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Is There Room on the Farm for Wildlife?

Posted by Richard Conniff on December 13, 2013

It’s been a long, strange ride for the organic food movement over the last two decades, as it has moved from the health food co-op fringe into the Walmart mainstream. About one percent of all farmland—91 million acres worldwide—is now dedicated to organic methods, and that number is rapidly increasing. But organic farming has also attracted skepticism on a variety of counts, including disputed health claims, lower productivity, and a misleading image. Big Food companies like Cargill, Kellogg, Coca-Cola, Pepsi, Perdue, and Campbell Soup have all piled into the organic market. That means Big Food now has a USDA-certified counterpart in Big Organic.

Now a new study from Britain suggests that organic farms may not be all that great for wildlife, either. The press release from the University of Southampton puts it this way: “Threatened farmland birds are likely to survive the winter better on conventional farms with specially designed wildlife habitats than on organic farms without.” To which you may say, “Well, duh.” But a lot of us automatically assume that going organic by itself is the best thing we can do not just for our health, but for the natural world. Chaffinches, skylarks, yellowhammers and lapwings all showed up in greater numbers than on the organic farms, according to the study by Dominic Harrison, then a graduate student in environmental science.

That kind of improvement could be a big deal, because agricultural intensification—meaning farms with more tractors, more herbicides, and planted fields running right up to the sides of roads—has caused farmland bird populations to crash in much of the developed world. British farm bird populations are down by half just over the past 40 years. Some researchers have called it the “Second Silent Spring,” echoing Rachel Carson’s 1962 description of a Silent Spring caused by the overuse of pesticides.

“But this time is probably worse,” says Harrison, who’s now a self-employed environmental consultant, “because it’s not an on-off switch that you can fix overnight. Before, with the pesticides, you could just stop using those chemicals. But with agricultural intensification, you can’t just flip that switch. It’s just too much of a change for farmers” and for the food supply.

The key difference that makes the conventional farms better, according to Harrison, is an innovative, market-driven scheme called “Conservation Grade.” Like organic farming in the early days, it’s a niche program with only 101 British farms and 100,000 acres under contract. The key stipulation to which farmers agree is that they will set aside 10 percent of their land for wildlife, and follow a detailed protocol for pollen and nectar habitat, bird food crops, and other habitat types. Otherwise, the farms are free to use certain fertilizers, herbicides, and pesticides (no to organophosphate, but yes, at least for now, to the controversial neonicotinoid insecticides implicated by some research in the decline of bees and other pollinator species.) For their trouble, Conservation Grade-certified farmers sell their crops at a premium through food companies that license the “Conservation Grade” or “Fair to Nature” label.

Some caveats: This approach to “nature friendly farming” is largely the work of what is technically another Big Food company. Jordans, the main backer of Conservation Grade, ranks fourth in the British cereal market, just behind Kelloggs. But Conservation Grade has gone through almost 20 years of testing, and a previous study has shown a 41 percent increase in bird abundance over three years compared with conventional farms.

So what makes Conservation Grade better for birds than organic farms? It’s mainly that being organic does not require that dedicated 10 percent of land in wildlife habitat. Where previous studies have shown that organic farms increase bird numbers, says Harrison, it’s been an incidental result of having hedgerows and trees “rather than the specific prescriptions and theology of the organic farming.” That is, there’s nothing inherently wrong with organic farming. It’s just that it doesn’t do anything specific for wildlife, and on organic farms that behave like big businesses, they are likely to do even less.

American farmers have what may sound like a counterpart to the Conservation Grade scheme—and on a much larger scale. The U.S. Department of Agriculture pays farmers to set aside about 30 million acres of land nationwide under its “Conservation Reserve Program.” But that program has been shrinking in recent years, with many farmers lured away by higher corn prices. Congress is also expected to reduce the amount of eligible land to just 25 million acres. The Conservation Reserve Program also does not focus exclusively on wildlife, and it does not give farmers any bragging points, or any marketplace premium, when it comes time to sell the crop.

That sounds like something worth changing. People want to hear birds singing in their parks and in their yards, and they are noticing that the silence has been getting a little ominous. The bottom line on Harrison’s study of Conservation Grade seems to be that, if you can persuade farmers to make large-scale habitat improvements, you’ll get large-scale wildlife results.

But one way or another, whether through our taxes or at the supermarket, the rest of us are going to have to pay the farmers to do that.

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