It’s the start of another year! Thomas Quinn – Agriculture Policy Officer at BirdLife Europe & Central Asia – looks back upon some of the food and farming challenges we faced in 2016 and makes his wish for a Happy New (& Sustainable) Year for Nature in 2017.
Now is the time when we make our New Year’s resolutions and (at least for a few weeks) actually believe that we’ll keep them. Yes, January is the month of good intentions – or should I say food intentions? For indeed, food glorious food is invariably a recurrent theme here. After the gastronomical excesses of the festive season (for what’s a little extra wine and cheese between friends eh?), many ring in the New Year with grand plans of reining in complex carbohydrates and fatty acids in exchange for healthier eating.
Perhaps, though, it is time for a variation on the theme: instead of having good intentions about food, let our food intentions do good. And by ‘good’, I mean good for our health and our families, good for our wildlife and our climate, good for our countryside and rural communities and, of course, good for our taste buds. And we can do this by remembering that old proverb – ‘You are what you eat’. Just as a healthy diet is needed for healthy bodies, a healthy food and farming system is necessary for a healthy planet.
Most of us know that carrots are good for us. Many of us even know, more precisely, that they are packed full of fibre, potassium, antioxidants and vitamins K, D and A – the vision enhancing properties of the latter leading to the old wives tale that ‘eating carrots will help you see in the dark’. But how many carrots do we have to eat before we can clearly see that the intensive way we grow our food and breed our livestock is destroying the land, water and even the air on which they, us and the wildlife we share it with, depend?
Open your eyes just a little bit wider and you’ll start to notice that nature is giving us clear warning signs. The Turtledove was once a stalwart of the European countryside. Back home in Scotland over the holidays, as I listened to family and friends mumble along to the classic carol ‘The 12 Days of Christmas’, I couldn’t help but think how the famous ‘Two Turtledoves’ that ‘my true love sent to me’ are now a rare sight. In recent years, its once abundant numbers have dropped by a staggering 79% and it has now been listed as a ‘globally threatened’ species. Sadly, the Turtledove is an innocent casualty of intensified agricultural practices: suitable places for doves to feed and rear their young are becoming few and far between. Worse still, their plight is emblematic of a far wider scale of wildlife loss; in general, common farmland birds (such as the Corn bunting, Goldfinch, Lapwing and Skylark) have declined by almost 50% in the last 30 years.
So what can we do to save the Turtledove and other species from vanishing while, at the same time, continuing to feed a very hungry planet? Well we can start by telling our leaders that we know there is a problem and we want change. One person with a very big say in the future of Europe’s food system is Phil Hogan, the European Commissioner for Agriculture. And luckily, he is asking us for ideas and says he is prepared to listen. Within weeks, the Commissioner will open a three month public consultation – effectively a giant brain-storming session – on Europe’s agriculture policies. What we tell him will shape his plans to reform the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy (CAP).
With a large chunk of the EU’s budget funding it, the CAP has the potential to do a lot of good, as it did following the Second World War when it helped nourish and rebuild a war-torn continent. But unless we radically change the current food and farming system and adapt it to modern needs, the CAP will only exacerbate existing problems. And this is why BirdLife and fellow NGOs – along with many farmers, business owners, health and food specialists – are using this consultation to call for a sustainable food and farming system, one that produces enough food for Europe’s people and helps rural communities prosper, but in a way that does not devastate the environment. We believe that we can have our cake and eat it too – by working together, we can make a policy that works for farmers, families, birds and biodiversity.
Thomas Quinn is Agriculture Policy Officer at BirdLife Europe & Central Asia