19 April 2002

Conserving middle not just edges

ENVIRONMENTAL policies have only greened the edges of farming, leaving modern agriculture relatively untouched, according to Jules Pretty, of the biological sciences department of Essex University.

"Non-crop habitats have been improved, perhaps some hedges, woodlands and wetlands, but food is largely produced in the conventional manner.

"The big challenge is to find ways of substantially greening the middle of farming in the field, rather than around the edges," said Prof Pretty.

Cost figures

He produced alarming figures regarding the cost of UK agriculture in terms of its environmental damage. "The external costs of the industry are £1.5-2bn/year.

"These costs are imposed on society and are a hidden subsidy to the polluters. They include damage to the atmosphere (£316m), to water (£231m), bio-diversity and landscapes (£126m) and human health (£777m)."

Prof Prettys paper posed the question will conservation keep farmers in business? In response, he explained that a study in the UK comparing organic with non-organic farms concluded that organic agriculture produced £75-125/ha/year (£30-50/ha) of positive "externalities", with particular benefits to soil health and wildlife.

"There are 3m organic farms in Europe, so the annual external benefits could be worth £300m."