An informal alliance of organisations, including the Sustainable Food Trust, Compassion in World Farming, the National Trust and the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, has written to all of the main political parties calling on them to commit to the protection of natural capital.

Natural capital refers to a wide range of things we all value but tend to take for granted. These include clean air, safe water and healthy soils, resources like forests, peatlands and mineral reserves, wild flowers, birds and pollinating insects and much more, including ultimately the health and wellbeing of the national population.

True Cost Accounting Working Group Letter

The UK ‘True Cost Accounting in Food Systems’ Working Group is an informal alliance of NGOs, academics and practitioners.

We are calling on mainstream political parties to make a policy commitment to implement the recommendations of the Natural Capital Committee’s (NCCs) third report, ‘The State of Natural Capital’[i] and to recognize the urgent need to address the current unsustainable use of natural capital in England and other parts of the UK.

The NCC report concludes that England’s natural capital is in long-term decline. It advises that the next administration, “Working closely with the private sector and non-governmental organisations, should develop a strategy and corresponding 25 year plan” to protect and improve natural capital.[ii] This would involve measurement and monitoring, accounting at national and corporate levels, and economic valuation to allow better decision-making.

Natural capital includes soils, freshwater, peatlands, woodlands, wetlands, and species abundance and diversity. Our future wellbeing and economic prosperity depends on maintaining and restoring these stocks of natural capital.

Impact of agriculture and food production on natural capital

We are particularly concerned, that while the protection of all natural capital is important, a high priority should be given to addressing the impact of agriculture and food systems on natural capital and maintaining the capacity to produce food for the long term while also providing benefits for human health and wellbeing. Pressures on agricultural land are expected to increase due to unsustainable levels and patterns of consumption (or likely increases in demand through global market forces) and climate change.

The NCC’s third report points out that “farming can produce large external costs to society in the form of greenhouse gas emissions, water pollution, air pollution, habitat destruction, soil erosion and flooding. These costs are not reflected in the price of food. As a result, farming is responsible for net external costs to society that have been valued at £700m per annum.”[iii]

A recent UK study concludes that “modern agriculture, in seeking to maximize yields … has caused loss of soil organic carbon and compaction, impairing critical regulating and supporting ecosystem services”.[iv] Industrial livestock production generally uses and pollutes more ground- and surface-water than grazing or mixed systems.[v]

A Department of the Environment (Defra) study shows that by 2013, the UK breeding farmland bird index had fallen by 55% to a level less than half that of 1970.[vi] In addition, there has been a marked decline in pollinating insects including bees in the UK and elsewhere.[vii]

Economic measures

The UK Foresight report has said that “the food system today is not sustainable because of its negative externalities. These are not included in the cost of food and hence there are relatively few market incentives to reduce them”.[viii] A range of studies have already quantified and in some cases valued farming’s impacts on natural capital.

We believe that farming’s negative externalities must be internalised in order to avoid market distortions and provide incentives for their reduction. If not, they will continue to be paid for by taxpayers and future generations who will be hampered in their attempts to produce food by water shortages, degraded soil and the biodiversity losses that accompany intensive crop production.

Conversely farming’s positive impacts on the environment should be encouraged and rewarded. The next Government should urgently take action to ensure that is the case.

The NCC report states that it expects there to be high return investment opportunities in improving the environmental performance of farming which would support economic growth and deliver significant benefits for society.[ix]

Conclusion

As by far the biggest land user in the UK, and a significant consumer of other important natural resources including water, oil and soil, the future of farming, food systems and the nation’s natural capital are inextricably linked. Whatever the outcome of the general election, we very much encourage you to lend your support to the recommendations of the Natural Capital Committee, which we see as helping create essential policy building blocks for any notion of a sustainable future.

Yours sincerely

Patrick Holden, Director, Sustainable Food Trust

Philip Lymbery, Chief Executive, Compassion in World Farming

On behalf of:


[i] Natural Capital Committee, 2015. The State of Natural Capital: Third Report. https://nebula.wsimg.com/17ce16211194bfe53215bb754444686d?AccessKeyId=68F83A8E994328D64D3D&disposition=0&alloworigin=1
[ii] Ibid, page 2
[iii] Ibid, page 45
[iv] Edmondson et al, 2014. Urban cultivation in allotments maintains soil qualities adversely affected by conventional agriculture. Journal of Applied Ecology 2014, 51, 880–889
[v] Mekonnen M and Hoekstra A, 2012. A global assessment of the water footprint of farm animal products. Ecosystems.: DOI: 10.1007/s10021-011-9517-8
[vi]https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/372755/UK_Wild_birds_1970-2013_final_-_revision_2.pdf
[vii] Reversing insect pollinator decline. http://www.parliament.uk/business/publications/research/briefing-papers/POST-PN-442/reversing-insect-pollinator-decline
[viii] Foresight. The Future of Food and Farming (2011). Final project report. The Government Office for Science, London. http://tinyurl.com/45k69r9
[ix] Natural Capital Committee, 2015. The State of Natural Capital: Third Report, page 3

A slightly different version of this letter was sent to the Liberal Democrats, which recognised that they have already made undertakings on this issue.

Photograph: Jacob Spinks

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