Farm Girl Fish Out of Water

Farm Girl Fish Out of Water

It was three days of intense imposter syndrome. I was invited to moderate a plenary at the IUCN Congress in Marseille – possibly the biggest nature and conservation conference in the world. Harrison Ford and Emmanuel Macron were there; Leonardo DiCaprio was supposed to come too, but he pulled out at the last minute (gutted).

It’s hosted by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) – the people who publish the Red List of Endangered Species. It’s made up of 1,400 member organisations, from environmental NGOs to Government departments, and the World Congress sets the global conservation agenda. All those big targets you read about in the news? It’s likely someone first came up with the idea at the IUCN Congress.

So, it’s a very big deal.

When you walk around the exhibition halls, at first glance it looks a lot like Cereals, or the Pig and Poultry Fair, or the Dairy Event at the NEC. Except, instead of NFU Mutual and RABDF, it’s UNESCO, Bird Life International and, randomly, L’Occitane en Provence. You can stroll around the stands, picking up leaflets and environmentally friendly free stuff (no pens, or perfume sadly). I got a temporary tattoo of a pangolin on my arm, raising awareness of IUCN’s Reverse the Red campaign. I had amazing conversations about the Congo Basin and Cerrado savanna.

There are hundreds of talks and seminars, jam-packed with acronyms. Conventions, task forces, frameworks, international commitments, global goals and ‘high level dialogues’ – it’s an event for the big fish (in suits, as well as the sea).

The panel session I moderated looked at demands and dilemmas at a landscape scale – basically, how do we balance the needs of nature and people? Farming and food production is a big part of that conundrum.

The panel was made up of some seriously impressive people – Canadian writer, photographer, and conservationist Dr Harvey Locke (co-founder of the Yellowstone to Yukon Conservation Initiative – a giant project linking up 2,000 miles of wildlife habitat across the US and Canada); Josefa Tauli is a member of the indigenous Igorot community in the mountainous nothern region of the Phillipines and sits on the steering committee of the Global Youth Biodiversity Network which brings the voices of young people to the UN Convention on Biological Diversity; Achim Steiner, administrator of the UN Development Programme (UNDP); Christiane Laibach, executive board member at the German development bank KfW; and Cristelle Pratt, head of Environment and Climate Action for the Organisation of African, Caribbean and Pacific States (OACPS). My job was to introduce them all, ask questions, keep an eye on the clock and make sure their answers didn’t take too long.

But I could have listened to them speak all day. In Marseille, I listened and learned for three solid days. A discomforting realisation dawned on me – I was out of my depth. The nature and conservation conference culture, though so closely and inextricably linked to my own in agriculture, was a whole different ball game. The IUCN Congress felt like my first ever Nuffield Farming Conference back in 2015 – when I realised, with some embarrassment, the limitations of my supposed ‘farming knowledge’.

This wasn’t about my ‘nature knowledge’ per se – my ability to identify birdsong or bee species – it was more about getting to grips with the political and bureaucratic processes which drive the global conservation movement. The men in suits stuff (there are still a lot of men in suits – even in conservation).

Emmanuel Macron speaking at the opening ceremony

A good starting point for getting your head around new stuff is asking yourself: “What were my take home messages?”

For me, there were several:

  • Conservationists are worried about being eclipsed by the climate change agenda. Speaker after speaker stressed continually, and passionately, that biodiversity and climate are two sides of the same coin. If one suffers, so does the other. And what’s good for one is good for the other. We all know about the climate change target set out in the Paris Agreement, to limit global temperature rise to 2°C above pre-industrial levels, preferably 1.5°C, but no such official target exists for halting biodiversity loss. Which is crazy considering we’ve lost more than half the world’s wildlife in less than 50 years (sit with that a moment – it’s truly terrifying). This won’t be the case for much longer. The entire Congress was thrusting its weight behind the new 30×30 global target (protecting 30% of the world’s land, sea, and freshwater by 2030). The G7 signed up to it at their most recent summit and successive Governments, including the UK, are keen to be seen embracing the ambition. The aim is to halt the trend of loss and reverse it, so we’re in a ‘Nature Positive’ situation by 2050 (expect these terms to become as well-known as ‘Net Zero’ following the big biodiversity conference in China next month and COP26 in Glasgow in November). Not everyone agrees though. Some groups representing indigenous peoples’ rights have dubbed it “the biggest land grab in history”; accusing rich, developed nations of snatching land away from marginalised people, calling them ‘protected areas’ and sticking up fences and keep out signs. Conservationists are divided over this – while I’m sure there are those who wish to ringfence land for nature and keep people out, most I spoke to were all about ‘people-centred’ approaches, which keep landscapes working for nature and humans. Though I expect there are some heated debates behind closed doors about that.
  • There are not too many people in the world. It’s just one section of the world’s population (the richest) are consuming way too much. The earth can easily look after 7.5 billion people – even 9 billion – if we just shared things out in a more equitable way. And we can easily feed them all with the food we produce now – if we just stop wasting it, consume a bit less in fat countries (we’re a fat country) and a bit more in hungry countries. The ‘We Need to Feed the 9 Billion’ mantra, which was drilled into us as newbie Nuffield Scholars in 2016, has breathed its last from my lips. I’ll never say it again. It’s codswallop. We don’t need to “produce more with less”, we need to maintain with less.
  • Solutions to climate change and biodiversity loss must be people centred. Guilting, blaming, and hating on humans isn’t going to work. We’re all here and we all have a right to a good life. People are amazing. The things that divide us can be overcome.
  • There was much talk about the ‘global economy’. A lot of it went over my head but one simple message came across loud and clear: infinite growth within a finite system is impossible. And by ‘growth’, we’re talking about consumption and how much stuff we own, or wish to own. There’s a max-out point and many of us reached it a long time ago. This made perfect sense to me – the world is the world. It’s not getting any bigger. There literally isn’t any more of it. So how can we keeping pushing for more stuff? And how much does a business – or a farm – really need to grow in order for its owners, tenants, managers, shareholders, or whoever, to lead a comfortable life? I’m not an anti-capitalist – I believe humans are hardwired to chase, build, and strive and you might as well have an economic system that works with our nature, rather than against it – but we’ve got to ditch the mindset of ‘more, more, more’ and work towards achieving ‘enough’. Once we’ve got ‘enough’, work on maintaining it in a sustainable way (not cheap) and then help other people achieve ‘enough’. By all means, keep striving – just set different goals. ‘More for more’s sake’, in my mind, is done for.
  • We cannot build better lives for humans if we treat the environment as an external thing to our lives. So, think of life as a cake – what physical ingredients do we need for a ‘Good Life’ cake? Food, water, a home, enough money to live on etc, etc. Now, some people would say a healthy environment and access to nature should also be on that list. Not according to what I heard at the IUCN Congress. Nah ah. No. The environment is not an ingredient for our Good Life cake – it’s the mixing bowl which holds all the ingredients together. You can’t even think about baking a cake without it. It’s bigger than the cake. It existed before the cake and will exist long after the cake has been eaten, when we are all crumbs. It’s non-negotiable. You can’t opt in or out of the environment. Our planet is the whole context for life on earth – one big circle that encompasses everything. And if the environment suffers, so does everything inside the mixing bowl. If we break it, we die. So, really, there is no greater priority on earth than the earth itself.
  • This sparked another thought. Farmers, and anyone that lives and works on the land, already operates within this model. Nature and the environment – weather, soil, water, pests, disease – is the context of everything they do. Way more than the economy (the economy doesn’t keep your crops and animals alive). It’s the reason farmers are so obsessed with the weather forecast. Farmers are plugged into the ‘biosphere’ 24/7. It rules them. So, in that sense, farmers are way ahead of the curve on this. They get it. It’s the rest of the population that might struggle because the environment can be treated as an externality if you work at a laptop all day, like me, or buy your food in a supermarket or only plug into the mainframe occasionally for a walk or a breath of fresh air outside the office. We dip in and out of the biosphere. Farmers live by it. From this perspective, they share more common ground with the IUCN Congress than most.

But I didn’t meet any farmers. I heard occasional mentions of agroecology and regenerative farming, but it still felt on the fringes of conservation consciousness. I felt on the fringes to be honest. A bit of an outsider.

This saddened me because I don’t think we’ll stop climate change and halt biodiversity loss until events like this start engaging with the people who own or manage more than a third of the earth’s surface – our farmland. Until everyone feels like an insider.

The conservation world is divided on this too – there are extreme voices and conciliatory voices, as in any walk of life. At one end there are those who want all humans to live in cities, leaving the ‘wild wildernesses’ to nature. There are those who only see a place for organic agriculture and close their ears to anything else. And there are those who want to step into unchartered territory and build bridges in traditionally divided spaces.

I was invited along to the IUCN Congress by its relatively new Agriculture team, and a super clever guy called Jonathan Davies who studied Agriculture at university, learnt to drive in a tractor and started his career working on a UK farm. He later moved to Africa and spent three years living with nomadic Ethiopian pastoralists. His did a PhD on pastoralist grazing practices, moved to Kenya, got a job with IUCN and was instrumental in getting them to recognise grasslands as equally worthy of conservation as forests. Jonathan is a change maker (“or a troublemaker,” he grinned over coffee during a conference break) and is now on a mission to bring conservation and agriculture closer together:

“People only seem to want to talk about extremes – big industrial farms and tiny organic farms. It’s the 70% in the middle we’re interested in,” he said.

I shared stories of some of the farmers I know and how I wished they were there. He expressed regret at perceived divisions and his desire to reach out and engage. To find common ground.

I think Jonathan and his team are embarking on something truly extraordinary and I desperately want to help. I may not know what all the acronyms stand for, and I can’t reel off dozens of task forces and conventions, but I do know farmers. I understand their culture and connection to land. I’d fight to make their voices heard, but I’d also push them (hard if necessary) to engage with people like Jonathan. Because the middle ground is where we’ll save the world.

Moderating the opening plenary: ‘Demands and Dilemmas at a Landscape Scale’


  1. Flipping heck Anna!! Fair play and huge applaud and respect. I’m lost for words. From me, the nature and biodiversity on our farm (present and future) and from all of us in the face of climate change – polar bears, moorhens and people included. Thank you!!


  2. Perhaps they should have awarded the IUCN Biodiversity “Thanos” award to Bolsonaro … 😦

    It’s a sad fact that the big levers of power are still pushed by a very small number of people, for good or mostly, ill.

    People will, it seems, always vote for their own limited self-interest, rather than “The greater good”.


  3. Wonderfully written article. You’re not an impostor at all – we desperately need people like you to get this information back to those of us on the ground. We can make a huge difference in agriculture. We need to do more conservation and we really can do it whilst maintaining profitable and productive farms. Thanks Anna – great work

    Liked by 1 person

  4. That must’ve been an amazing experience. Congratulations on being invited (and doing a brilliant job, I’m sure). I agree with almost everything you’ve said, and these are some of the main issues I am grappling with all the time, as a low intensity/low output farmer in a high nature value area, highly sought after by rewilders and green lairds. One small thing to be careful of – what’s good for carbon/climate is not necessarily good for biodiversity. Planting dense trees all over grassland may be good for carbon but can be devestating for biodiversity. Likewise with taking all grazing animals off some hill and moorland – potentially good for carbon, not for biodiversity. (And green energy obviously not always good for biodiversity) Usually they do go hand in hand, but it’s another reason why the biodiversity advocates have good reason to be worried about the climate crisis eclipsing the biodiversity crisis. We (here) worry about the emphasis on climate change / carbon in the national and planning dialogue and the potential negative impacts this may have on biodiversity.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s