The UK aims to achieve net zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. While industry support for the target is growing, some argue the target must be brought forward to limit global warming to 1.5°C.
Overview of change
The appropriate means of reducing the environmental impacts of agriculture while ensuring sufficient production to meet growing global demand are contested. Some commentators have suggested that the use of technologies, such as robotics and gene editing, can increase yields while using fewer agro-chemicals, and less land and water; with lower emissions of greenhouse gases (GHGs) and water pollutants.1,2,3,4,5,6 Others propose regenerative agriculture approaches. These are defined as a system of principles and practices that generates agricultural products, sequesters carbon and enhances biodiversity at the farm scale.7 It involves a agri-environment practices to restore soils, increase biodiversity, improve water quality and enhance provision of other ecosystem services,8,9 such as minimising ploughing, eliminating bare soil and encouraging water percolation.7 Regenerative agriculture includes encouraging plant diversity, such as through agroforestry, planting trees across arable or pasture fields, and integrating crop and livestock management on farms, such as the use of livestock manure to maintain soil nutrient levels.9 Some commentators also argue that both approaches will be required.10,11
Challenges and opportunities
The production of crops and livestock is a major driver of biodiversity loss, occupying 50% of the global habitable land surface (excluding ice covered land, etc.).12 This has led to the fragmentation of habitats, degrading their condition and the connectivity between them (the extent to which species or other environmental resources, such as nutrients, can move between similar habitat patches).13,6,14 Cropland even occurs in many protected areas in temperate zones.15 Some evidence suggests that balancing demands for land between agriculture and biodiversity may be possible.16 But there are risks that, in areas where production is intensified, biodiversity costs could affect ecosystem service provision.17,18 The appropriate ways of increasing land productivity while minimising environmental impacts, such as increasing biodiversity within agricultural systems,11 continue to be debated. A three-way approach of high yield high intensity, low intensity low yield, and protected natural habitats has been suggested.19 The EU intends to reduce fertiliser use by 20% and pesticides by 50% in Europe, with a quarter of farmed land to be organic by 2030.20 The EU also aims to reduce the land needed for crops and livestock, planting 3 billion trees and restoring 25,000 km of rivers.21 However, this may result in increased food imports from countries with less regulation to protect biodiversity.22 Modelling of the consequences of a 100% shift to organic food production in England and Wales showed that meeting supply shortfalls would increase overseas land use and lead to greater GHG emissions.23
Although previous efficiency gains in yields, for both energy use and land, have not led to reductions the in land required for agriculture,24 the area of global cropland in 2050 could be reduced by 40–50% if productivity was improved.25 If this spares land for biodiversity conservation it could reduce losses of areas important for species,26 such as from agricultural expansion in the tropics.27 However, government investment in agricultural research has declined globally by around a third since 2001 as measured as a share of GDP.28 Indoor farming technologies could reduce land use. Wheat yields vary with weather, soil and crop management practices, but studies suggest yields for wheat grown in indoor vertical farms under optimised growing conditions would be several hundred times higher.29 The lighting energy and equipment costs are still relatively high, but are becoming profitable for vegetables, fruits and tubers (18% of EU crop production).9,30
Agroecology measures can increase biodiversity and provision of ecosystem services,31,32,33 without reducing yields or income.34 Examples of agroecology measures include growing woody species beside crops to increase insect pollinators,35 using plant species to chemically inhibit weeds within crop rotations,36 and diverse wildflower strips for pollination services.37 For example, global demand for vegetable oils is projected to increase by 46% by 2050. But a systems approach combining gene editing to create drought-resistant oil palm varieties, growing other crop plants alongside to support biodiversity and using crop waste to produce insect and fungal protein might reduce impacts. However, there has been little research on vegetable oil crop trade-offs.38,39
Plants have evolved to adjust their growth according to external and internal environmental signals, limiting their growth and productivity. A suite of genes and proteins that limits a leaf’s ability to efficiently use solar energy has been identified, which could be gene edited to enhance crop productivity.40 Research has also identified: genetic changes to improve the efficiency of photosynthesis, increase growth and use less water;41 genes in plants that could help agricultural crops collaborate better with underground fungi and reduce dependency on phosphorus fertiliser;42 agro-chemical substances that could be used to increase plant resistance to pests; and plant hormones that could be used to control herbicide-resistant weeds.43,44 However, such knowledge has yet to be applied in agricultural practice.
The extent to which crop plants can be adapted to withstand climate change impacts,45 such as drought and heat, through new knowledge and gene editing approaches, while increasing yields.46,47,48,49
The viability of more radical options for reducing impacts, such as growing crops in seawater.50
Key questions for Parliament
Can technologies, such as new plant breeding techniques, equitably co-exist with other methods in plant production?51,52 What are the best approaches to understand the consequences of new technologies adopted?53
Whether the efficiency of existing farming systems can continue to be sufficiently increased, while decreasing environmental impacts, such as greenhouse gas emissions and biodiversity loss,54 and their negative effects on production, such as increasing weed competition with climate change and excess nitrogen.55,56
How to address the uncertainties in evidence base for proposed measures to address impacts, such as effective approaches for conserving carbon in agricultural soils.57,58,59 Can the local Nature Recovery Networks use the Environmental Land Management Scheme and Biodiversity Net Gain effectively to restore ecological connectivity across landscapes?60,61,62
Likelihood and impact
The UK Government has set out a roadmap to more sustainable agriculture from 2021 to 2028 including implementation of the three tiers of the Environmental Land Management Scheme.63
- Grieg, J. (2020). Cattle farmers use AR, dairy robots, and wearables to make the business more sustainable. Techrepublic.
- Ellison, E, et al. (2020). Multiplexed heritable gene editing using RNA viruses and mobile single guide RNAs. Nature Plants, vol 6, pgs 620–624
- Ming, M, et al. (2020). CRISPR–Cas12b enables efficient plant genome engineering. Nature Plants, vol 6, pgs 202–208
- Li, C, et al. (2020). SWISS: multiplexed orthogonal genome editing in plants with a Cas9 nickase and engineered CRISPR RNA scaffolds. Genome Biology, vol 21, Article number: 141
- Business Green. (2020). Fruit-picking robots and carbon-saving animal feeds: Government confirms £24m agri-tech funding boost.
- ALLEA (2020). Genome Editing for Crop Improvement. Symposium summary. Berlin
- Burgess, P, et al. (2019) Regenerative Agriculture: Identifying the Impact; Enabling the Potential. Report for SYSTEMIQ. UK: Cranfield University.
- Regenerative Agriculture Initiative and The Carbon Underground. (2017). What is Regenerative Agriculture?
- LeCanne, C, and Lundgren, J. (2018). Regenerative agriculture: merging farming and natural resource conservation profitably. Peer J – Life and Environment.
- Nature Sustainability Focus. (2020). Sustainable Intensification of Agriculture
- Dalin, C, and Outhwaite, C. (2020). Impacts of Global Food Systems on Biodiversity and Water: The Vision of Two Reports and Future Aims. One Earth, vol 1 (3), pgs 298-302
- Ritchie, H. (2019). Half of the world’s habitable land is used for agriculture. Our World in Data.
- Zambrano, J, et al. (2019). The effects of habitat loss and fragmentation on plant functional traits and functional diversity: what do we know so far? Oecologia, vol 191, pgs 505–518
- IPBES. (2019). Summary for policymakers of the global assessment report on biodiversity and ecosystem services of the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services
- Vijay, V, and Armsworth, P. (2021). Pervasive cropland in protected areas highlight trade-offs between conservation and food security. PNAS, vol 118 (4), e2010121118
- Phalan, B. (2018). What Have We Learned from the Land Sparing-sharing Model? Sustainability, vol 10(6), 1760
- Newbold, T, et al. (2015). Global effects of land use on local terrestrial biodiversity. Nature vol 520, pgs 45–50
- Fischer, J, et al. (2011). Conservation: Limits of Land Sparing. Science, vol 334, pgs 593-595
- Feniuk, C, et al. (2019). Land sparing to make space for species dependent on natural habitats and high nature value farmland. Proceedings of the Royal Society B, Biological Sciences, vol 286, Issue 1909
- European Commission. (2020). From Farm to Fork. Our food, our health, our planet, our future.
- European Commission. (2020). Biodiversity strategy for 2030 – concrete actions.
- Fuchs, R. et al. (2020). Europe’s Green Deal offshores environmental damage to other nations. Nature, vol 586, pgs 671-673
- Smith, G, et al. (2019). The greenhouse gas impacts of converting food production in England and Wales to organic methods. Nature Communications, vol 10, Article number: 4641
- Pellegrini, P, and Fernández, R. (2018). Crop intensification, land use, and on-farm energy-use efficiency during the worldwide spread of the green revolution. PNAS, vol 115 (10), pgs 2335-2340
- Folberth, C, et al. (2020). The global cropland-sparing potential of high-yield farming. Nature Sustainability, vol 3, pgs 281–289
- Williams, D, et al. (2020). Proactive conservation to prevent habitat losses to agricultural expansion. Nature Sustainability
- Newbold, T, et al. (2020). Tropical and Mediterranean biodiversity is disproportionately sensitive to land-use and climate change. Nature Ecology & Evolution, vol 4, pgs 1630–1638
- FAO. (2020). Tracking progress on food and agriculture-related SDG indicators 2020.
- Asseng, S, et al. (2020). Wheat yield potential in controlled-environment vertical farms. PNAS, vol 117 (32), 19131-19135
- Financial Times. (2020). Vertical farming finally grows up in Japan.
- Tamburini, G, et al. (2020). Agricultural diversification promotes multiple ecosystem services without compromising yield. Science Advances, vol. 6, no. 45, eaba1715
- Gosal, A, et al. (2020). Exploring ecosystem markets for the delivery of public goods in the UK. Yorkshire Integrated Catchment Solutions Programme (iCASP) and Resilient Dairy Landscapes Report
- Chapman, P, et al. (2018). Agricultural Land Management for Public Goods Delivery: iCASP Evidence Review on Soil Health. Yorkshire Integrated Catchment Solutions Programme (iCASP) Report.
- Harkness, C. et al. (2021). Stability of farm income: The role of agricultural diversity and agri-environment scheme payments. Agricultural Systems, vol 187, 103009
- Varah, A, et al. (2020). Temperate agroforestry systems provide greater pollination service than monoculture. Agriculture, Ecosystems & Environment, vol 301, 107031
- Scavo, A, et al. (2020). Seeming field allelopathic activity of Cynara cardunculus L. reduces the soil weed seed bank. Agronomy for Sustainable Development, vol 39, Article number: 41
- Albrecht, M, et al. (2020). The effectiveness of flower strips and hedgerows on pest control, pollination services and crop yield: a quantitative synthesis. Ecology Letters, vol 23 (10), pgs 1488-1498
- Savolainen, V. et al. (2020). Systems thinking creates opportunities for a circular economy and sustainable palm agriculture in Africa. Current Research in Environmental Sustainability, vol 1, pgs 31-34
- Meijaard, E, et al. (2020). The environmental impacts of palm oil in context. Nature Plants vol 6, pgs 1418–1426
- Fernie, A, et al. (2020). Synchronization of developmental, molecular and metabolic aspects of source–sink interactions. Nature Plants, vol 6, pgs 55–66
- López-Calcagno, P, et al. (2020). Stimulating photosynthetic processes increases productivity and water-use efficiency in the field. Nature Plants, vol 6, pgs 1054–1063
- Karlo, M, et al. (2020). The CLE53–SUNN genetic pathway negatively regulates arbuscular mycorrhiza root colonization in Medicago truncatula. Journal of Experimental Botany, Volume 71 (16), pgs 4972–4984
- Groszmann, M, et al. (2020). Manipulating Gibberellin Control Over Growth and Fertility as a Possible Target for Managing Wild Radish Weed Populations in Cropping Systems. Front. Plant Sci
- Wang, W, et al. (2020). Induction of defense in cereals by 4-fluorophenoxyacetic acid suppresses insect pest populations and increases crop yields in the field. PNAS, vol 117 (22), 12017-12028
- Vogel, E, et al. (2019). The effects of climate extremes on global agricultural yields. Environ. Res. Lett., vol 14, 054010
- Don Lim, S, et al. (2020). Plant tissue succulence engineering improves water‐use efficiency, water‐deficit stress attenuation and salinity tolerance in Arabidopsis. The Plant Journal, vol 103 (3), pgs 1049-1072
- Degen, G, et al. (2020). An isoleucine residue acts as a thermal and regulatory switch in wheat Rubisco activase. The Plant Journal, vol 103 (2), pgs 742-751
- Chen, J, et al. (2020). Nuclear-encoded synthesis of the D1 subunit of photosystem II increases photosynthetic efficiency and crop yield. Nature Plants, vol 6, pgs 570–580
- Calderini, D, et al. (2020). Overcoming the trade‐off between grain weight and number in wheat by the ectopic expression of expansin in developing seeds leads to increased yield potential. New Phytologist, vol 230 (2), pgs 629-640
- Wired. (2020). The race is on to grow crops in seawater and feed millions
- A Bigger Conversation (Beyond GM) and IFOAM EU. (2020). The Boundaries of Plant Breeding. Executive Summary, Report of the World Café, 12 September 2019
- Lassoued, R, et al. (2020). How should we regulate products of new breeding techniques? Opinion of surveyed experts in plant biotechnology. Biotechnology Reports, vol 26, e00460
- Barrett, H and Rose, D. (2020). Perceptions of the Fourth Agricultural Revolution: What’s In, What’s Out, and What Consequences are Anticipated? Sociolagia Ruralis
- Naranjo, A, et al. (2020). Greenhouse gas, water, and land footprint per unit of production of the California dairy industry over 50 years. Journal of Dairy Science, Vol 103 (4), P3760-3773
- Storkey, J, et al. (2021). Agricultural intensification and climate change have increased the threat from weeds. Global Change Biology.
- Vilà, M, et al. (2021). Understanding the combined impacts of weeds and climate change on crops. Environ. Res. Lett., vol 16, 034043
- Page, K, et al. (2020). The Ability of Conservation Agriculture to Conserve Soil Organic Carbon and the Subsequent Impact on Soil Physical, Chemical, and Biological Properties and Yield. Front. Sustain. Food Syst.
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- Defra. (2019). Net gain Summary of responses and government response.
- Defra. (2020). Government unveils path to sustainable farming from 2021
Transforming the food system, to achieve all the UN SDG long-term goals, is challenging and will require a comprehensive, longer term approach to outcomes.
Climate change and poor management pose significant threats to soils and the services they provide; appropriate baselines and data need to be identified to assess changes in soil health.