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Intensive farming is fine for birds and bees, says report

08 May 2008

Eco-friendly plant and animal life have been thriving in intensively managed cereal farms alongside increasing crop yields, according to the first study of its kind.

The analysis of 230 farms by researchers from The Universities of Manchester and Cambridge shows that Government and EU policies which subsidise farmers to protect the environment are - at least to some degree - working.

The findings challenge critics of modern farming who argue that intensive methods such as mechanical ploughing, crop spraying and mechanisation are not compatible with biodiversity conservation.

Economist Dr Noel Russell from The University of Manchester says that farms with higher yields tend to have higher levels beneficial insects, birds, mammals and fungi - though levels are still low.

Eco-friendly species are able to pollinate crops, improve the soil, control pests and other factors to increase crop yields.

Wheat is the most dominant UK cereal crop occupying over 18 per cent of the total land on agricultural holdings in England followed next by Barley.

Dr Russell, who is based at the School of Social Sciences, said: “Our analysis shows that higher yielding more intensive farms are not necessarily those that are doing most damage to ecological habitats in the countryside.

“Many farmers have been willing to reinvest - or forego - some of their profits to conserve and improve biodiversity and that has born fruit according to our findings.

“This means the natural benefits of some of our plant and animal life to wheat, barley and other types of cereal farming need not be compromised by modern agriculture.

“The improvement is roughly in line with when the Government launched its environmental stewardship schemes and the EU re-launched its common agricultural policy.

“This indicates that Government and EU policies  - as well as the activities of farmers  - are working.”

He added: “The results show that many farmers have been successfully using high-yielding sustainable technologies.

“These include conservation headlands, buffer strips along intensively managed fields or beside streams or ponds, beetle banks, skylark plots and precautions against soil erosion.”

Notes for editors

The team tested the relationship between crop productivity and biodiversity using data from UK cereal producers.

The results were based on a measure of plant species diversity which is used as an overall indicator for habitat quality for the period 1989–2000.

Dr Russell is available for comment

The UK Farm Business Survey data used in this study relates to approximately 230 cereal producers from the East of England, for the period 1989–2000, yielding a total sample size of 2,778 observations in an unbalanced panel. This was combined with data from the Countryside Survey over that same period to examine the relationship between productivity and biodiversity.

The authors of the report are:

Dr Noel Russell and Dr Amani Omer and from The University of Manchester, Dr Unai Pascual from The University of Cambridge.

An electronic version of the report, Biodiversity Conservation and Productivity in Intensive Agricultural Systems is available

For media enquiries contact:

Mike Addelman
Media Relations Officer
Faculty of Humanities
The University of Manchester
0161 275 0790
07717 881 567
michael.addelman@manchester.ac.uk