The urgency to introduce sustainable practices on dairy farms has never been greater than in recent years, and with COP27 currently underway, there’s plenty of talk about climate change and the impact of agriculture.
Dairy producers have been adopting climate roadmaps and pledging net-zero commitments of various types, but alongside climate mitigation practices, more awareness should be raised about biodiversity.
Fair to Nature, a scheme designed to improve wildlife by encouraging UK farming communities to dedicate a part of their farmland to biodiversity habitats, aims to reverse wildlife decline in the UK. The program is supported by the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) - although it's about reversing the loss of all species, not just birds. It used to be available to arable farmers only but has been extended to other farmers including dairy in a bid to boost biodiversity across larger swathes of UK farmland.
Biodiversity: What can farmers gain?
Biodiversity loss can have an adverse impact on farming, since the disappearance of key ecosystems can disrupt agricultural productivity. In dairy, increasing biodiversity can help improve soil quality and forage production, which is crucial for milk quality and production.
On top of that, farmers can benefit through association with the scheme - Fair to Nature is currently in talks with major retailers over the distribution of certified products, we were told, and each product from a certified producer would carry an on-pack logo that signifies this to the consumer – akin to the Fair Trade certification scheme. That could also put them a step ahead of the competition if manufacturers are seeking nature-friendly suppliers.
Whilst these plans are still in the works, the drive to attract more farmers to the scheme is the focus of the campaign right now.
“We are trying to make the scheme available to as many farmers and brands across the country as we can, because we know that by being effective on management of chemicals alongside effective habitat management is what's necessary to reverse biodiversity,” Mark Varney, head of Fair to Nature, told DairyReporter.
What the certification process involves
To participate, farmers must adhere to a set of rules that comprise the standard – and which are based on evolving scientific research from the RSPB and other organizations.
The two key areas to ensure compliance regard dedicating at least 10% of farmland for habitats and the second is to do with sustainable management of inputs and soils. “The standard requires the appropriate management inputs, such as fertilizer, pesticides, herbicides and fungicides,” explained Varney. “Dairy and livestock farmers could combine grass lays with clover in their rotation, or other herbal lays.”
Each farmer who wishes to participate will be visited by a trained RSPB farm conservation adviser, who will assess what needs to be done to reach compliance. “Some farms that we visit already have the right habitats in place, and so we are able to certify them quite quickly,” Varney said. “For others, we’d recommend changes to how their farm is managed – it could be to do with their organic mixes, or with hedge-growing. The standard is not prescriptive as there are different ways to achieve what’s needed, and that’s done in partnership with the advisor.”
Once assessed and certified, farmers need to adhere to the steps agreed with the assessor, and can begin trading as Fair to Nature food producers. Their performance will be audited to ensure continued compliance.
This could sound like a lot, but many farmers have already been engaging in similar stewardship interventions such as the Sustainable Farming Incentive, Varney argued. “We could use the plans that farmers have submitted to support that from an administrative point of view,” he added.
The cost of signing up as a farmer is ‘several hundred pounds and not into the thousands’ according to Varney – just enough to cover an advisor’s fee and make a contribution to the cost of the scheme.
Sustainable benefits and rising consumer awareness
Bolstering wildlife habitats could also lead to carbon reductions and enable farms to operate more sustainably. “If, for example, more hedges are grown on a farm and more margins are put into fields, this could be a positive result for climate as well as nature. If a farmer introduces clover into their mix, that will increase the fertility of the soil and reduce the amount of fertilizer they need to use – particularly when you see such fluctuating global prices – which will also reduce their carbon impact.”
Biodiversity is increasingly important to consumers, too, says Varney. “Awareness around nature and biodiversity is smaller than perhaps climate change, but it’s growing quite quickly according to consumer data,” he said. “We've got COP15 biodiversity conference taking place in Montreal in December, and we're expecting an increase around awareness of biodiversity in the next few months and years. For farmers and for brands in particular, responding to that consumer expectation would be quite important.”
Fundamentally, however, ‘we are in a natural crisis’, he added. In the UK, almost half of farmland birds, mammals, amphibians, insects and invertebrates have disappeared, along with 97% of wildflower meadows. “We haven't done enough to respond to the nature crisis," Varney said. "We need to do that, because without nature there is no food. Without the pollinators, without those ecosystem services, without soil and water, there is no food. This isn't only about being good to nature - this is about being good to ourselves.”
Farmers and producers can enquire about the initiative right now from the Fair to Nature website, and there is no deadline for taking part in the drive. “The only deadline is the urgency for us to do something as a farming system and as a society,” Varney concluded. “Otherwise, we are not restricted on when farmers can join – any farmer can join at any point.”This article has been amended to remove an erroneous statement that Fair to Nature is the only UK-based organization that has achieved proven results in wildlife loss reversal.