriculture Bill and as we prepare for the rescheduled COP26, we have an unprecedented opportunity to buck recent trends and begin to make space for nature in business strategies along the food system value chain. We need to embed nature-friendly thinking across society.

We can think of nature needs in terms of three broad areas:

  1. dedicated space for nature, large enough to allow our wildlife to thrive and protected from pollution and exploitation.

  2. nature embedded alongside production.

  3. to curb our enthusiasm for the most environmentally damaging foods to reduce our overall footprint.

Areas one and two are by no means incompatible and there are many great farmers demonstrating thriving business and nature on their land. At RSPB’s Hope Farm we have demonstrated that positive interventions can boost bird numbers by 175% and butterflies by 400%.

Delivering change – everybody’s business

Action across the food system value chain can help create the conditions for nature to thrive. We are at an exciting moment in history - as the UK leaves the EU, there is an opportunity to redirect public money for land management towards public goods such as biodiversity. The new Agriculture Bill provides an opportunity for Governments in the UK to ensure improved and better resourced land management and targeted species recovery schemes. These schemes can underpin delivery for nature throughout the value chain if they are built into to business thinking.

Reducing the amount of virgin natural resource used is already high on the business agenda and can reduce the impact on nature. But nature can also be part of the solution, for example, creating wildlife-friendly reservoirs to better manage water resources. By diversifying crop rotation to reduce pest burdens and creating reservoirs of natural predators farmers can reduce their pesticide usage.

By stipulating nature-friendly produce, sustainable management and paying a fair price to producers, businesses higher up the supply chain can ensure that they are doing their bit to build the market for wildlife-friendly producers and acquitting their own responsibilities for the impact of their operations. Transparency throughout the supply chain is essential. Certification schemes such as organic and Fair to Nature can help ensure nature really benefits from the claims being made.

In designing future business strategies, we all have a responsibility to pursue a course that can be delivered sustainably. This is only possible if we understand our impact on nature. We need to use this understanding to shape future consumption trends so that we can live within our means on a finite planet.

The roadmap we’re producing as part of UKSSD’s Food Systems programme will help share best practice and encourage collaboration to ensure that nature has all the space it needs to thrive - bringing joy and prosperity to all.

Lucy Bjorck is Senior Policy Officer at RSPB, a UKSSD partner and member of the Food Systems programme.

RSPB led the research into Goal 15 on Life on Land in Measuring up, you can read it here.