Scientists pinpoint nature-based farming solutions to help address the climate and biodiversity emergency

Funding for biodiversity conservation in Ireland is primarily derived from the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP). In addition to ensuring food security and stability, CAP now includes objectives for better protection of natural resources, conservation of biodiversity and addressing climate change. Agriculture will be increasingly expected to deliver farming systems that enhance farming livelihoods while also delivering environmental targets.

In a workshop convened by the National Biodiversity Forum, a group of scientists including some of Ireland’s leading academics has proposed six evidence-based Ecological Principles that can support the design and implementation of effective nature-based farming solutions.

The general principles can support stakeholders and policymakers as part of the formulation of Ireland’s new Common Agricultural Policy Strategic Plan.

The six CAP4Nature Principles are:

  1. FARM FOR FOOD SECURITY: Biodiversity underpins the sustainable delivery of multiple ecosystem services that benefit society.
  2. NATURE HAS LIMITS: Global trends indicate we are facing a mass extinction, and Ireland is similarly affected.
  3. QUANTITY, QUALITY & CONNECTIVITY MATTER: Ecosystem type, condition and extent determine the services that are delivered in any one area.
  4. ONE SIZE CAP DOESN’T FIT ALL: Targeted interventions are essential to ensure ecosystem service delivery across the Irish landscape.
  5. STRENGTHEN THE LINKS: The food system depends on links between people, producers and nature. Strengthening these links enhances benefits from nature and the reputation of Irish agricultural produce.
  6. NATURE NEEDS LONG TERM BUT FLEXIBLE PLANNING: Support for the natural processes that deliver beneficial ecosystem services requires long term planning.

Given the climate and biodiversity emergency, and the economic challenges facing many of Ireland’s farmers, the development of a new national Strategic Plan to guide Ireland’s implementation of the Common Agricultural Policy presents a significant opportunity to achieve policy objectives and societal demands for healthy ecosystems and thriving rural economies.

Professor Yvonne Buckley, Chair of the National Biodiversity Forum and Chair of Zoology at Trinity College Dublin, said:

The CAP Strategic Plan represents an important opportunity for Ireland to shape the way it spends money on farming. Over the next 12 months, the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine has a unique opportunity to embed ecological principles that improve farmers’ livelihoods by responding to the climate and biodiversity crises. It’s a win-win.

In Ireland, almost 80% of total expenditure (€1.1 billion) on biodiversity between 2010 and 2015 came from the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine. Despite this investment, a 2019 national assessment of the status of EU-protected habitats and species revealed that agricultural practices negatively impact over 70% of habitats.

The assessment also revealed that 85% of 59 major habitat types are in unfavourable condition. Of this proportion, 39% are described as ‘bad’ and another 46% as ‘inadequate’, with 46% displaying ongoing declining trends.

The CAP4Nature principles and examples show that the impact of farming on biodiversity can be reduced. At the same time, managing farmland for biodiversity can also increase water quality, carbon storage, soil health, pollinators and pest control. Agricultural payments that support nature could reward many or all of these benefits to agriculture and wider society.

“The evidence is clear. We know that certain types of farming deliver benefits for the climate, water quality and nature. Paying farmers for these benefits can boost farm incomes and improve the wider rural economy, while ensuring that Ireland’s reputation as a green and sustainable country producing high quality food delivers on its ecological objectives,” said Dr James Moran, Lecturer in Agri-Environment at Galway-Mayo Institute of Technology.

The six Ecological Principles are backed by an extensive list of peer reviewed scientific papers, which are available to view on the website www.cap4nature.com

The Principles are further illustrated with tangible examples in Cropland, Grassland, Peatland and Forest ecosystems Intensive (e.g. Sitka Spruce Plantations) and extensive (e.g. Native Woodlands) land use options are compared using a ‘traffic light’ red-amber-green system to show how they impact on a range of ecosystem services, including soil health, carbon, pollinators, water quality and wildlife (see www.cap4nature.com).

Dr John Finn, an ecologist with Teagasc, said: “Farmers are well used to higher payments for higher quality products in the marketplace, and the same can apply to environmental benefits. There are now many examples of effective agri-environment programmes and projects operating across Ireland, including results-based approaches that link payment rates to farmers’ delivery of more demanding ecological targets.”

 “Farmers and scientists are already working together to maintain farmed environments that protect biodiversity and ecosystem health while also contributing to farm livelihoods. These Ecological Principles provide evidence-based guidance and support to extend the lessons from these and related initiatives.”