Scientific review of farm sustainability recognises farmer knowledge

Hundreds of farmers across nearly 200,000 hectares have informed a scientific review of sustainability metrics, creating benchmarks that demonstrate the benefits farms deliver.

The science protocol for Soil Association Exchange – which provides an environmental impact measurement to any farmer – has undergone a six-month review using two years of in-field experience from the 500 farmers working with the platform.

Led by independent scientists, the revision has nearly doubled the Exchange metrics across six core themes of soil, water, biodiversity, carbon, animal welfare and social impact.

The release of the new protocol this week follows recognition of the importance of farm data from Secretary of State, Steve Barclay, at the Prime Minister’s Farm to Fork summit, which Soil Association Certification Chief Executive Dominic Robinson attended.

The holistic metrics with Exchange cover everything from soil health and habitats to water and nitrogen runoff, and the importance of sustainable food security is also recognised.

The new protocol includes a food production measurement, and biodiversity is measured where farming practices support wildlife – not just in areas set aside for nature.

These metrics are now being used to create benchmarks among Exchange farmers, allowing them to assess how they are performing in areas where there is no industry or government-led baseline. Crucially, this includes soil health and carbon sequestration.

Farmers will be able to see how they are doing compared to all other users and see how factors like enterprise type and geography affect the benchmark.

Fundamental for farmers to understand environmental impacts
Soil Association Exchange Chief Executive Joseph Gridley said, “Farmers are on the front line of the battle to produce food and restore wildlife in the face of climate change, so it is essential they are part of the solutions.

“The hands-on knowledge that only farmers hold has been combined with cutting-edge expertise from academics to develop the Exchange sustainability metrics. They recognise the wide range of services farmers deliver and that farm sustainability is about so much more than carbon.

“Not only do farms play the vital role of providing us with food, they also are habitats for wildlife and many act as a social hub. That is why we have almost doubled our sustainability metrics, which are backed by scientists and farmers and measure everything from soil carbon to food production and community engagement.”

Norfolk farmer Jake Fiennes, Holkham Estate, helped to inform the science review as part of Exchange’s farmer advisory board.

He said, “It is fundamental that farmers and growers understand their impacts on our environments. Baselining and data recording on all their actions can only better inform them to be better food producers. Using the metrics in the new Exchange protocol will not only improve our natural environments and the impacts that we have on them, but will also make farm businesses more resilient.”

Farm data helps to create sustainable supply chains
The new science protocol – which is available open source – has been designed to provide robust and transparent sustainability data to supply chains.

It aims to better inform decision making around climate and nature within supply chains and help to spark more progressive relationships that incentivise farmers to manage their land and produce food sustainably.

It can also provide the evidence to help corporate businesses who work with farmers with other reporting like the Taskforce on Nature Financial Disclosures (TNFD) and the Science Based Targets initiative.

Efficiency is a key focus across the protocol and new metrics have been added at the request of farmers to help them to better understand their use of phosphate and nitrogen.

This enables insights to use these resources better, allowing farmers to prevent pollution while potentially saving costs and improving plant growth by retaining these nutrients where they are intended.

Joseph Gridley added, “A key thing we have found and recognised with the Exchange protocol review is that a sustainable business is one that is efficient and thriving. The science proves that food production and nature recovery are not competing aims – but farmers need the right advice and the right data to make them work in harmony. We believe an informed farmer equals a successful one, for nature, climate, and food security.”

The Exchange protocol has also responded to farmer feedback to recognise the unique characteristics of farms by allowing them to see contextual information to metrics. This includes catchment areas, nitrate vulnerable zones, and historic features amongst many more – all available as layers on the integrated farms maps within Exchange.

Many farmers have been invited to get involved through a corporate partnership with companies like Lloyds Bank, Riverford, Marks & Spencer and the Co-op.

Exchange can also work with farms or estates on a bespoke plan, or farmers can sign up online for free and start to add their own sustainability data.

To get involved or find out more, visit the Soil Association Exchange

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