Assessing and enhancing farmland biodiversity within the food industry: towards an evidence-based online tool

Lead Research Organisation: University of Cambridge
Department Name: Zoology


There is strong demand from the food and farming industries to find ways to measure the impact of their farm practices on biodiversity and the critical ecosystem services it delivers, such as pollination and nutrient cycling. Being able to measure these impacts at a farm level not only helps inform the management decisions of individual farmers, but is essential for food and drink companies to enhance ecosystem services and biodiversity through their supply chains. This project will develop a module to measure and manage biodiversity within the Cool Farm Tool, an industry-led environmental decision-support tool used by suppliers of major food retailers including PepsiCo, Marks & Spencer and Heineken. Uniquely, the new module will consult the body of existing scientific evidence to evaluate the impact of farm practices on biodiversity. It will also provide specific guidance to users on how to improve biodiversity performance in their context. The module will combine a method of measuring biodiversity impact in line with industry guidance - the Gaia Biodiversity Yardstick developed by the Centre for Agriculture and Environment, Netherlands (CLM) - with a rigorous approach to evaluating scientific evidence developed at Cambridge University.

This project was co-developed by the Cool Farm Institute, the Centre for Agriculture and Environment, Netherlands, University of Aberdeen, University of Cambridge and the BESS Programme Directorate, during a NERC Environmental Data Short Project in September 2013 focused on ecosystem services. In this project, we choose to focus on biodiversity, rather than other ecosystem services, because it is feasible to demonstrate the approach for biodiversity at this stage, as relevant evidence has already been summarised by the University of Cambridge and an industry-approved measurement tool is already developed: the Gaia Biodiversity Yardstick. The Gaia Biodiversity Yardstick specifically includes assessments of species groups that contribute to ecosystem services such as earthworms, insect pollinators and farmland birds. For many final ecosystem services, such as crop pollination or support of wild birds with cultural value, assessing and managing the relevant elements of biodiversity is a critical step towards managing the ecosystem service. The project creates the scope to use a similar approach for tools that measure impacts of farm practice on other ecosystem services, as summaries of relevant evidence become available through ongoing work by the University of Cambridge with the BESS Programme Directorate and the Natural Capital Initiative.

The Cool Farm Tool is the only currently-available tool that delivers three crucial aspects of effective decision support. It is 1) scientifically rigorous and credible, 2) friendly and accessible to farmers and 3) has impact in the wider food and drink supply chain. The tool is delivered by the Cool Farm Institute, which is a limited company and not-for-profit entity with corporate partners that include some the largest global food and drink companies: Unilever, Heineken, PepsiCo, and others ( The Sustainable Agriculture Initiative Platform - a pre-competitive consortium of over 50 food companies - endorses the Cool Farm Tool (Sustainable Agriculture Initiative, 2009). By working with this tool, the project is incorporating biodiversity and ecosystem services science into practice in major food and drink supply chains, through a route that delivers significant impact for the underlying ecological science and for the BESS Programme.

Planned Impact

The project will develop a biodiversity assessment and decision-support module to be added to the Cool Farm Tool. This tool is delivered by the Cool Farm Institute (CFI) and endorsed by its industry partners and members, which include some of the world's largest food and drink producers (eg Unilever, PepsiCo). Expanding the tool to include biodiversity assessment meets a strong demand among the CFI's members and their stakeholders to measure environmental performance metrics in addition to greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. Long-term support for full development and integration of the biodiversity module, and promotion of its use beyond the end of the NERC funding period, is therefore very likely.

The impact of the work will be to improve management of biodiversity and related ecosystem services on farms across the UK and beyond. The likelihood of this, and the scale on which it can be achieved, are illustrated by documented impacts of the current Cool Farm Tool, which measures GHG emissions. Experiences of CFI members demonstrate that emissions reductions can be achieved simply by introducing the power to measure and manage. For example, the Cool Farm Tool showed a 30% emission reduction potential on a tea cooperative in India. One year later, emissions were down 30% and production and soil water capacity had increased. When this is coupled with a consumer demand signal for low carbon products, and with opportunities for growers to meet each other, positive results are even more likely. For example, CostCo wholesalers achieved a 14% reduction in GHG emissions per dozen eggs between 2010 and 2011, using the Cool Farm Tool combined with a demand from buyer and supplier summits. The producers asked to continue the analysis beyond 2011.

This project will allow food and drink companies to assess and improve the biodiversity management by their suppliers in a similar way. It will help them fulfil their corporate sustainability performance assessments, such as Marks & Spencer's Plan A, and meet increasing consumer demand for sustainable food production. Farmers and suppliers of CFI member companies will benefit from an easy-to-use module that provides a clear assessment of their biodiversity performance and evidence-based guidance on how to improve it. The exact nature of the improvements that can be expected from the new module will depend on the contents of the evidence base, and how they are evaluated for specific elements in the Biodiversity Yardstick. For example, there is reasonably good evidence that less frequently cut hedgerows benefit pollinators and farmland birds, so this measure might be promoted by the tool, due to its capacity to improve scores for pollinators and farmland birds.

This project allows the University of Cambridge to generate impact for the scientific research within its evidence database. The project converts the evidence into simple scores that can be used to inform agricultural management decisions on a very large scale. Members of the Cool Farm Institute influence the management of a significant proportion of agricultural land in the UK. Heineken alone sources barley and apples from approximately 60,000 hectares, comprising ~1% of the total UK arable area. A particular strength of the approach is that it can be updated to incorporate new BESS and NERC-funded research as it becomes available, greatly enhancing the impact of such research in the future.

To maximise these impacts, end-users of the tool, including the Cool Farm Institute, its member companies, and farmers and farm advisors, will be consulted throughout the project. They will be invited to shape the scope and design of the module at meetings, webinars and focus groups (see Description of Proposed Work).

Some companies have indicated an interest in becoming a CFI member and using the Cool Farm Tool, but only if it is extended to include additional metrics. This project could therefore expand the membership and reach of the CFI.


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Description This has produced a biodiversity option for The Cool Farm Tool. This is being tested so that it will be used by farmers working for many major supermarkets and food producers.
Exploitation Route This will be used by other as a decision support tool.
Sectors Agriculture, Food and Drink,Environment

Description This is being used as part of the Cool Farm Tool, that is used by many of the major food producers and supermarkets. As such it is likely to result in a considerable use of evidence-based farm management.
First Year Of Impact 2016
Sector Agriculture, Food and Drink
Description The Nature Conservancy Catalyst Fund Science
Amount $120,000 (USD)
Funding ID P116381 Catalyst Fund Science 
Organisation The Nature Conservancy 
Sector Charity/Non Profit
Country United States
Start 08/2015 
End 06/2017
Title Cool Farm Tool Biodiversity Module 
Description The Cool Farm Tool is an industry-led environmental decision-support tool used by members of the Cool Farm Alliance ( The current focus is to develop a suite of tools according to the elements of farm-scale sustainability performance assessment identified by the Sustainable Agriculture Initiative Platform ( With additional support from a BESS Programme Knowledge Exchange grant (NE/M000206/1), we have developed a biodiversity module for the Cool Farm Tool. It uses a scoring system for farms to rapidly assess their overall management of biodiversity, based on rigorous, unbiased assessment of evidence for the effectiveness of specific actions (Dicks et al. (in prep for Environmental Modelling and Software). The tool has been integrated into the online Cool Farm Tool by the software company Anthesis Group, funded directly by the Cool Farm Alliance. 
Type Of Technology Webtool/Application 
Year Produced 2016 
Impact The Cool Farm Biodiversity module has so far been tested by Unilever, the Game and Wildlife Conservation Trust and FarmCare. Ultimately, this software tool will gather data and potentially improve on-farm biodiversity management on thousands of farms in European supply chains. A New Zealand Government-funded project called 'The Sustainability Dashboard' is developing a New Zealand version of the tool. 
Description 3rd International Conference on Biodiversity and the UN Millennium Development Goals 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Type Of Presentation poster presentation
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact We presented our biodiversity module for the Cool Farm Tool, which is under development. The poster won the conference prize, resulting in very high visibility at the conference. The prize was tweeted by Unilever, one of the Cool Farm Alliance members. Caitlin McCormack also made contact with a Swiss team developing a similar biodiversity tool for Swiss farms, in partnership with a Swiss supermarket.

We are developing an ongoing relationship with other teams doing similar work, and with the Cool Farm Alliance, as a result of this poster presentation.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2014
Description CAP 2020+ Workshop (JRC Ispra, Italy) 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Policymakers/politicians
Results and Impact Presentation at a workshop organised by the Joint Research Centre and DG Agri, in Ispra, North Italy. The title of the workshop was "Brainstorming on evolution of the CAP 2020+: Concepts for a future CAP targeting public good and ecosystem performance at the farm level". Attendees included officials from DG Agri (including those directly responsible for the current Common Agricultural Policy Impact Evaluation) and DG Environment, as well as sustainability professionals from businesses include Nestle.
My presentation was entitled: "Using CAP to enhance ecosystem services at farm level" and was about using evidence synthesis to identify key actions known to be beneficial across multiple ecosystem services.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2017