Agri-Tech East event aims to help farmers calculate the value of ‘natural capital’

Wildflowers growing on a Norfolk field margin. Picture: James Bass

Wildflowers growing on a Norfolk field margin. Picture: James Bass - Credit: Eastern Daily Press © 2016

A Norfolk event will aim to help farmers calculate the return on investment for environmental projects and analyse the cost, value and benefits of 'natural capital' in agriculture.

Agri-Tech East's 'pollinator' meeting on Wednesday will explore the importance of soil, ecosystems, air and clean water in emerging government strategies, and discuss how the value of the countryside goes beyond its economic return.

Prof Paul Leinster, one of the speakers, is a member of the government's natural capital committee and professor of environmental assessment at Cranfield University. He said: 'The problem is that we are losing natural capital year on year, with soil being one obvious example. But how do you incentivise management practices that provide a public good but little immediate financial return to the farmers?'

Prof Leinster gave the example of changing land management practices to reduce the risk of downstream floods. 'Water is of increasing concern and water company water resource management plans will be coming out for consultation soon,' he said. 'In addition, if you were to pay land owners to accept flood waters on their land in certain circumstances then you can reduce downstream flood risks. But there needs to be a clear economic case to support this or some other way of valuing the benefit.

'There is also a lot of work looking at the valuation of the benefits offered by different types of land use. For example, woodland may provide timber, act as a windbreak, trap particulate air pollution, or sequester carbon. It may also provide a space for recreation with associated health and wellbeing benefits.'

Other speakers include David Burton, senior advisor at Natural England, which has been working with Agrimetrics to develop the 'Natural Capital Explorer', a dashboard which can bring together data-sets on a variety of environmental and socio-economic variables so they can be mapped against a particular farm or landscape.

He said: 'Being able to agree a set of linked metrics, such as measures of water quality, soil health, habitat quality and access to green space for local people, would make it clearer how to assess and invest in natural capital and create a common language for describing ecosystem services. This is a pre-requisite for creating farm, estate and parish plans that share common objectives in a particular landscape.'

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Alice Midmer, the integrated farm management (IFM) manager for LEAF (Linking Environment And Farming), will discuss agroecology – an approach to land management which balances production, sustainability and environmental goals.

And Poul Hovesen, estate and farm manager for Salle Farms near Reepham, will demonstrate how precision farming balanced with respect for the environment can also be profitable, generating yields consistently above the national average.

The event, named Counting the Cost, Value and Benefits of Natural Capital in Agriculture, will be held at the Centrum building on Norwich Research Park from 4pm to 6.30pm on January 24. For more information visit the Agri-Tech East website.