The Nature of our State

I was looking forward to attending the State of Nature launch, but decided in the end to stay at home at get on with some writing that is now becoming urgent. But despite my noble intentions, I became swept up in the excitement and spent too much time on social media, debating what it all meant.

The State of Nature report shows what we already know, that our nature is disappearing, particularly from farmed landscapes. I’d go further and suggest nature has disappeared (to all intents and purposes) from many farmed landscapes. I read through the report and saw ever more detailed analysis of data stretching back decades. There really is no question about what has happened or is happening. If I had one gripe with the report, it is that, once again, the focus is all on birds and mammals. Practically all of the case studies, that make up the bulk of the report, apply to these two groups. Even the photo released for use with the story was of a hedgehog. It’s a great image, laden with symbolism.






When the BBC reported it, they felt duty bound to provide “balance”, getting the NFU to respond. NFU responded in typical manner – misdirection (it’s predators), obfuscation and denial. NFU attacked the report for suggesting that farming was continuing to intensify. NFU vice president Guy Smith claimed:

“However, since the early 1990s, in terms of inputs and in terms of numbers of livestock and area of crops grown British agriculture has not intensified – in fact it’s the reverse. Therefore it makes little sense to attribute cause and effect to ‘the intensification of agriculture’ in the UK in the last quarter of a century when there hasn’t been any.”

Reading through the State of Nature report, there is no mention of intensification of farming, though evidently it was discussed in the interviews. So NFU created a straw man to knock down. Farming isn’t getting more intensive – its the opposite, therefore farmers must be the custodians of nature now. But of course that depends on how you define intensification. Weight for weight, less insecticides are used now than 30 years ago, but that’s because neonicotinoids are so deadly they are only used in tiny amounts, not sprayed on to whole plants, but as a coating for seeds, which are then spread throughout the plant as it grows. And ever more damning evidence points to the impact of Neonics on insect populations, with obvious knock on effects for insect eating birds and mammals. Glyphosate use has increased by 400% in the last 20 years.  Even if you aren’t convinced that glyphosate is toxic to people (wait for this health time bomb to go off) the impact of this huge increase in its use across the 25% of the UK which is under arable crops, is profound. What few wild plants of arable landscapes that had survived the years of rapid intensification (from the 1950s to 1980s) are now subject to another dose of poison to finish them off.

It strikes me that the BBC should not be providing the NFU the opportunity to use these tactics to undermine the sound science behind the State of Nature report, in the name of “balance”. This tactic was used for decades by Climate Change deniers to undermine the science behind Climate Change. Eventually, after much procrastination, the BBC decided to change its editorial guidance and remove the opportunity for spurious (and malign) challenges to Climate Change science. It’s about time they started applying this “false balance” approach to organisations like the NFU.

But the NFU are far cleverer and have been in the game for longer than anyone else. It can be no coincidence that, on the same day as the State of Nature report was launched, the NFU launched its Back British Farming campaign. They literally parks their tanks ie tractors, on Parliament’s lawn, the grass of Parliament Square. That is a masterclass in the exercise of soft power, if ever I saw one. But they didn’t stop there.





After the Prime Minister and Environment Secretary had their photos taken in front of the tanks, I mean tractors, the NFU then handed out wheat lapel pins to as many MPs as they could find, in advance of Prime Minister’s Questions. So those of us who were watching, were greeted with visions like this – Craig Williams of Cardiff North proudly showing the country his support for British Farming.








The wheat sheaf or wheat ear is a very powerful symbol and has been used throughout history because of its power and depth of meaning.






From Roman times, here’s Persephone/Demeter/Ceres/Proserpina rising up from the ground holding ears of wheat (and poppies).

The RSPB and their partners in the State of Nature report, presented an excellent, well argued case, backed up with evidence so strong that it cannot be denied.

And the NFU said “Back British Farming”, which in itself means nothing – who would even argue that Britain shouldn’t grow food? And who else would do this than farmers (though the NFU’s vision of farming and farmers is a very narrow one)?

To focus merely on the words misses the point. The NFU used the power of imagery and symbolism to show the political power they wield, to embed in the mind’s of politicians, the media, and even the public, that they are the people to talk to, they have the answers, they have the deep, almost mystical understanding of how things grow, and how we are kept alive and nourished with food. It’s no surprise that organised religion started at the same time as farming and those deep layers of meaning, belief and mysticism around how food is grown (and who grows it) still lie within us all.

About Miles King

UK conservation professional, writing about nature, politics, life. All views are my own and not my employers. I don't write on behalf of anybody else.
This entry was posted in agriculture, NFU, RSPB, State of Nature, Uncategorized and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

26 Responses to The Nature of our State

  1. dayetucker2011 says:

    All very depressing. Both sides are guilty. Guilty through decades of failure to engage with each other. Both sides could learn so much from each other but chose and continue to choose to protect their own narrow power bases. The big loser as we all now know is Nature itself.

  2. Julian Jones says:

    Many thanks for this …

    The holocaust of biodiversity caused by modern farming is just part of the story. The consequential flood, drought, contamination of aquifers, farm animal welfare issues, loss of rural employment also all need factoring in here. The efficiency and productivity of agro-chemicals is illusory in terms of the £billions in externalized unaccounted costs.

    There are regulatory principles that can arrest all this; protecting and restoring soil carbon content, perhaps at 0.4% per annum (as suggested by French govt) would be a good start.

  3. Thanks for this analysis. In NZ there is an advert with all black Richie Macaw interviewing Fontera farmers at 4am – these good guys get up early – and it is all about the care and the planting. Meanwhile the waterways are increasingly polluted by dairy farming…

    • Miles King says:

      thanks Sasha. Some here advocate us adopting the NZ approach to farm support ie no farm support and minimal regulation. You can see where that road leads…

      • Julian Jones says:

        The NZ perspective is helpful …

        The Polluter Pays principle is sound enough but only applied (sometimes) to point source pollution from agric; whereas the decades of diffuse pollution is ignored and obfuscated. In the case of farm nutrient contamination of aquifers (and sedimentation of watercourses) this represents a colossal loss of resources (nutrient) – that if we were serious about addressing Climate Change should be central to policy (as French govt are suggesting above), quite apart from the profligacy it represents in economic terms.

        Here in Cotswolds we are losing upwards of 60 tonnes topsoil/Ha year at nutrient values of up to £100 / tonne* .* Much of the material coating our stream beds is a rich as manure in nutrient because it is manure, washed off pastures, mobilised because of anthelmintic use, with no regulatory oversight whatsoever (maybe a problem in NZ?).

        So we end up, for example in UK, with hopeless processes like Nitrate Vulnerable Zones (NVZ) where 69% of NVZs showed no significant improvement (29% of NVZs showed a significant improvement but 31% showed a significant worsening .

  4. wendybirks says:

    Thanks for taking the time to write that. i didn’t know about the farming lobby being outside parliament on the same day as the State of Nature Report was launched. Clearly farming has intensified over thee past 50 or so years. Three cuts of silage instead of one of hay. Cows producing many more litres of milk than they used to. Where I live, in the past few (13) years, local farmers have: put drains in to rushy pastures, removed hedgerows, use intensive grazing systems using electric fencing where they used to move the cattle from field to field in rotation, acquired larger tractors that damage old hedge banks alongside roads and require larger gateways. Guy Smith thinks he can pull the wool over the public’s eyes, but we nature lovers go out into the countryside and see what is going on.

  5. Miles. You sound a little like Dieter Helm – who is also a little too obsessed with taking down the NFU. They do not represent all farmers (they are a trade union) but unfortunately are perceived to speak for the whole farming industry – much as the RSPB speaks for the conservation industry.
    My tweet to @DimitriHoutart “Changes in farming practices, not ‘intensive’ per say. Pity most farmers busy farming so just leave it to the #NFU…” was a plaintive observation of how the media loves its ‘them and us’ arguments without any form of nuance.
    Something we need to work on without seeking tribal ownership of complex issues that gain loud claps on twitter but precious few crane flies in upland rush meadows.
    Time to look in the mirror and take stock of how we all live today (my comment on RSPB blog).
    best. Rob

    • Miles King says:

      thanks Rob.

      You missed the subliminal albeit grudging admiration on my part, for the NFU’s clever use of imagery and symbolism.

      I took great pains to write in a way that did not criticise farmers or farming. Who could argue that Britain needs its farmers? That wasn’t really the point of the piece. I was comparing tactics between the two cheerleaders – one doggedly pursuing the “head”, the evidence-based rational argument approach, the other going for the heart (and soul). Who is the more successful? So far, over the past 70 years we can safely say it has been the NFU.

      Clearly you can define intensive farming how you want to, it’s not like describing a species based on its anatomy or ecology. Guy Smith chose a very narrow definition that suited the NFU’s purpose, based on head of livestock and area of crops grown. But using pesticides which wipe out anything that comes near a crop, or converting grassland to maize fields, or a fourfold increase in glyphosate use, are intensifications in my book.

      But it doesnt really matter what definitions of intensive farming you, I or Guy Smith use. What does matter is how effective the various interest groups are, at getting their messages across.

      As to crane flies and twitter claps – you’re right. I should be spending my time working on that report. I’ll take a look at your comment on the RSPB.

      • furtlefinch says:

        Did you see this from the NFU lobby in Farmers Guardian? They have taken a leaf from the US agrochemical industry and are trying to paint conservationists as the billion-dollar all-powerful bullies. Expect more of this poor-little-us tactic.

        I posted this as a reply to remove all doubt that it is the NFU that sees itself as speaking for the whole farming industry and has seen its priority task as fighting against nature conservation.

      • Miles King says:

        thanks Furtlefinch.

        I did read the piece on the environmental lobby. It was quite interesting, as much for who they did not mention, as who they did. Yes I think we can expect the NFU to use all available tools in their capacious tool box over the next couple of years of wrangling over what the future farm support system will be.

        Are you a farmer?

    • Adam York says:

      Rob,true most in UK enjoy a lifestyle which consumes a lot, including the futures of others.Providing more commodities or material cheaply will only encourage more damage.
      Surely the problem with the NFU is they do not represent landusers in the main, and most of the time(certainly at a national level)they advocate forms of arable and dairying with no sustainable futures.Beyond the regional or local level it is difficult to see common ground on much with Guy Smith et al. I can’t think of any Mkt Gardeners and not so many horticulturalists who would have any time for NFU representation.They sound,in England at least, a lot like the CLA.
      Thinking about the State of Nature report it strikes me that arguing for the environment on aesthetic and even altruistic grounds is not the right approach.Crudely we may all like to see songbirds and flower meadows but we all need safe food,air and water to survive.The theats are immediate,wide ranging and affect all.Talking about and continuing to quantify issues such as org.matter levels,glysophate and neonics is the way forward because they do have effects for all.The challenge is to rebuff propaganda of Bayer,NFU,etc sufficiently to hold public support.
      In the longer run land ownership remains a big issue with historic lessons for many countries.The NFU thrives on large scale and control by a few.Progress in this area in Scotland might help a more radical English parliament at least tackle County Council tenancies,training,inheritance tax and planning obstacles.

  6. Oh, I saw the ‘sheaf of wheat’ Miles, so do most the society when in the supermarket. More plaintive tweets “‏@Mark_A_Eaton Good media coverage of #StateOfNature. But what does it tell us when a baking show #GBBO is more newsworthy than severe wildlife loss?” Sequitur my comment on Martin Harper’s blog.
    ‘Head’ evidence should inform us. not guide us, in our actions framed within a huge ranger of other equally valid matters including the ‘heart’.
    Otherwise the Hen Harrier Action Plan would have been full steam ahead due to some of this evidence
    But perhaps I conflate! Back to work indeed.

  7. furtlefinch says:

    No – I usually take the side of the pests.

  8. Craig Williams is a Cardiff City career politician. He will be towing the corporate, ahem, sorry, Conservative line. As with most Conservatives, he is free-market oriented, but also proudly sits on the committee of Cardiff Bus! I am interested that NFU chose not to prejudice him for being a city person. I just hope they listen to many views from other Cardiff City people I know (with strong appetites), who are hugely supportive of nature-friendly farming systems and with a just as much of an interest in what happens to rural Britain as the NFU Members themselves. Let us all wear the motif, but make in meaningful not an ode to trade.

    • Miles King says:

      thanks Ginny. It would be interesting to see a list of all the MPs who did wear the wheat lapel pins.

      I like your idea – we need a symbol people can wear, to indicate how much they love nature.

  9. John Kay says:

    The SoN report does refer to “intensification of agriculture” – once, first bullet point p12. Other word counts: “Agricultural intensification” – 4; “intensive” – 6; “correlation” – 1, “causation” – 0.

    Man from NFU is correct about fertiliser use – falling for many years, mainly from decline in nitrogen use on grass, but use on cereals is more or less level. He (and DEFRA) also correctly report declining total weight of active ingredient pesticide use. As you point out, this is misleading. A more informative measure is needed – maybe area treated – including seed treatments, repeat applications, tank mixes, adjuvants and desiccants – would better reflect the intensity of pesticide use for any unit of crop area.

    There is nothing surprising in the report, fleshing out what we already know, but it does contain a number of useful timeline graphics. What SoN doesn’t provide is causal links to correlations and the firm assertions made regarding drivers of change appear largely based on the Burns et al paper (2016). As reports like SoN tend to themselves figure as drivers of policy change we need more expanation of cause and effect to avoid perverse outcomes in the future, as we are suffering enough of them in the present.

    I think Man from NFU has a legitimate gripe-ette concerning use of language in the report. A lot happened in the 1970-2013 SoN timespan to drive agricultural change but the impacts of EEC accession, the Oil Crisis, the Great Grain Robbery, CAP reforms, the single Market, the “Peace Dividend”, WTO reforms, biofuel directives & Co – don’t get a mention. “Intensification of agriculture” covers all but within the timeline there are changes in practice and the overall structure of agriculture in UK in response to those random external drivers that could qualify as “de-intensification” – but don’t get a mention.

    Back to those timeline graphics: you could scramble (most of) the graphs and the Y-axes and not see much difference. Downward trends everywhere that don’t reveal any change associated with intensification/extensification – at least not at these scales. To me this suggests an overarching persistent malaise that is everywhere – like the cosmic background radiation, only nearer – that remains whatever we have been doing. My hunch is that we could lump this under “Pollutants” – in air, water, soil, from all sources industrial, agricultural, domestic; the list is long, changeable, with long legacies of past usage (the mercury from seed treatments in the past is still there, I’ll betcha), and would include pollutants like endocrine disruptors used and excreted by humans and discharged into soil and water. All under regulatory systems that do not necessarily identify them or their cumulative effects on the base of the food chain.

    • Miles King says:

      Thanks John. I think you must be looking at a different State of Nature report to the one I have been looking at. The 2016 England report doesn’t mention intensification; and only mentions intensive farming once in a case study.

      • John Kay says:

        Yes. I was looking at the full report – State of Nature 2016. This includes a spread on the drivers of change on p12-13 that doesn’t appear in State of Nature 2016 England – or Northern Ireland, Scotland or Wales versions, that also don’t include the reference to Burns F, et al. (2016) (Agricultural management and climatic change are the major drivers of biodiversity change in the UK. PLoS ONE 11: e0151595) that I mentioned above

      • Miles King says:

        thanks John. I’ll see if can track that one down.

        There are plenty of science showing how various different aspects of agricultural intensification have affected nature – here and across Europe. I don’t think there’s much to be gained from denying it. What is clear is that the nature of the intensification has changed over the past 75 years. Declines in the extent of semi-natural grasslands or heathlands, due to intensive agriculture (or intensification) have slowed greatly since say 1990. But this is because almost all of the resource (outside protected areas) had already disappeared by then. So it would make no sense to use 1990 as a baseline for assessing impact of intensive agriculture or intensification, on the extent of those habitats and their species. On the other hand, Bees and other invertebrates, as well as vertebrate species that depend on them, such as insectivorous birds, or hedgehogs, have declined substantially since 1990. Whether this is just down to Neonics or not is still open to some debate, but the research now being done is increasingly pointing the finger at this group of pesticides.

        And yes, there are wide range of drivers of intensification, or continuation of intensive farming. And I can clearly see that a double subsidy for biogas maize has led to a marked increase in the area of Maize in Dorset – (direct causation) so we can put that particular piece of intensification at the door of the Renewable Energy Directive. But it’s still intensification and nature is still being pushed further back or away as a result of it. So it’s a catch-all and in that sense some of the detail is missed. I’m not sure this matters so much because the message is the same – that farming practices in the past and have led to a massive decline in the abundance of nature on farmed land.

        It would not be true to say that farming is no longer intensive, even if by some measures it is less intensive than in the past. But everyone wants food and it’s pretty unlikely that we will be returning to horse-powered farming or arable fields full of arable weeds. Or indeed that we’ll somewhow bring back the 98% of wildflower meadows that have gone since 1940.

        To my mind the important questions are now – what do we want from our farmers and landowners, how can this benefit nature, and how is that going to be paid for.

  10. Pingback: Farmland nature is in intensive care | a new nature blog

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