What is rural land for?
Les Firbank from the Institute of Grassland and Environmental Research and Tony Burton from the National Trust respond. Tell us what YOU think – post your comments at the bottom of the page.
Les Firbank Head of Soil, Environmental and Ecological Sciences Department, Institute of Grassland and Environmental Research
We are asking more from our land than ever before. The post-war emphasis on food production from agriculture was at the expense of the environment, which was partially redressed during the times of food abundance in the 1980s and 1990s. But the new requirements for bioenergy and increasing global demand for food are forcing up prices, and encouraging increased production again. But this time the industry needs to deliver environmental quality too, while rural land is also expected to provide space for more housing, better water management and better provision of leisure.
The concepts of “One Planet Living” and “the ecosystem approach” help to frame the land use debate from an environmental perspective. The idea of one planet living is that people should not require more natural resources than the earth can sustainably deliver. We in Britain should aspire to be self-sufficient in terms of natural resources. We are a long way adrift from this goal, and rely on imports of food, energy and even water that will become more expensive as global demand increases. The idea of “the ecosystem approach“ is that land has multiple functions, so farmland can help manage flood risks, provide habitats for wildlife and help mitigate climate change, as well as producing food. It therefore makes sense to recognise, value and manage these functions together. Again, this is easier said than done, because ecosystem function, profitability and planning regulations do not readily coincide.
It should be possible to use science to design future landscapes in which land is used according to its potential to deliver food, fibre, housing, habitats, water and so on, according to the climate, soil type and topography. Such landscapes would optimise ecosystem function, making the best use of our natural resources and help us on our way to one planet living. They may involve radical changes to the design of both cities and countryside. But how do we achieve these landscapes in the face of the many constraints of planning, land ownership and (especially) the history, heritage and baggage of urban and rural development? How can we keep alive the elements of choice and freedom? And suppose we no longer have enough land to provide everything that we as a nation would like, that there is no scientific, logical solution, that we have too many people, wanting too much, to be resourced from a country as small as ours…. then what?
Tony Burton, Director of Policy and Strategy, The National Trust
The climate is changing. The pressure on land use is increasing. People’s needs and desires are in flux. So what does this mean for our land? What do we really want from it in the 21st century? And who decides?
As the largest private landowner in the UK (managing over 250,000 hectares across England, Wales and Northern Ireland, in perpetuity for the benefit of the nation) we’ve been thinking a lot about these questions. And we’ve been working some things out on the ground.
One thing is clear – despite the policy and media air time devoted to agricultural production the debate is moving on. Land not only provides the nation with food, but also with clean water, protection from flooding, carbon stewardship and green space for the health of us all. We all need more of these environmental services, but they are not adequately valued or provided for. Agri-environment schemes have an important part to play, but they are no panacea and attention should turn to other sources of funding for the answers we need.
The National Trust is advocating imaginative private and public sector investment to find new solutions. We believe water companies should be allowed to invest in catchments to improve water quality at source, rather than relying on expensive and energy intensive treatment end of pipe.
There is potential to reduce water quantity problems at source too. Every parcel of land can play its part in absorbing and storing water, reducing the risks of flooding downstream. The Trust is therefore advocating investment in land management that makes significant space for water. And as the UK adopts a carbon currency, we are lobbying for trading in land-based carbon which rewards land managers for carbon stewardship.
The connections between access to green space and our health and well-being are also becoming increasingly recognised. You can get the National Trust on prescription! Promoting and providing places for green exercise is needed more and more and the potential for extra support from health funding remains largely untapped. We should also expect more by way of green space provision on the back of new development.
By aligning public and private investment from water companies, developers, the health service and a new carbon market as well as better support from farm payments we can move towards a more sustainable future for land use, and deliver multiple benefits for the whole nation. Why not?
Read more in the National Trust’s Nature’s capital, available free from firstname.lastname@example.org