What’s In A Name?

Written by Liz Bowles from the Soil Association

The role of verification, certification and labelling to drive meaningful positive impact on our food production systems

Measuring performance

Amidst the explosion in interest in how farmers can achieve environmental best practice without negatively impacting food production, an increasing number of schemes, labels and tools for measuring performance and recognising best practice are starting to emerge as well as a ballooning offering of ways to measure what is happening on farm.

Right now, it feels pretty confusing for many farmers to know how best to interact with the options becoming available and indeed to know whether the propositions which they may be faced with are the most rewarding. What is clear is that never have so many people been so interested in what farmers are doing on their farms. This is down to the heightened concern over how we are going to reverse the climate, nature and health crises we face and the vital role which farmers can play in this through how they farm. In addition, many of the businesses who buy from farmers want to be able to tell their customers about the positive environmental performance of their suppliers. To do this they need ways to measure that performance and to know what good likes.

’You can’t have a target without a baseline’ and ‘you can’t improve it if you don’t measure it’ are two stock phrases from the advisor’s handbook, which can be used to justify lengthy data collection and comparison exercises. The pledge for net zero carbon farming, carbon sequestration targets and even increased productivity to reduce emissions are all being discussed but in order to achieve an outcome we need to know where we are starting from and what improvements are being made over time. There are now a range of tools and excel spreadsheet-based systems available such as AHDB benchmarking, three industry recognised carbon calculators (Farmer Carbon Calculator, Agrecalc and the Cool Farm Tool) and ORC’s Public Goods Tool, all of which can be useful and are aimed at farmers rather than other industries. All can help to determine the farm baseline and if used regularly can provide information on change and improvement.

Carbon footprint figures are increasingly being asked for, and there are good tools available, with slight differences between them. It is now possible to measure the benefits hedges and trees on farms bring, which historically may have been seen to have little economic value. One consequence of these carbon footprinting tools is that farmers can now say they have proof of carbon sequestration which could lead to the ability to receive payments for the carbon sequestered. What is still preventing this market from taking off fully in the UK are agreed metrics on the measurements although the FAO has now come up with a protocol for measuring soil carbon.

Biodiversity and environmental measurements can also be assessed by tools like the Public Goods (PG) tool with many others in development. The PG tool analyses stock numbers, yield and inputs information, as well as questions about on- farm practices, wildlife and environmental actions to produce a graphical interpretation on your farm. The impact of changing farming practice can also be assessed using the tool. The Soil Association has been trialling a version to assess public good provision in a Defra test and trial in the Clun and River Exe catchments. We will all perhaps have to start getting used to seeing diagrams like the one below to present farm performance:

New terms, new farming systems

Alongside our rapidly expanding ability to measure and benchmark environmental performance a number of new terms are coming into common farming parlance. We are used to conservation agriculture and organic farming, but new terms which are becoming increasingly prominent are agroecological and regenerative farming, together with heightened interest in the ability to verify, certify or label production from farms which are following these newly coined farming systems.

What is agroecology? – Agroecology is not well understood. Put simply agroecological farming systems take a whole-farm approach that works with nature, rather than against it, benefitting the environment, food quality and human health. Organic farming is the best known and the only accredited example of agroecological farming. 

Alongside farming systems agroecology also involves us in looking at our food systems – what we eat, how we use food waste and how we as consumers interact with food producers focussing on more local and hyperlocal food supply chains. Maximising diversity in all things is a key component of agroecological farming systems including the integration of trees into the farmed landscape.

A farm following an agroecological farming system would typically do all of the following – reducing inputs, non-chemical pest control, harnessing ecosystem services instead; promote healthy, living soils through soil nutrient cycling, high carbon soils, biodiverse soils, use of green manures; farming with trees ; rotating and integrating crops, encouraging diversity and recycling nutrients rather than introducing external inputs.

Regenerative agriculture is a holistic philosophy that aims at positively influencing bio sequestration, biodiversity, ecotoxicity, climate resilience, water systems, micronutrients, and ecosystem services. Standard practices include no or min till, cover cropping, multi-use systems, agroforestry, rotational farming, precision agriculture, integrated pest management, and intentional use of inputs that are landscape specific. Again, the best-known UK example of such systems which has specific standards which are inspected against is organic farming.

Regenerative agriculture is not a ‘one size fits all’ prescriptive practice, instead it looks at the combination of methods that support resilience as well as build and nourish our ecosystem. Over time, regenerative practices are said to be able to increase production and naturally reduce the need for external inputs. When these regenerative practices are implemented successfully, the health of the agriculture ecosystem and farmer economic stability can be improved.

Labels, verification and certification

Alongside these new terms for farming practice there is also focus on how possibly value can be added for farmgate produce from such systems. Mechanisms include certification against standards, verification of farming practices and use of labels for qualifying farms and products. There is also debate on how best to deliver improvement in farming practice to address the climate, nature and health crises we face. It may well be that supporting farmers to benchmark performance in relevant areas and to seek rewards from new sources such as for carbon or biodiversity offsetting might be more helpful, driving cross sector collaboration to draw farmers into a new approach for land and livestock management. The need to establish a common language and a standardised approach to demonstrating farm environmental performance is becoming clear. There is also an increasing appetite for precompetitive industry collaboration to avoid both duplication of effort and unnecessary resulting confusion which could create barriers for farmer buying and the system change which is needed.

Alongside this debate there are several new initiatives starting to emerge in this space:

The Regenerative Organic Alliance has defined regenerative agriculture into a set of standards which must be met in order to become ‘regenerative organic certified’ (ROC). ROC starts with organic as a baseline then builds on the US organic legislation and consists of three pillars: Soil Health and Land Management, Animal Welfare, and Farmer & Worker Fairness. ROC has just completed its first pilot phase and is set to launch as a global certification scheme soon.

The Regenagri platform was launched in June this year to promote holistic farming techniques that increase soil organic matter, encourage biodiversity, sequester CO2 from the atmosphere and improve water management. This initiative is led by international agriculture and food chain auditing and certification body Control Union.

To help develop this initiative in the UK, a governance group has been established to advise on models to measure the impact and benefits of implementing regenerative systems through soil health, biodiversity, value systems and carbon footprints. Agrimetrics are the software partner for the initiative. Other governance members include the Cool Farm Alliance, FWAG, the Soil Association organic group and the Sustainable Food Trust. The Soil Association joined this group in the spirit of collaboration to see if it is possible to agree common frameworks for the metrics for assessing natural and social capital.

The Soil Association is building on the ‘Innovative Farmers’ approach that has been so successful in supporting farmer led research, and is developing a largely digital hub to enable farmers to share their improvements in the delivery of public goods…what’s working well’, and to benefit financially from doing so. This hub will focus on a set of practical iceberg indicators which farmers can report against periodically and which will allow them to identify how best to improve their performance against these metrics. We have made a start on this with a project we started in the summer called Carbon Assets for Soil Health (CASH) which will improve our understanding of how farming practices contribute to soil carbon stocks. We are still keen to hear from all farmers interested in being involved and who have historic soil analysis information. You can contact us on producer.support@soilassociation. org to find out more.