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British farmland missing huge natural benefits potential

Patrick Mazza, Research Director

By Patrick Mazza
Climate Solutions

Farm support programs that target only food production miss huge opportunities to generate natural benefits, a new British study documents. A team led by Ian J. Bateman of University of Easy Anglia reported in Science found that carbon storage benefits in agricultural land and tying farm support programs to environmental performance criteria could add £19 billion in natural services values annually in Britain.

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The new modeling study quantified ecosystem services benefits including carbon, recreation, and urban greenspaces. The study looked at British agricultural areas, including grassland, moor, healthland, mountain habitats, and croplands, which cover 75 percent of the country and currently produce £5 billion annually. The model contrasts how much those lands would produce maximizing all values of the land. The following table shows the results in millions of pounds annually by 2060 of maximizing only food production versus all services:

  Maximize food Maximize all values
Agricultural value £971 -£448
Carbon -£109 £1,517
Recreation £2,550 £13,854
Urban greenspace -£2,520 £4,683


£892 £19,606

The findings shows that food production would modestly diminish (-£448), other benefits would be far greater, with carbon storage benefits of £1,517 and urban greenspace benefits of £4,683, two areas of interest to the Northwest Biocarbon Initiative. Especially notable is the loss of carbon benefits that takes place when only food production is maximized.

Land managers are unlikely to make changes that would maximize all values unless provided incentives to do so. The authors suggest transforming European Union agricultural subsidies to Payment for Ecological Services (PES). PES “would provide policymakers with a very powerful tool through which to secure beneficial land-use change.”  EU subsidies to British farmers currently amount to £5 billion annually, with 70 percent not tied to any environmental performance criteria.

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The Peak District, England. Courtesy of Dimitry B.

Battles to transform farm commodity supports into programs that support natural benefits have long been a hallmark of debates over the U.S. Farm Bill.  Large commodity interest groups have typically prevailed, although land conservation programs have made significant inroads. The imperative to reduce atmospheric carbon for climate stability, a centerpiece of the Northwest Biocarbon Initiative, says the struggle must continue.  The British study provides fresh ammunition for the case that supporting a full suite of natural services provides far greater overall benefits to society.