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Matt Ridley: Technology Will Help the Environment Flourish


Michael Gove’s 25-year Environment Plan makes a promising start towards recognising that environmental improvements are achieved mainly by people on the ground such as farmers and gamekeepers rather than commanded by officials in offices, but it needs to go further in this direction.

Science, technology and innovation must be encouraged to deliver better environmental outcomes. They are on the whole the solution, not the problem. Instead of going back to nature, we must go forward to nature.

The Government are right to reject proposals from those who lobbied strongly for greater statutory regulation, inspection and punitive fines for farmers, an approach that has often failed to help wildlife very much. We need to make sure that landowners are not left worse off if rare species turn up on their land. Voluntary conservation encouraged by carrots will achieve more than enforcement of compulsory schemes with sticks. If I read the plan right, it will aim to encourage rapid take-up, with minimal red tape, of prescriptions like conservation headlands, which are working well on my farm and others for the return of tree sparrows, linnets, yellowhammers and the like. I particularly welcome the inclusion of so many recommendations made by farmer-facing organisations such as the Game & Wildlife Conservation Trust with its first-hand experience at its experimental Leicestershire farm, Allerton, of how to combine profitable farming with increasing biodiversity. So it is refreshing to read the recognition in the plan that biodiversity depends on productive farming.

Sustainable intensification is the key concept here. On a global scale, you cannot have space for wilderness and biodiversity unless you also have highly productive agriculture. Since 1960 we have reduced by 68% the amount of land globally needed to produce a given quantity of food. That spares land for nature. Likewise, in the British countryside, a productive wheat field with a bird-seed crop around its edges, like I saw some examples of from my train window this morning, is far better for birds than a messy bit of bad farming or abandoned land.

If a landowner commits to manage part of his land permanently for conservation, by agreement with conservation bodies, might there be, as there is in the United States, a tax incentive like gift aid or a grant? If not, what is the incentive that will drive the take-up of such covenants? Environmental subsidies to farmers and landowners need to be paid by results and not by intentions, as is the case today. Surely a farmer or indeed a bird charity should have to prove that lapwings on their land are breeding successfully, rearing chicks to fledging, rather than just being attracted to breed there and then having their nests destroyed by crows or ploughs or seeing their chicks starve for lack of suitable brood-rearing habitat. All landowners know, including the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, that a vital tool of conservation is predator control of grey squirrels, mink, foxes, crows and other species living at unnatural densities, and this should be recognised in any new environmental subsidy regime.

I welcome the concept of environmental net gain. It is essential that we emulate successful conservation elsewhere in the world by offsetting development with habitat creation off-site. This is a far more effective tool than trying to avoid hurting every individual newt or bat that happens to live in a spot zoned for development merely to provide employment to bat inspectors and newt inspectors.

On the matter of science and technology, I hope that the Government recognise the fantastic opportunities that innovation represents for helping the environment. This is something conservation organisations do not always fully grasp, in my experience. No-till farming, made possible by cheap herbicides, can vastly improve soils. Precision weeding with robots will soon be able to reduce the use of chemicals. Autonomous machinery can replace heavy tractors with platoons of smaller, lightweight robots that work at night and cause less soil compaction. The indoor production of salads and herbs using LED lights can greatly reduce the land take of some kinds of farming. In Japan there are warehouses producing 30,000 lettuce heads a day with no chemicals and using less water and energy than if they were produced out of doors.

Genetic modification has demonstrably cut the use of insecticides, improved the yield of crops throughout the world, and can do so here. We now import vast quantities of GM soybeans for animal feed, having failed to genetically modify our homegrown peas. An exciting invention from Nottingham University called N-Fix coats plant seeds with beneficial bacteria to enable cereals to fix nitrogen from the air, reducing the need for synthetic fertiliser. There is growing evidence that the new technique of CRISPR gene editing can improve yields, spare land and reduce the need for sprays or ploughing. Gene editing can also lead to solutions to the growing problem of how to eradicate invasive species, as can the development of contraceptive vaccines, including the vital work of the Animal and Plant Health Agency.

I suspect we can much reduce reliance on chemicals over the next few decades, not by going back to organic agriculture with its destructive reliance on repeated cultivation and its use of toxic copper-based pesticides, but by going forward to nature with the new technologies of precision farming and gene editing. We can have more prosperous British farming with less subsidy and more flourishing wildlife with a few carefully targeted incentives. We can save the taxpayer money, boost wildlife and preserve the best of the British countryside all at the same time.

This is a modified transcript of a speech given by Viscount Ridley to the House of Lords on 29/01/2018.

Original speech