New policy will shape the future landscape of England.
Photo by Cassius Clark.

By Lydia Collas, Romain Crastes dit Sourd, Tom Finch, Rhys Green, Nicholas Handley, and Andrew Balmford.

Read the full article here.

Farming is both the single greatest driver of biodiversity loss globally and the hardest sector to decarbonise. The UK Government is currently redesigning its agricultural policy: at a time when biodiversity has declined 60% since 1970, and with <30 years to deliver net zero, this is an important moment. At present, UK farmers receive roughly £3bn annually in taxpayer subsidies, mostly at a flat rate per hectare. But new policy instead promises to focus subsidies on the delivery of public goods, like biodiversity and carbon sequestration.

In broad terms, environmental goods can be delivered in farmed landscapes in two contrasting ways. Across Europe, farmers are mostly compensated for so-called wildlife-friendly farming or land sharing where they are paid to deliver both food and environmental goods from the same areas of land. Supporting wildlife in this land-sharing way typically lowers farm yields, so a larger area would have to be farmed to maintain overall production. Alternatively, farmers could be paid to restore and maintain wildlife habitats such as woodlands, wetlands and scrub, under a land-sparing approach which provides areas for nature separate from highly productive farmland.

For the first time anywhere in the world we assessed the costs to the taxpayer of delivering the same environmental outcomes via sharing and sparing. Our environmental outcomes were boosting populations of three bird species – bullfinches, lapwings and yellowhammers – and sequestering carbon to mitigate climate change. We conducted a detailed experiment with 118 arable farmers who manage 1.7% of England’s lowland arable farmland to quantify the payments that they would require to deliver identical target outcomes under sharing vs sparing. To complete our assessment of taxpayer costs, we combined this with estimates of monitoring and administration costs.

We discovered that land sparing would deliver our biodiversity and climate mitigation outcomes at roughly half the cost to the taxpayer of achieving exactly the same outcomes through the sorts of land-sharing practices which receive the bulk of current agri-environment payments. Land sparing would also cost approximately 21% less in lost food production; accounting for this this difference in displaced food production would only increase the extent to which land sparing is less costly.

In the face of recession, and at a critical time for investing in avoiding further climate change and biodiversity loss, we suggest our finding that sparing offers a 50% taxpayer saving over sharing is of substantial policy relevance.