Why is it that, sometimes, people can talk the talk, but not walk the walk? Or, more formally, what's the missing link between expressed attitude and actual behaviour? Let's have a look....A recent study led by Eileen Power, and published in the Journal for Nature Conservation, looks at just that gap. This publication compares how farmer attitude, behaviour and knowledge effects biodiversity on both organic and conventional dairy farms in Ireland. (publication is behind a paywall, sorry)
This study both listens to what farmers say about biodiversity (the talk bit) but also examines actual biodiversity levels on both types of farms (the walk bit).
The researchers state: “Agricultural intensification has caused significant declines in biodiversity. Agri-environmental schemes (AES), including organic farming, are thought to benefit biodiversity. However, under similar production conditions and in comparable locations and schemes, farms are not managed in the same way, with variable consequences for production and the environment.”
To better understand why this is the case, the authors explored farmer attitude, behaviour and knowledge regarding biodiversity.
The authors choose a small set of conventional and organic dairy farms for their study. (note: there are less than 2 dozen organic dairy farms in Ireland)
Plant richness was used as the indicator for understanding biodiversity. Plant richness refers to the total number of species in an area. Having a wide range of plants supports lots of micro-organisms, invertebrates, mammals and birds.
Vascular plants (broadleaved herbaceous, woody, grasses, sedges and rushes) on farms with permanent grasslands were studied. Organic and conventional farms were paired to reduce environmental bias.
Here's what the authors found:
“We found higher plant richness on organic farms than conventional... “A total of 78 plant species were identified: significantly more on organic (62) than conventional farms (50)”. Organic farms scored especially well for plant richness in the centre of fields, when compared to conventional.
“Organic and conventional farmers had similar attitudes to farming achievement and the environment but organic farmers were better informed about environmental issues and carried out more environmentally orientated behaviours.”
However organic farmers who were less informed about biodiversity had lower levels of biodiversity than better informed organic farmers.
Interestingly, they found both organic and conventional farmers had similar attitudes to the environment, but organic farmers were “more prepared to inform themselves about and carry out environmentally friendly farming”.
They also, unsuprizingly, point out that more production-orientated farmers have lower species richness than those with more conservation-orientation.
Ominously, from an environmental perspective, with the production targets of Harvest2020 in mind, the authors point out the following: “Farm biodiversity was not related to conventional farmer attitude to or knowledge of the environment. This may reflect the nature of conventional dairy farm management which, if the farmer is interested in maintaining production as those in this study were, is not likely to be conducive to high biodiversity.”
Power and colleagues “encourage conservation orientated thinking and better environmental education among farmers, including those who already participate in an AES (Agri-Environmental Schemes). This way, the benefits of the AES for the environment may be maximised.”
Hmmmm. These latter two points seem somewhat at odds with each other: how can education help when farmers are already aware, but are locked into a high productivity system that is “not likely to be conducive to high biodiversity?”
Certainly farmers in AES could perform better with more information, but the point is about all farmers, not just AES farmers.
That curiosity notwithstanding, the overriding message with regard to organic dairy farming and biodiversity is clear, as the authors conclude: “results indicate that organic farming and environmentally orientated behaviours benefit biodiversity”.
Armed with yet more information on the benefits of organic farming, here's hoping that new Minister of State Tom Hayes will start to put some wind in the organic sails.