Let's work together to preserve natural capital

The recent State of Nature 2016 report indicates that many wildlife species are under threat as a result of intensive land management. The message is very clear: more needs to be done to promote sustainable food, fibre and feed production if we are to solve the apparent conflict between the interests of nature and those of modern agriculture and the consumer society it feeds.

Scotlands leading crop research organisation, the James Hutton Institute, has announced that Professor Colin Campbell, the current director of science excellence, is to be made interim chief executive. Campbell, a world authority on soil research, will take up the post in September when the current chief executive Professor Iain Gordon leaves to take up the position of deputy vice chancellor at the James Cook University in his native Australia. Making the announcement this week, Ray Perman, chairman of the institutes board of directors, said: "The Institute has established a worldwide reputation for the excellence of its science, and it is right that we should search globally for the right person to lead it on the next stage of its progress. We have begun the process, but it is likely to be 2016 before we can make an appointment. After consultation with the staff, the board is pleased that Colin Campbell has agreed to lead the management team in the interim. "Working with Bob Ferrier, director of scienc

While the State of Nature report highlights intensive management of agricultural land as the most significant cause of decline, drainage, urbanisation and abandonment of traditional management have also had negative impacts. Positive action for some species means working across land ownership boundaries and our researchers are working to understand what potential there is for collaborative action and what barriers there are to collaboration.

The James Hutton Institute looks for ways to build connectivity between habitats and other aspects of landscape use and structure: nothing exists in isolation and we need to recognise that in our approaches to policy and practice.

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Research focuses on many areas related to sustainability at both ends of the supply chain – agricultural production and consumer behaviour. For instance, the Institute is looking into how agricultural management at the field, farm and landscape scale can be adapted to benefit insect pollinators and naturally combat crop pests. Our scientists are also looking into what motivates people to adopt “greener” behaviour, purchasing decisions and lifestyle choices. Production and consumption have to work together.

At the root of the divergence between food production and sustainability is the drive to have cheap food. However, cheaper food means smaller margins for farmers, who then have less scope to invest in perceived non-essential activities, such as those that benefit biodiversity or the environment. But it is increasingly clear the “non-essentials” are actually essential. The declines in diversity of species such as farmland birds are potentially indicators of a decline in the natural capital of our land, soil, water and biodiversity.

Sustainability isn’t only for our farmers – consumers have to play their part, too. Policy needs to help lead the move away from a race to the bottom on price as well as steering industry behaviour to practices that are more, rather than less, sustainable and recognise investments in the underpinning natural capital that farmers will have to make.

There is room for improvement in the structure of agricultural subsidies. They could be fine-tuned to incentivise higher value habitat creation and reward land managers for investing in natural capital. At the moment low incentives tend to steer people to do only the minimum to comply with regulation. But it is these habitats, the soil, water and biodiversity that are the stock of natural assets from which we derive our income.

To date we have mostly thought in terms of protecting nature and conserving biodiversity but if this was seen more properly as an essential infrastructure and capital resource we would have a capital growth plan for nature. This potentially flips the mind set from one of protectionism, defensiveness and stopping the slide to one of growing, enhancing and restoring our asset base so future generations can live off it.

The State of Nature report brings out the pressing need to adapt our systems of production and take a more holistic approach. However, we also need to understand human behaviour and that is why the James Hutton Institute uses both social and natural sciences to try to understand what might be better ways of managing our land. A realisation of the importance of our natural capital and a plan for growing it should unite the actions of primary producers, business and society and hopefully appeal to human behaviour better than defending an ever retreating front.

Professor Colin Campbell is Chief Executive of the James Hutton Institute, which researches crops, land, water and the environment,