Sustainable intensification of farming and food production can be achieved - but only through commitment from all partners and the application of new research based technologies. This was the message from Patrick Casement when he addressed a recent meeting of the NI Grain Trade Association. Patrick is a farmer and environmentalist and is Chairman of NI Environment Link and a member of the National Trust's Rural Enterprise Panel. He said that farmers need to get recognition for what has already been achieved in areas such as carbon sequestration in hedges and trees. He predicted that agricultural support in the future will recognise and reward the contribution farmers make to the environment and management of the countryside.

Robin Irvin​e​, ​G​ill Gallagher, Patrick Casement, Keith Agnew at the NIGTA September quarterly meeting. Photograph: David Scott
Robin Irvin​e​, ​G​ill Gallagher, Patrick Casement and Keith Agnew at the NIGTA September quarterly meeting. Photograph: David Scott

The challenges are highlighted in the “State of Nature” report which highlights a wildlife decline in the UK with agriculture as the main contributor. Habitat quality and quantity have been affected; water quality has suffered from phosphate and nitrate enrichment while air quality has been impacted by ammonia emissions from agriculture – mainly generated by ruminant livestock. The net result has been abandonment of much of agriculture in the uplands and further intensification in the lowland areas. The success of agriculture in the future will depend on the ability of the industry to reconcile food production with care for the environment.

A new approach is necessary – but it must be evidenced based and supported by measures such as remote monitoring of habitats in order to assess change rapidly. A sustainable land management strategy must be achieved with the carrot rather than the stick if we expect farmers to respond. Government bodies setting rules and penalising farmers will result in a “them and us” scenario whereas knowledge transfer along with financial encouragement can create a team effort which delivers the desired results for everyone.

Achieving a balance of grazing in the uplands and intensification in an environmentally friendly manner in the lowland could have huge market potential. Sustainable intensification based on evidence and scientific research has the potential to provide a win-win result for the lowland areas while farmers in the uplands can continue to graze their livestock in addition to being rewarded for the care of the environment and wildlife.

Patrick added “This might sound like a pipe dream but is achievable if the industry accepts the challenge and the responsibility of reconciling food production with care of the environment – modern agricultural systems are unsustainable if we do not act”
He warned “As farmers we must remember that we rely on the rural environment, not just for food production, but for clean water, clean air, carbon sequestration, pollination and recreation.”

Patrick concluded by complimenting the NI Grain Trade Association on their most recent training module for farm advisers which focuses specifically on reducing the environmental impact of intensive farming.