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'Old environmentalists' are challenging an obsession with land productivity

Matt Lobley and Michael Winter

11th February, 2010

Everyone has an opinion on how best to use land in the UK, but bridges need to be built between those who want to see every inch producing food and fuel, and those who believe that land means more than farming

Land and food are at the forefront of the domestic policy agenda in the UK to an extent unprecedented since the 1950s. Climate change lies at the heart of the new debate and it was the climate change agenda that prompted the UK environment minister David Miliband to launch a national debate on land use in 2006.

‘Food security’, until very recently seen as the last refuge of a backward-looking agricultural fundamentalism, has reappeared in the political vocabulary. With scarcely a backward glance at the ‘old environmentalism’ of multifunctional agri-environments and its emphasis on biodiversity and landscapes, agricultural supply-chain interests have embraced the ‘new environmentalism’ of climate change with enthusiasm. They proudly proclaim the readiness of the industry to produce both food and bio-crops, and to do so with a neo-liberal confidence in markets to determine the balance between food and non-food crops in land use.

For instance, in his speech to the National Farmers Union (NFU) Centenary Conference in February 2008, Gordon Brown stressed the ‘core responsibility’ of British farmers to ‘grow and produce the majority of food consumed by the British people’, alongside a ‘front line’ role adapting and reacting to the challenges and opportunities of climate change, and exploiting the potential of farmers to become ‘energy exporters’. Farmers and their advisors have been quick to embrace the ‘new productivism’, with the agricultural consultants Andersons stating that the ‘PR battle is being won, and farmers, as producers of food and fuel in a dangerous world, are being valued once again.’


A recent collection of essays entitled Feeding Britain, with a foreword by the government minister Hilary Benn, contains papers by representatives of the key sector development bodies, such as the Home Grown Cereals Authority (HGCA) and the Horticultural Development Company, and presents a bullish outlook.

For example, Jonathan Cowens, Chief Executive of the HGCA, is emboldened to suggest that environmental cross-compliance measures (modest though these may be in the eyes of most environmentalists) could lead market-orientated cereal farmers to forgo the Single Farm Payment so as to avoid the restrictions. In a SWOT analysis, he identifies ‘environmental use of land’ as one of the threats to the cereal sector, alongside ‘loss of pesticides due to legislation or resistance’.

Lagging behind the market

But policy (and politics), characterised by incrementalism, has not necessarily caught up with these market- and industry-led changes, nor the changing risks associated with new circumstances. Agri-environment schemes, organic farming and sensitive river-catchment planning all continue to figure highly within European rural policy. Non-governmental organizations such as the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) initiate schemes to take land out of production to recreate wildlife-rich reserves. Local and slow food movements challenge the logic and ethics of global markets.

Moreover, the far-sightedness of the old environmentalists is beginning to challenge some of the assumptions of the new proponents of food security, particularly their inherent ‘productivism’. Is it axiomatic, they ask, that agriculture’s best contribution to tackling climate change is to grow bio-crops, or invest in anaerobic digesters, or make land over for wind farms? Might not there be an equally important role in maximising the carbon sequestration or water-holding properties of biodiverse land? Some have even suggested that biodiverse-rich ecosystems allow for maximum carbon sequestration.

Asking the right questions

Our new book does not set out to provide definitive answers to these questions. It is too soon to do that and much of the science is too immature. Rather we seek to establish and to explore the contours of the new debate. The book has three premises:

The first premise is that food and energy security issues now occupy centre stage in policy thinking about land use and this is likely to remain the case for some time to come.

The second is that this new emphasis on food and energy security will not mean an abandonment of a continued public policy emphasis on multifunctionality and ecosystem services. Indeed this emphasis is likely to continue to grow.

The third premise is that there will be ‘local’ trends that may on occasions seem counterintuitive in a global context.

These three premises need to inform decisions that society makes on how to pose the right questions, determine the right research priorities, collect the right data and conduct the right analysis. These will require normative judgements and will be subject to contestation. We hope that the chapters in this book will collectively help to make the case for putting food and energy security, ecosystem services and localism centre stage not only in the land debate but in the climate change debate too.

Book coverThis is an edited extract from the new book 'What is Land Food?', edited by Matt Lobley and Michael Winter, and published by Earthscan (hardback, £49.95). To read the introductory chapter online, visit the Rural Economy and Land Use Programme's website here. To find out more about the book, visit Earthscan's website here.


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