Land use: tough choices lie ahead 

Decisions over how we use our land are coming to a head with major consequences for farmers, food businesses and citizens. Nick Hughes reports. 

The way we use our land is shaping up to be a key battleground in the debate over how the UK can meet its future environmental commitments. Agriculture and land use accounts for about 12% of the UK’s greenhouse gas emissions, therefore neutralising these emissions will be critical to reaching the government’s net-zero by 2050 target.

June’s food strategy included a promise to publish a land use framework in 2023 that the government said “will reflect all our objectives for English agriculture, the environment and net-zero”. Given that farming accounts for 70% of UK land, such a framework could have significant implications for future food production – including what is produced, where and how – as well as for corporate sustainability commitments and our future diets.

So what might a new land use framework look like? In a report published earlier this month, the Green Alliance think tank gave policy makers food for thought by proposing a “three compartment” approach it said would restore nature and level up Britain. It would see the least productive land used for nature, the most productive land used for food, and the remainder used to deliver a mix of food, nature and carbon removal.

The approach reflects the one proposed by Henry Dimbleby in his national food strategy for England. Like Dimbleby’s plan it is contingent on a shift to healthy and sustainable diets, most notably a significant reduction in meat consumption. Dimbleby’s analysis found that 85% of the farmland that feeds the UK, both here and abroad, is used to rear animals – even though meat, dairy and eggs only provide 32% of the calories we eat. He went on to propose a target for a 30% reduction in meat consumption by 2032.

The Green Alliance plan is based on the insight that 20% of the least productive farmed land in England produces just 3% of the calories we grow, with farms in these areas largely reliant on public subsidies for their income. It argues this land should be restored to semi-natural habitats, like woodlands, peat bogs or heathland, which wild species rely on, adding that this will also help to protect communities from flooding and mitigate climate change by storing carbon.

Conversely, 40% of land in England produces two thirds of our food and the top performing 25% of farms in England are profitable from food production alone. “It makes sense to use the most productive land, which is profitable without subsidy, to meet the bulk of food demand,” the report says.

The suggestion is not that these farms will inevitably be “nature deserts”; farmers “can and must limit negative impacts on the natural world, such as water and air pollution and soil degradation” by, for example, reducing reliance on artificial fertilisers and pesticides, creating buffer strips for wildlife on arable farms and investing in technologies like satellite monitoring, robotics and methane suppressants to increase sustainability. But Green Alliance concedes that “farms that produce the most food per hectare do not have space for much nature” and “they usually produce, rather than remove, greenhouse gases”.

As for the remaining farmland, the report suggests farmers should be supported to profit from environmental restoration alongside food production as part of a balanced, tailored approach.

There seems little prospect of the three compartment approach achieving universal consensus. Dimbleby noted in his strategy how discussions over land use have “with dreadful inevitability” become polarised. Competing visions will undoubtedly be put forward before the government publishes its own plan next year.

The debate over land is one that food businesses, including those in the foodservice sector, should at the very least be alert to given how it will impact them directly. Many corporate net-zero plans lean heavily on nature restoration, regenerative agriculture and a shift to more plant-based diets to reduce the value chain emissions that make up the vast majority of a company’s footprint. Similarly, a desire among businesses to buy green energy will in all likelihood require more land being devoted to renewable infrastructure like wind or solar.

In its own proposed land use framework for England, published in August, the Food, Farming and Countryside Commission wrote that “without a radical rethink we will not be able to grow enough food, restore biodiversity and nature, de-carbonise the economy and adapt to climate change while also building all the new homes, transport and energy infrastructure the government has promised”.

In this context, it might not be an exaggeration to suggest that decisions over the way we use our land will be some of the most defining decisions of our time.

1 Response

  1. Excellent and concise summary Nick.

    The 2023 HMG framework will indeed be a critical milestone. The average term of office for the last 6 Secretary’s of State for the Environment has been 1.6 years – hardly a sound basis upon which to build UK Farming and Food strategy. The work on this plan by DEFRA has already begun. With a new Tory leader about to be crowned in the teeth of a cost of living crisis, and an election starting to appear on the horizon, the prospect of a government prepared to make difficult decisions would seem remote.

    So if there ever was a time for radical and forceful campaigning it is now. We must hold the government to account on land use at this crucial moment.