Saturday, 18 April 2020

Food, health and wildlife security

It is remarkable to think that the Covid-19 pandemic that is causing so much personal, political and economic disruption stems from a food market the other side of the globe.  Virus transmission from wild animals to people has highlighted the trade in wildlife for food in other parts of the world.  While the mode of transmission from wild species to people remains uncertain, there is clear evidence that this trade in species such as pangolins is unsustainable. The fact that such trade is now in the spotlight can only strengthen conservation efforts for these species, although this is dependent on secure income and food supplies for the people who would otherwise be doing the trading. The pandemic makes that more difficult to achieve.

Let's be clear though.  The justification for cessation of trade in endangered species for food is not that we find the consumption of wildlife culturally abhorrent. To follow that argument would lead us onto a slippery ethical slope.  It might also lead us to question the consumption of abundant species such as deer, rabbits and woodpigeons whose control is important to protect food crops and wildlife habitats in the UK, while also providing a source of food in their own right.

In fact, as well as reminding us of the moral imperative for conservation of our own wildlife species, food shortages associated with the pandemic have brought into question our food system and highlighted the need for domestic production at local, regional and national levels, alongside international trade.  The need to understand the relationship between food production and environmental objectives, including wildlife conservation, has never been greater.

Gemma Fox and team prepare for water infiltration assessments in our grass plots
Despite the national lockdown, our research into economically and environmentally sustainable farming methods continues, strictly within the constraints imposed by social distancing.  Where data collection requires more than one person to conduct fieldwork at the same time, we have been fortunate in being able to recruit other members of the same household to help out.

There have been numerous other challenges to overcome though.  With the implications for food producton of the 2018 drought still fresh in our minds, the intense rainfall over the most recent autumn and winter was exceptional. The very wet ground conditions completely precluded the establishment of autumn-sown crops, preventing food production from our land, creating economic problems for our farm business and for many others across the country, and leaving us with no arable experimental plots for research.  Fortunately, it has been possible to drill some spring-sown crops this month, albeit under difficult conditions.  Our research is increasingly focusing on these climate related challenges.

While potentially distracting from the over-riding need to address climate change, in common with climate change mitigation objectives, the Covid-19 pandemic highlights the need to act individually and collectively, locally and globally to address the challenges that affect us all.

Thursday, 2 April 2020

New clean water ponds increase landscape scale aquatic biodiversity

We have just seen the publication of another journal paper from the Water Friendly Farming project, our collaborative project with the Freshwater Habitats Trust. The paper demonstrates for the first time the effect of creating new ponds on the number of aquatic plant species present in the landscape.

Creating new clean water ponds in low input pasture in 2013

Following discussions with land owners, we created twenty new ponds in one of our two 'treatment' catchments in 2013.  We selected sites very carefully so that the new ponds were in low input pasture or open areas of woodland where runoff into them was not affected by domestic or agricultural sources of nutrients. The selection of these non-productive areas also made the ponds aceptable to farmers; in fact the introduction of ponds onto farms was regarded as improving the landscape and creating additional interest.

Freshwater Habitats Trust researchers conducted a rigorous annual census of aquatic plants, not just in the new ponds but across multiple other small ponds, ditches and streams within the 3,000ha study area to provide a comprehensive understanding of the plant species present and their distribution across the various habitats.

Ponds generally proved to be a key habitat.  Adding our new clean water ponds brought substantial benefits: increasing total-catchment plant species richness by 26%, and the number of rare plant species by 181%. Populations of spatially restricted species also increased. Creating clean-water ponds specifically targeted for biodiversity could therefore hold considerable potential as a tool to help stem, and even reverse, ongoing declines in freshwater plant biodiversity across agricultural landscapes.

You can access our journal paper as a free pdf for a limited period here.

Monday, 3 February 2020

Integrating crop production at the catchment scale

Some research we carried out within the Water Friendly Farming project in 2017 has just been published in the Journal of Environmental Management.  We use a herbicide that is used to control black-grass in arable crops as an initial focus for exploring broad catchment management issues with farmers in the study area.

Propyzamide is applied to the oilseed rape stage of the rotation and while being a crucial means of controlling black-grass also creates a problem for drinking water supply as it often exceeds the 0.1µg/L limit set by the EU Drinking Water Directive.  This puts its use at risk of restriction.  The herbicide moves to water mainly adsorbed to soil particles, so as well as being linked to the stage of the crop rotation, its mobility is reduced by soil management practices that reduce erosion and subsequent sedimentation of water courses.

We found that the concentrations in water were influenced largely by the area of oilseed rape in the catchment, and by rainfall.  Modelling suggested that, to keep below the 0.1µg/L limit, the rape area would need to be restricted to just 2-3% of the catchment.  This is something that participating farmers felt was not practical to manage across the catchment, given that there were multiple farms and the rape area grown was up to 30% of the land area.  Oilseed rape was considered to be an important part of the rotation.  A higher limit for headwater catchments that are distant from drinking water abstraction points might be more manageable but would require coordination of, and collaboration between farmers.

Pest problems now make establishing rape more difficult
The farmers were more enthusiastic about the use of hybrid barley, a crop which supresses blackgrass, extends the rotation, and provides an early entry for a following rape crop.  Rape is the stage in the rotation which requires least soil disturbance and is often direct-drilled, with potential benefits to soil and water.  Reduced tillage and direct drilling reduce the risk of herbicide loss to water while also delivering other public benefits such as reduced sedimentation of watercourses, reduced nutrient concentrations in water, and enhanced aquatic biodiversity.  Farmers were also more generally accepting of reduced tillage and direct drilling for other stages in the rotation, but they identified practical constraints and economic barriers which prevented a wholesale switch to this system on our clay soils.

Since our research in 2017, oilseed rape has become a slightly less popular crop.  The ban on the use of neonicitinoid insecticides has made the control of cabbage stem flea beetle (a major pest of rape) a substantial challenge.  Alternative pyrethroid insecticides, applied as a spray to the crop, rather than as a seed dressing, reduce numbers of a wide range of other invertebrates, including beneficial predators and parasitoids of flea beetles.  It is especially important to encourage these beneficial invertebrates as flea beetles are developing resistance to pyrethroids.

The area of oilseed rape, its yields and profitability have therefore all declined in the past couple of years.  Up until that time, rapeseed and oil were imported and exported to and from the EU but the UK was essentially self-sufficient.  Reduced production in future could mean increased imports of vegetable oils from other countries.  If rape or sunflower are imported from the EU, the crops are currently subject to the same environmental standards as our own, but if from other countries we may find ourselves using oil and animal feed produced using methods which we would not permit in the UK, while simultaneously disadvantaging UK farmers.  Substitution with palm oil from Indonesia and Malaysia has even greater environmental implications.

The use of a herbicide and an insecticide in oilseed rape crops may seem to be independent activities to be considered in isolation, but our research on propyzamide, and the more recent developments with neonicitinoids demonstrate the integration of a wide range of associated activities across and beyond the production of the crop.

Our journal paper is available here as a free download until 18 March.

Tuesday, 7 January 2020

Should we be feeding trees to ruminants?

Collecting willow leaves at Loddington
Turn sheep or cattle into a field of fresh grass and some of them invariably prefer to eat the hedge!  And why are livestock so determined to eat the young trees we have planted to give them shade in hot weather and shelter in strong winds? If tree leaves are so palatable to ruminants, perhaps we should know why?

That was the rationale for a short project in which we and our Nottingham University partners joined forces with the Organic Research Centre and Bangor University, with funding from the Woodland Trust.  We wanted to understand better the potential nutritional value of tree leaves to ruminants.

We sampled oak, alder and willow leaves in early and late summer across three sites, the Henfaes research farm in North Wales, the Organic Research Centre in Oxfordshire, and our own farm at Loddington.  The leaves were analysed for minerals known to be important to ruminant nutrition.

Cobalt and zinc concentrations were higher in willow than in the other two species.  More importantly, concentrations of these minerals were higher in the willow leaves than in grass swards, and well above the nutritional requirements of growing lambs.  This is particularly important for cobalt, the availability of which declines through the summer in grass swards. For selenium, another important mineral, the sampling site had a greater influence than the tree species or sampling date.  More detailed results are now available as a pdf here.

There are clearly practical challenges to feeding willow leaves to sheep or cattle on a large scale, but these results provide a useful insight into the potential role of trees, and willow in particular, in meeting the nutritional requirements of livestock. We are investigating this further at Loddington, in partnership with the Vet School at Nottingham University.

Thursday, 19 December 2019

Meaning in complexity

It is not uncommon to get asked for research results at the start of a research project, rather than the end of it!  It is gratifying that the research projects we carry out are perceived to be so relevant that people are keen to know the ‘answers’ so soon, but it does take a while to get the projects set up, and the data collected, analysed and condensed into a form that is accessible for those who are going to use them.  And getting the results into that form raises another issue.  Not only is there a temporal challenge to making results available; there is also one of precision.

Much of our research is focussed on developing management practices that will have environmental benefits of one sort or another.  If they do not, then we say so.  It is as important to share negative outcomes as it is positive ones.  Where they are successful, we need to get the message out there so that the management practices can be adopted more widely. 

For the ‘message’ to be accessible, it must be concise.  Soundbites and infographics are indisputably effective means of conveying simple messages with maximum impact.  The problem is that the messages are often not simple.

A classic example is provided by research into soil management practices to reduce soil and nutrient loss via surface runoff.  Reducing the intensity of cultivation and positioning a beetle bank across the slope were both beneficial management practices.  Compared to conventional practice, reduced tillage reduced surface runoff by between 4 and 81%, and a beetle bank across the slope reduced soil loss by 16 to 94%, and total phosphorus loss by 9 to 97%. 

While both farmers and policy makers want to know, in simple figures, the extent to which management practices are beneficial, in these cases we have to question the meaning of the mean.  It is the range of values that reflects the complexity associated with soil type, compaction, slope, topography, rainfall, antecedent soil moisture etc that influences the outcome. 

In most cases, the range in values was lower than the examples I have given, but the point is that understanding and accepting complexity and variability is important to managing the expectations of both farmers who may be considering adopting management practices, and policy makers who may be considering promoting or supporting them. Climate change brings additional uncertainty to the mix. 

Accepting this is particularly important when payments by results are being considered as a means of remunerating farmers for management practices that deliver public benefits.  But, somehow, this should not detract from the fact that the effort and skills that farmers apply to management practices also play a major part in the extent to which public benefits are delivered. We need to embrace this complexity in order to be meaningful.

Wednesday, 20 November 2019

Taking the P out of farming

Sewage is the link between our diet and the aquatic environment
Phosphorus is an essential element.  It is involved in multiple biological functions and is an important fertiliser for crop growth.  It is also a finite resource and one that must be imported to the UK from other countries, some of which are politically unstable.  Phosphorus security is a growing concern, not least for farmers for whom the cost has doubled over the past decade or so, while crop yields and prices have remained more or less constant.  We need to use phosphate fertilser more efficiently for these reasons.

Phosphorus also causes ecological problems in water, even at quite low concentrations, as our research in the past has revealed.  Phosphorus gets into water at both ends of the food chain.

Phosphate fertiliser applied to land to produce our food is taken up by crops and some of it ultimately ends up in the food we eat.  However, most of it gets bound to soil particles and remains in the field.  In fact, most of the phosphate fertiliser applied to land is estimated to be still sitting there in a form that is unavailable to crops.  But some ends up in watercourses when soil is eroded from fields.  Much of the research we have been doing at the Allerton Project in recent years aims to improve soil management to reduce the loss of soil and phosphate from land to water.  We don’t have all the answers, especially on our clay soils, but our research is improving our understanding of how to address this issue.

At the other end of the food chain, phosphorus in food that is surplus to our requirements is excreted.  This ends up in sewage treatments works and septic tanks.  The efficiency of urban sewage treatment works has improved in recent years, but at a price.  This cost cannot be justified for small rural sewage treatment works in agricultural areas.  Our results from the Water Friendly Farming project consistently show that this domestic source of phosphorus, rather than farming, is the main contributor to phosphorus concentrations at the base of our study catchments.  Its soluble form, and predominance during summer and autumn baseflow also mean that it has the greatest ecological impact.  Logic, and the requirements of a circular economy, suggest that we should capture that phosphate and use it as fertiliser, but the average amount produced by our local sewage works is enough to apply to just one acre of land.  It is not remotely cost effective to do so. 

RePhoKUs is a research project run from Lancaster University which is looking at the whole phosphorus system with a view to developing approaches that optimise the sustainable management of this crucial resource.  The Welland is one of three national case studies in which local farmers are contributing to the project by sharing data and ideas.  We are also interested in how our diet influences the amount of phosphorus in the food production and consumption system, including its occurrence in water, as different components of our diet are associated with different phosphorus concentrations.  There is an online survey for local residents to complete.  If you live in the Welland river basin, take a look, answer a few questions about what you eat, and ponder how you fit into the phosphorus system!

Friday, 18 October 2019

Beyond Brexit

The middle of January this year found me on the ferry to Ireland to give a keynote presentation on our catchment management research in the UK to an audience of EPA and local government staff from across the republic.  It seemed appropriate to be leaving behind the turmoil associated with the first defeat of the government’s EU Withdrawal Agreement Bill the previous day.  In April, immediately after the third defeat of the Bill, I found myself travelling to Almeria to report on our contribution to the EU funded SoilCare research project, share ideas, and benefit from the wealth of scientific experience amongst our project partners.

Today, I am writing this on the train, heading back home from an extremely informative meeting in Brussels.  A few hundred metres up the road, Boris Johnson was confirming a deal for the UK’s departure from the EU, but whether that will happen continues to remain uncertain.  Such is the opposition in the UK to the current version of Brexit that even now it is hard to know whether this has been my last visit to the continent as an EU citizen.

My reason for going to Brussels this time was to learn from a range of EU partners about the latest developments in results-based payments for biodiversity, a topic that may take on heightened relevance as the UK proposes to move from agri-environment schemes that make payments to cover income forgone and costs of habitat creation and management, to one that is based on delivery of services with uncertain rates of remuneration for farmers. 

The GWCT pioneered farmer clusters in which farmers take ownership of landscape scale wildlife conservation, incorporating their own initiatives with existing Stewardship schemes as part of their approach.  However, as we have discovered in our own landscape scale research, highly motivated pioneering farmers and iconic species on which to focus are not present everywhere.  The results-based approach, alongside conventional management-based approaches to deliver environmental objectives, could well play an important part in rolling out landscape scale wildlife conservation.  The broad approach may also have a role to play in achieving wider environmental objectives.

Back in 1999 I was in Brussels from time to time, reporting to the EU Environment Directorate on a commissioned review of environmental impacts of western European arable farming systems, work that found its way into the public domain in the form of a paper in Journal of Environmental Management.  A decade later, I led a follow-up paper with various European authors, this time also taking into account grazing livestock systems, and the Eastern European countries which had recently joined the EU.  Drawing on the latest scientific research, including our own, these two papers highlighted the range of environmental issues requiring attention, the opportunities arising from reform of the CAP to develop agri-environment schemes to cover the economic costs of addressing them, and the importance of a Europe-wide but locally relevant approach across the member states.

Environmental issues have become no less important or urgent over the intervening twenty years, with ever increasing scientific evidence and associated concern about biodiversity loss and what is now generally accepted within the scientific community as a climate crisis.  The science has been clear throughout that time but is now all the more so.  It is no longer alarmist to say that the future prospects of our own society are inextricably bound up with these enormously complex and integrated global issues.  How we manage agricultural land in the next few years has a substantial impact on how things play out, and that is not something that can be done by individual countries in isolation.  The UK may be leaving the EU, but whatever happens with Brexit, it will not be leaving Europe.

While increasing emphasis is needed on the environmental objectives for land management, as we stated in our two journal papers, it is imperative that food production is maintained at local and national scales, both to ensure national food security and to avoid exporting negative impacts to other parts of the world.  There are strong social, cultural, economic and environmental reasons for not sacrificing UK farm businesses on the Brexit altar.

The development and implementation of effective evidence-based agri-environmental management must also be conducted quickly, drawing on the many experiences of recent projects across Europe, including our own research at the Allerton Project.  While the Brexit process may accommodate repeated resetting of deadlines, the environment on which we depend will not.