Agriculture and Adaption: a delicate balance


Kevin Kennedy, Partner at environmental law firm Burges Salmon believes agriculture faces a trade-off between long term resilience from sustainability and short term food productivity to ensure that the world can be fed.

COP27’s Agriculture day, ‘Adaption and Agriculture’ in many ways encapsulates the tensions that can exist in this area, particularly between the developing and the developed world.

The focus is on food supply resilience in the face of climate change, and adapting to that.  Food security is important and the focus on UK food security over the last year has been noticeable.  Previously, this was an issue felt by many to be of marginal relevance in the context of global trade, and for a wealthy European country that perception is still likely to be the case. 

Instead, a great deal of the UK focus has been on the decarbonising of agriculture and particularly the opportunities that the use of agricultural and other rural land presents to sequester carbon and offset emissions from other parts of the economy.  This is twinned with a focus on enhancing the ecological status of rural land, with a drive to greater biodiversity and the enhancement of nature.  Again, for a small densely populated country like the UK, a concentration of the nature benefits of rural land can make sense, given that only a very small proportion of the population is directly involved in primary food production, but a far larger section of the population can be benefitted by such enhancements.

It is that approach which is driving a lot of the thought in what happens with rural land, and what is clear is that we are at an early stage of this process.  The government will inevitably be playing a leading role through the Environmental Land Management schemes, if they are delivered, and in the schemes for the devolved nations.  

Many are also waiting to see what the private sector can deliver.  At the moment an effective market is missing, but that is confidently expected to develop over the coming years.  We carried out in-depth interviews with a number of clients and contacts across the sector looking to see what they were doing and how they were approaching a net zero push and there were certain consistencies in what was being said – the need for an established market that was not yet there, a sense of caution, the opportunity this presented, a feeling that the skills that might be needed to make the most of this might not be readily present in the sector, and an optimism that this was good for the sector.  Certainly it means agriculture, and rural land generally, is a focus of attention to an almost unprecedented extent.

But what about food security and resilience?  One point that seems to go unremarked on is that if the approach to a more sustainable way of farming, driven by the decarbonisation should result in production with less inputs, and the longer term enhancement of agricultural land, as the soil is rejuvenated.  This should deliver long term resilience, and one of the issues that COP27 will need to grapple with is the trade-off between long term resilience delivered by a more sustainable approach, and short term high food productivity, to make sure that the world can be fed.

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