By Christopher Yap, Centre for Food Policy, City University London

Issues of food and land are inseparable. And yet the relationships between land, space, planning, and food systems are too-often marginal within food systems debates. In this piece we consider the role of land in leveraging change towards fairer and more sustainable food systems and reflect on the role of land in the forthcoming National Food Strategy.

Over the past decade, food systems approaches – which emphasise the interconnected nature of food system actors, processes, resources, and outcomes – have gradually been adopted by mainstream institutions, exemplified by the UK government’s commitment to produce a National Food Strategy White Paper that addresses the social and environmental dimensions of food systems. Recognising that food systems are complex and multi-scalar, and that interventions made in one part of the food system impact across the whole system, it is curious that important issues such as land remain at the margins of the conversation.

Food and land are inextricably linked, not least because food is produced on land. Around 70 percent of the UK is used to produce food. But the connections between land and food systems are multi-layered; unpacking this relationship can point towards under-addressed opportunities to transform food systems.

First, it is important to recognise that the land that feeds the UK’s population is distributed around the world; around 45 percent of food is imported, with many products passing through multiple countries before they arrive. In this sense, the UK’s food footprint is embedded within and across multiple jurisdictions and territories. The food system, then, is intricately connected to a diversity of food production practices, policy frameworks, and land management strategies, beyond the territory of the UK government. This represents a challenge of governance; recognising that national policy can only go so far to influence the relationship between land and food systems. But it also draws attention to the potentials of a normative approach to food purchasing in the UK; the idea that principles of equity and sustainability in food procurement, for example, can be invaluable for influencing land management strategies both in the UK and globally.

Second, Henry Dimbleby’s Independent Review for the National Food strategy (2021) indicates that 85 percent of the land that is used to produce the UK’s food – both in the UK and around the world – is used for animal rearing, including for pasture and growing animal feed. Meat production contributes directly to agricultural carbon emissions, but also indirectly through the opportunity cost of using land for grazing rather than woodlands or other forms of rewilding. As Dimbleby (2021, p.92). argues, “the biggest potential carbon benefit of eating less meat is the opportunity to repurpose land to sequester carbon.” This suggests that dietary choices have a pivotal role to play in determining the contribution of land towards mitigating climate change.

Third, the relationship between land and food systems extends far beyond agriculture and land management. Food production, processing, and distribution require labour and infrastructure. For this reason, the UK’s food system is intricately connected to every aspect of planning, infrastructure, and housing policy. However, decisions regarding housing and infrastructure development are made frequently without consideration of their impacts on wider food systems beyond environmental impact. This suggests that planning and infrastructure development can be key mechanisms for reshaping the UK food system, and also that food systems can be a productive organising principle for planning decisions. How, for example, might building a new supermarket in a small town influence the local and regional food system?

Food systems transformation demands an integrated land use strategy that engages with urban and rural contexts, and the connections between them. In the UK, this engagement with the urban is especially important (Dimbleby’s 290-page report includes the word ‘urban’ just seven times). 83 percent of the UK population lives in urban areas; decisions made by and for urban populations disproportionately affect food systems. Moreover, specifically urban policy frameworks regarding green and blue infrastructures, urban agriculture, and ecosystem services, for example, could all contribute to the aims of the National Food Strategy in ways that are not sufficiently recognised. It is often said that urban contexts represent spatial concentrations of the most intractable challenges, but also the political and financial capital necessary to address them.

Fourth, household food insecurity, the prevalence of food banks, and unhealthy eating practices all reflect socio-economic inequalities in the UK, which have been “brutally exposed and exacerbated” (Amnesty International, 2021) by the COVID-19 pandemic. In 2020, 18 percent of the UK population lived in relative poverty (meaning on less than 60 percent of the median national income). At the same time, land is the most valuable asset in the UK, accounting for more than half of the UK’s total net worth, approximately £5 trillion in 2016; between 1995 and 2017, the value of land in the UK increased by 412 percent. And yet, half of England is owned by less than 1 percent of the population.

The French economist, Thomas Piketty (2014), evidenced how, in the absence of policies that explicitly advantage labour, rates of return on capital wealth, such as land and property, always exceed rates of income growth, leading to “an endless inegalitarian spiral” whereby wealth is concentrated in the hands of those who already have it. This trend has been exacerbated by the increased financialisation of land and the rise of what has been termed “land banking”, contributing not only to a national housing crisis, but also preventing many small scale agroecological food producers from accessing land. This suggests a close relationship between the political economy of land in the UK, economic inequality, and food poverty, as well as the potentials of inheritance and capital gains tax reform to redress this relationship.

Finally, political ecologists have urged us to recognise the material “flows” of water, carbon, nitrogen, and pathogens, amongst many others, that are shaped and mobilised by social and market forces. Food systems play a key role in these circulations, whereby materials and nutrients physically move through space across rural and urban areas, within and between nested territorial levels. This suggests that food economies are directly related both to the material production of land, most obviously productive soils, and the social production of space, whereby “the countryside”, “cities” and everything in-between are continuously reshaped and remade by socio-ecological circulations. In a very literal sense, food systems are constitutive of land.

Building on Henry Dimbleby’s Independent Review, the UK’s forthcoming White Paper setting out the National Food Strategy is likely to adopt a far more limited approach to the issue of land that aims to balance and maximise the contribution of agricultural land to food production, biodiversity, and carbon sequestration; mobilising what has been termed, “the three-compartment model”, whereby a combination of sustainable intensification, agroecological production, and rewilding has been modelled to lead to the greatest net benefit. Such an approach represents an important step forward in UK land and food policy. But it overlooks the more complex relationships between the political economy of land in the UK and food systems, as well as the potentials of planning, amongst other mechanisms, to actively redress socio-economic inequalities in the UK.

There can be little doubt that food system transformation is necessary to achieve improved health outcomes, environmental sustainability, and a fairer and more inclusive economy. The UK’s National Food Strategy represents a once in a generation opportunity to institutionalise a food systems approach at the national and local levels that brings together these too-often disparate policy mandates. Land has a key role to play in this transformation as a vital resource, a point of leverage, a site of impact, and a site of struggle. For these reasons, land, space, and planning must be central to the National Food Strategy and wider food systems transformation.

References

Amnesty International. (2021). Amnesty International Report 2020/21: the state of the world’s human rights. London: Amnesty International Ltd. Retrieved from www.amnesty.org

Dimbleby, H. (2021). National Food Strategy. The Plan. National Food Strategy. Retrieved from https://www.nationalfoodstrategy.org/

Piketty, T. (2014). Capital in the Twenty-First Century. Harvard University Press.

 

 

Using intermediaries to bridge the gap between government and farmers

By Dr Ruth Little, Lecturer in Human Geography at the University of Sheffield

There is a crucial role for skilled intermediaries to play in supporting farmers throughout the post-Brexit agricultural transition, as well as the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic on farmer engagement.

This is a period of significant uncertainty for farmers. Even before the pandemic, the period between 2021 and 2028 represented significant uncertainty and change for farmers within England, due to policy changes and post-Brexit trade deals. The Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs (Defra) is currently moving towards piloting and rolling out environmental land management schemes (ELM), starting with the Sustainable Farming Incentive and followed by Local Nature Recovery and Landscape Recovery. Recognising the importance of utilising farmers’ experiential knowledge in policy development, Defra has committed to engaging farmers and other land managers in the ‘co-design’ of the new schemes.

For the successful delivery of ELM, it is vital that farmers who have traditionally been Harder To Reach (HTR), or ‘easy to omit’, for Defra and the wider Defra group are included in the co-design and piloting of the new schemes. This will ensure that the policy fits with farmers’ needs.

When we spoke to individuals and organisations working with farmers we found that the pandemic had increased social isolation due to the closure of places where farmers normally socialise, and created uncertainty in planning ahead, exacerbating farmers’ mental health and wellbeing problems.

Our research findings have highlighted the diversity of business factors and emotional states that make some farmers HTR for Defra, as well as the challenging policy context within which engagement with HTR farmers takes place. The findings also emphasise the important role of locally- embedded skilled intermediaries in helping Defra engage HTR farmers throughout the co-design and delivery of ELM.

Locally-embedded skilled intermediaries offer an incredible resource that can be utilised by Defra to engage HTR farmers. These actors are able to use their pre-existing relationships with farmers to provide a range of support to assist farmers through this agricultural transition. By utilising their experience and knowledge of the farming sector, they can facilitate knowledge exchange in multiple directions, supporting HTR farmers while also feeding back into Defra on specific challenges facing farmers on the ground.

If Defra is able to utilise this locally-embedded resource effectively, it will be possible to overcome some of the barriers associated with distrust, thereby helping HTR farmers become ‘easier to reach’.

Successful implementation will require effective communication and engagement strategies – for Defra to engage with both skilled intermediaries and HTR farmers. However it is also important to recognise not all farmers will be able to adapt, prepare and plan for future changes at the same rate as others. HTR farmers in particular may be more vulnerable to changes, while also having less capacity to prepare and adapt. One of the biggest concerns raised during our research by interview respondents was the lack of clarity and detail about the ELM schemes, which they said is preventing farmers from being able to plan and adapt for the future.

Unless Defra itself becomes easier to reach, any progress made may not be sustainable over the long term. Defra should, therefore, work to overcome the widespread distrust and suspicion of government bodies within farming communities.

Our research has clear policy implications, providing a framework with which Defra policy teams can think through engagement with HTR stakeholders. Whilst previous research, as well as Defra itself, has recognised the importance of using trusted individuals when engaging with farmers, this research has gone further, by bringing practical and implementable findings on skilled intermediaries to the forefront. Our work has identified who these trusted individuals are, as well as the benefits they can bring to engagement with HTR farmers. It has also put Defra’s engagement with HTR farmers in the context of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, a challenging but important lens through which Defra should plan future co-design activities

Defra needs to take all this into account when designing the implementation of the ELM scheme. They need to mobilise a network of intermediaries that understand the individual needs and circumstances of farmers and land managers at this challenging time, and can facilitate the involvement of these groups in the co-design of pilot implementation schemes. Without this, we believe Defra will see a low uptake of the ELM scheme resulting in a reduction in the delivery of environmental goods and climate change targets not being met.

This blog post has been produced from extracts taken from a White Paper (Engaging ‘harder to reach’ farmers: the roles and needs of skilled intermediaries), produced by Dr Ruth Little in collaboration with colleagues from the University of Sheffield and the University of Reading.

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Working together to create a better food and farming system in the North

By Dr Rachel Marshall, N8 AgriFood Knowledge Exchange Fellow, Lancaster University, with insights shared by the Northern Real Farming Conference team

The inaugural Northern Real Farming Conference (NRFC) saw farmers, food producers and others with a stake, or interest in, regenerative food systems in the North of England and Scotland gather online for two weeks of inspiring discussions, talks and virtual tours in October 2020.

With over 65 sessions to choose from, the themes explored were diverse and covered the breadth of the food production systems in our region, from upland landscapes to our urban areas.

There were contributions from right across our food systems from farmers, vets, conservation groups, ecologists, food activists, nutritionists, food hubs and more. Across this wide range of subjects and perspectives, some clear themes emerged from the conference.

Firstly, there was a strong emphasis on the importance of creating and being part of farming and food systems that work better – for us as farmers, conservationists, activists, communities, citizens. We heard from farmers who had set up new online shops during COVID-19, about urban opportunities and land ownership options, and gained an insight into the benefits of community supported agriculture models.

We explored seed saving and also looked at the urgency, and difficulties, of producing for local needs rather than commodity markets, and how questions of land ownership in particular are entangled with the viability of creating ‘small farm futures’.
Understanding strength in diversity also emerged as a key theme – from diversity in crops, business models and supply chains, to the people working on the land.

Right from the opening session, we were reflecting on the question of which voices were not included in the event, and how could we bring them in. A socially just farming and food system requires us to ensure that all voices are heard and we all, collectively, need to do more to ensure that this happens throughout our processes and systems, as well as to enable new entrant farmers from a range of backgrounds.

There is a need for collaboration and dialogue as we work to create a better food and farming system in the North. The importance of sharing perspectives and knowledge, both within the farming community and beyond, came through strongly in the sessions that focussed on upland farming and landscapes. The need to create space for conversation and dialogue arose in many other themes; from discussions around land access and ownership to the value of connecting urban communities more closely with the people producing their food.

After two weeks immersed in this community of 500+ conference participants, I feel inspired by this growing movement calling for people, rather than corporations, to shape and change our food system for the better. Given my involvement with the N8 AgriFood Food Systems Policy Hub, I started to question what policies are needed to create an enabling environment for the ideas and innovations shared at NRFC to flourish.

Defra’s Environment Land Management scheme (ELMs) and the potential for farmers to be paid to manage their land for public goods (for instance, clean air, clean water and biodiversity) was a subject of a number of sessions. This included a session looking at what this approach meant in practical and economic terms for farmers around Pendle Hill, a well-known feature in the Lancashire uplands. Another session explored an innovative approach to ELMs, which showed how permaculture design provides a pathway to farmers looking to diversify their land, improve soil and biodiversity, and generate income.

However, there were also concerns that ELMs might not offer much to support smaller scale farmers and growers in their key role in producing nutritious food. There is also the ongoing wider debate around UK agriculture and trade policies, in particular the risk that new trade deals might result in markets being dominated by cheap food, produced to lower standards undermining UK producers.

We should instead be taking this opportunity to rewrite our relationships with trading partners to put nutritious, healthy food, produced using regenerative methods, at the heart of our policies.

The word innovation is often used across the policy and research sectors and there was much to be learnt from innovators within this real farming community. There were sessions that looked at innovative business models, land ownership and routes to market, as well as a fascinating session sharing approaches taken by Japanese farmers to address the decline of their marginal hill farming businesses and communities.

Innovation can be about learning and adapting existing approaches; we have much to learn from other farming and cultural practices around the world, as well as the potential to uncover lost wisdom. We need to design policy and research that supports not just technical innovation, but socio-economic innovation, whilst enabling the sharing of knowledge between different communities of practice.

Despite the inaugural NRFC being an online event, with limited opportunities for those free flowing, often late night conversations that put the world to rights, the importance of the growing movement in the North is key. Building on these past two weeks, the NRFC team have secured funding for regional networking events over the coming year in addition to a second NRFC.

For those of you who missed out and are looking for some inspiration for your next research project, policy discussion or even your own farming journey, all the conference sessions are being made available on the NRFC website.

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Herbicide resistance and tackling the challenge of sustainable food production

By Bárbara Pinho, MSc Science Communication Student, University of Sheffield

The sustainable production of food is a challenge yet to be accomplished. Agriculture uses 70% of all fresh water and produces a third of all greenhouse gas emissions, as well as leads to biodiversity loss and soil degradation.

Producing food sustainably is a challenge we must tackle in order to feed the generations to come. According to the United Nations, the world population is expected to reach an astonishing 9.7 billion by 2050. Putting it simply, more people means more mouths to feed in the future.

However, with no new land to explore, increased urbanisation and a rising sea level (which reduces land availability), growing food to feed almost 10 billion people is far from an easy task. This is where science may be of help.

For decades, scientific research has been developing tools and strategies to grow increasing amounts of food in shorter periods of time. One particular discovery revolutionised how farmers grow food worldwide: herbicides.

Research and herbicides

When herbicides were created amid the Second World War, they provided farmers with cost-effective and quick methods to kill invasive species, commonly known as weeds. However, as years went by, these chemicals stopped being as effective due to a process called herbicide resistance.

Weeds that are exposed to the same type of herbicides, sooner or later, resist said herbicides. They can resist due to genetic alterations (such as mutations) or multiple molecular strategies to counteract a herbicide mode of action. This ultimately leads to weeds surviving and damaging entire crops while jeopardising yield production.

This is a global issue. At the time of writing, there were 262 species resistant to herbicides worldwide. In the UK, 20,000 farms have resistant black-grass, the most common weed in the UK. This is estimated to cause the loss of 0.82 million tonnes of wheat which in turn costs £0.38 billion in lost income to farmers.

These costs are not limited to just farmers though. If we don’t find solutions to guarantee a stable wheat production, we may eventually experience price spikes in certain products. In addition to this, the consequences of herbicide resistance threaten achieving the objective of feeding almost 10 billion people by 2050. What was already difficult, just got considerably more complicated.

Solving herbicide resistance

To address this issue, current research is exploring multiple strategies. At the University of Sheffield, Professor Robert Freckleton, who teaches Population Biology, described herbicide resistance as a “very difficult” issue to solve:

“It may be that the evolution of resistance to herbicides – or any biocide including antibiotics, fungicides, insecticides or cancer drugs – is inevitable.”

Most research at the University of Sheffield has been focusing on gauging the impact of herbicide resistance on farmers.

The Black-Grass Resistance Initiative

Wheat in fieldBetween 2014 and 2017, researchers from Sheffield together with other academics from Rothamsted Research, the Zoological Society of London, Newcastle University and the University of York launched the Black-Grass Resistance Initiative.

Among other goals, this project aimed to “unravel herbicide resistance in black-grass from gene to field”.

Through this project, the researchers were aiming to understand how some resistance mechanisms develop in weeds.

They also monitored black-grass in fields and interviewed farmers to design new management strategies to tackle resistant weeds.

In addition, this research estimated how herbicide resistance impacts both the economy and the environment.

These impact assessments lead the multi-institutional team to develop new management strategies in conjunction with farmers. The suggestions were mainly designed to delay herbicide resistance, through non-chemical techniques, as Professor Freckleton later explained:

“The best tactic is to slow or delay [herbicide resistance] and that can be done by relying on a diversity of control tactics. ‘Cultural control’ includes using tillage, crop rotation and other forms of weed control. Vigilance with monitoring and testing is important though. In many cases, it is too late to do anything by the time the problem has emerged and got out of hand.”

Crop science and new herbicides

While the obvious solution to tackle herbicide resistance would be to use fewer herbicides, this may be an unrealistic scenario. Farmers have been using herbicides and pesticides for decades to grow more food, as fast as possible. While it would be ideal to stop using chemicals in farming practice, Professor Ari Sadanandom from Durham University doesn’t think it’s feasible to ask that of farmers:

“I don’t think [stopping the use of herbicides] is a good way of moving forward; otherwise, how could you control weeds? Unless you clear all the soil of all the weed seeds, it’s not plausible, I think.”

At Durham University, research to bring solutions that tackle herbicide resistance reaches many different areas.

“Some people are working on fundamental plant science involving crops and they could generate new solutions. Other researchers are working with barley whilst others are working on cold stress and heat stress. The knowledge they get from these tests could be used to control weeds. The Chemistry Department is also working with new herbicides and focusing on making new products,” described Professor Sadanandom.

His research is more focused on studying fungal diseases in crops via cell biology. Still, he believes this to be a transferable area into herbicide-resistant yields. “I may start working with black-grass in the future because we may be able to bring some techniques that we’ve learned in the fungicide resistance world.”

Whether it be through new management strategies or making new herbicides, research is playing a key role in tackling a major threat to food security.

If we’re to feed 9.7 billion people by 2050 and even more in the decades to come, new strategies and techniques to complement farming practice may soon become the norm for farmers worldwide.

This blog was written as part of ‘The Path of Leaf Resistance’ project, which aims to raise awareness of herbicide resistance. Both this blog and the website are part of an MSc in Science Communication project conducted by Bárbara Pinho and supervised by Professor Robert Freckleton at the University of Sheffield.

All data collected for the project will serve the purpose of research on public engagement with the topic of herbicide resistance. This YouTube video has been created as part of the project to raise awareness and develop understanding of the issue of herbicide resistance.

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