The Government’s Farmland Bird Indicator tracks the fortunes of a range of bird species which live and breed in lowland farmland, such as turtle dove, skylark and yellowhammer. Its recent publication revealed yet another drop in numbers.

The term ‘Farmland bird indicator’ sounds rather dry and technical and the story that this indicator tells is perhaps hard for many of us to relate to. This is because the story is one of loss – loss on such an enormous scale that it is hard to visualize, but which has seen the transformation of the countryside in a generation.

Throughout the UK, over 44 million pairs of breeding birds have gone in less than 50 years.

They have vanished at the rate of one pair every minute.  

Nowhere have these losses been more pronounced than on the land which produces our food.  And it isn’t only birds that are disappearing. Last year’s State of Nature report, an important stock take of UK wildlife, found that for many groups, the picture is bleak if things continue as they are. Despite the clear evidence that changes in agriculture have been a major cause of wildlife declines, successive governments have failed to get to grips with this issue or stand up to the vested interests that have a stranglehold over food and farming policy.

The recent Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) reform process is a classic example. It’s estimated by some that the average UK household spends over £400 paying for the CAP each year, but precious little of this money is directed towards those farmers, many on the edge of commercial survival, who are doing most for society as a whole. The recent reform was a great opportunity to change this in favour of farmers doing their bit to support wildlife. Instead the beneficiaries of the status quo prevailed and the €1 billion a week of taxpayers’ money spent on the CAP across the EU will deliver little in the way of public benefit. 

Most frustrating of all has been the emergence of the ‘food security’ argument that claims the priority is to maximise UK food production to feed a growing global population.. which means there isn’t room for wildlife. This argument is fallacious 

The Square Meal report

on many levels and ignores the fact that many people are already unable to access adequate, nutritious food despite there being an oversupply[1]. Clearly this is not a problem of there being insufficient food to go around. Yet there is little political will to address the environmental degradation and inequality of resource usage that actually jeopardises food security, especially for the most vulnerable.

This is why we are excited by a new initiative which saw a range of organisations coming together to call for a re-framing and widening of the debate on food and farming, so that all of us can have a say in how the UK is farmed.  

'Square Meal: why we need a new recipe for farming, wildlife, food and public health’ is a new report published by a collaboration of ten UK organisations with expertise across food, environment, farming and health. It calls for stronger government leadership and an integrated approach recognising food and farming are central to many of the pressing social and environmental challenges we face.

Most importantly, it provides a positive vision for what our food and farming system could deliver if the right decisions are made. An approach based on improving health; reconnecting with food and nature; good food for all; sustainable, resilient farming; and a return of colour and sound to the countryside.

Read the report and have your say at the Food Research Collaboration website.

[1] World Food Programme (2014). What causes hunger? 

This is a guest blog, written by the RSPB's Senior Agriculture Policy Officer, Abi Burns.