Can agroecology and agroforestry transform the economic outlook for UK farming?

Whilst the benefits of agroecology and agroforestry are widely accepted, far less is known about how they would impact the economic performance of UK agriculture. Agroecology and agroforestry have huge potential to improve the resilience of farms of all types. The need to better understand the economic impacts of these land management practices has driven two ground-breaking projects that Cumulus has recently undertaken for the Soil Association:

  • ‘Trees and woodland in the farmed landscape: towards a diverse, resilient and vibrant agroforestry and farm woodland economy for the UK’;
  • ‘Agroecological farm businesses: the economic impacts of agroecological transition upon UK farms’.

The results of these projects were presented to key policy makers and decision makers in the UK agriculture and food sectors at a national conference hosted by the Soil Association on 28th April and have continued to be shared with decision makers from various UK governmental bodies. This work is helping to shift national understanding of agroecological approaches and benefits, and guide policy decisions to support a more resilient and integrated food system.

Laying a foundation

Farming with nature offers ways to control pests without pesticides, cycle nutrients without synthetic fertiliser and enhance animal welfare. Simultaneously, these approaches can increase and diversify the public goods farmland provides.

However to date, there has been little work done to define how agroecology and agroforestry should be integrated into UK agriculture. The individual components such as reduced tillage, hedgerow planting, cover cropping, integrated pest management, and shelterbelt establishment are, to varying degrees, understood. But methods to effectively combine and apply these approaches to UK farms are poorly defined and comprehended, as are the impacts. Our work lays the foundation for how agroecology and agroforestry should be defined and applied to different farm types. The reports go on to model the economic impacts of agroecology and agroforestry upon UK farm types, helping to reveal where these approaches will improve farm performance, and how additional support should be structured to encourage these valuable land management practices.

A future road map

This work provides a road map for how farms can profitably incorporate these approaches and how policy needs to be reshaped to encourage uptake and pay farmers for the public goods provided.

As UK agricultural policy evolves, pressures to decarbonise increase and input costs continue to yo-yo, it is imperative that we understand how food production can be made more resilient. These two reports provide insights into how this can be supported. The findings and models provide decision makers and farmers with tools to better understand how different approaches will impact performance. This is only a step in the UK agricultural transition journey.

Going forward, we hope to be involved in the work necessary to generate additional data on the areas and impacts of agroecology and agroforestry in the UK. In doing so, we can then define clear strategies for integrating these approaches into UK farms to optimise profitability, food production and ecosystem services. Cumulus wants to work with players across the land sector and especially land managers to get these practices established on the ground. We intend to be part of the discussion and development of future policies that can effectively support integration of economically viable agroecology and agroforestry into farming.

This work will be essential for producing an accurate picture of how ecology, trees and woodlands can be incorporated into UK food systems to create a more secure and environmentally positive future for UK farming. Farming that provides diverse highly nutritious food alongside a wide range of essential public goods.

If you would like to find out more about agroecology and agroforestry and our work in this field, please do get in touch.