Professor Paul Leinster, Professor of Environmental Assessment at Cranfield University and a member of the government’s Natural Capital Committee, spoke at the Agri-Tech East Pollinator event which explored how farmers can calculate ‘return on investment’ (ROI) for good land management.

The importance of ‘natural capital’ – land, soil, ecosystems, air and clean water – was highlighted in a recent speech by Secretary of State Michael Gove. He acknowledged that the worth of the countryside goes beyond its economic return. So how can you value land use in a way that prioritises sustainability and rewards the stewards? This was a key discussion point at Agri-Tech East’s Pollinator meeting: “Counting the Cost, Value and Benefits of Natural Capital in Agriculture”. 

Professor Paul Leinster 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?” 

Professor Leinster gave the example of changing land management practices to reduce the risk of downstream floods. “Water is of increasing concern and water resource management plans will be coming out for consultation soon. 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.” 

David Burton, Senior Advisor (Partnerships and Diversity) at Natural England, also spoke, and he agreed that measuring the benefits gained from nature is complex. Natural England has been working with Agrimetrics to create the ‘Natural Capital Explorer’, a dashboard which brings together information on water catchment studies, land use and soils and makes it easy to relate this graphically to a particular parish.

He commented: “Having an agreed set of metrics 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.” 

About Cranfield University

Cranfield is a specialist postgraduate university that is a global leader for education and transformational research in technology and management.

Environment and Agrifood at Cranfield

For the past 50 years, Cranfield has been contributing to enhancing natural capital and ensuring that global food systems are more resilient for the future. We are recognised worldwide by industry, government and academe for our research and teaching in plants, soil, water and air.

We believe that environmental problems can be alleviated through technological innovation and risk management.

Cranfield is a key partner in two of the four UK Government-sponsored Agri-tech Centres – Agri-Epi (Agricultural Engineering Precision Innovation Centre) and CHaP (Crop Health and Protection), with over £10 million invested in new infrastructure since 2017.

Our education, research and consultancy is enhanced by our world-class facilities including the National Reference Centre for Soils, which houses the largest collection of its kind in Europe and is recognised as the UK’s definitive source of national soils information, and our big data visualisation suite, which has tools to analyse big data collections including environmental resources from 280 countries/territories worldwide.

In 2017, Cranfield was awarded the Queen’s Anniversary Prize for research and education in large-scale soil and environmental data for the sustainable use of natural resources in the UK and worldwide, the first time in the Prize’s history that an award has been given for soil science.