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Jeremy's Blog 2nd February 2024: Finding Farming's Answer to Land Use Changes

This article by Jeremy Moody first appeared in the CAAV e-Briefing of 1st February 2024

Many very large things are being asked of us and our land. We are being asked to answer climate change and adapt to increasingly volatile weather, reducing emissions, sequestering carbon and managing water, improving nature and eco-systems, providing housing and other development including infrastructure – and still provide food. All that is to come from the finite area of our islands at a time of growing risks.

The evidence of challenge and increased risk grows with:

  • 2023 as the warmest global year on record with 592 long-term weather stations in the world recording their all-time highest temperatures and just 36 their lowest. On 28th January, Achfary in the north west Highlands was 19.90C, the highest winter temperature on record for Scotland but Greenland was simultaneously -580C
  • increasing international instability with the move to a non-polar world, Ukraine holding the line for the west, more states losing control of their territory
  • the new ONS UK population forecasts suggesting the need now for 382,000 new houses a year when the average 30 year-old is more likely to live still with parents (here and in the US)
  • cost pressures across more constricted supply chains as we “de-risk” the links with China and trade regionalises while climate change applies its own pressures to food supply, population movement and much else
  • our economy (and others in the west) continues to go sideways.

However, the wider mood does not seem seized with the sense of urgency needed to tackle them, to grumble but prefer comfort to action:
“In hollow Lotos-land to lie inclined”. (The Lotos-Eaters, Tennyson)
We knew we were failing to tackle future energy supply seriously in the 2010s. Only now are policies beginning to find their way to answer the scale of what is needed, including grid connections and upgrading. We risk repeating that on a larger scale in delaying our answers.

Yet new housing demands more land. The seriousness of the environmental targets for nature, let alone the 30 by 30 commitment, are intended to drive land use change. New woodland, the nature-based solutions for water, peatland restoration and more all bear on land.

With such policy discussions focusing on all the necessary issues of sustainability, biodiversity, carbon, farming and food production can seem viewed as a philanthropic land use, just always there and not needing to make a profit or earn a living for those who do it. However, Tennyson’s poem contrasted those lotos-eaters with:
“… an ill-used race of men that cleave the soil,
Sow the seed, and reap the harvest with enduring toil,
Storing yearly little dues of wheat …”

If nothing else, it is the increased competition for land use that highlights the need to answer farming productivity challenge, its business efficiency and effectiveness – to produce more from less, now with increased risks for both production here and supply from abroad. As with the other challenges, the answers drive more change than many are yet comfortable with and require an appetite for risk not protection.

With English farming no longer shielded by area payments and the new schemes to be seen as business options, the simple point in plain sight is that farming has to be a profitable business in the marketplace to enable the reinvestment, the business development and the next generation needed to manage the future.

Seeing tax policy as a powerful tool, the CAAV’s budget representation includes the urgent need for some farm infrastructure, from reservoirs to slurry stores, warranting much improved capital allowances as well as supporting adoption of the new technologies and encouraging retiring farmers to let their land.

Our need is for the proficient farmers of the future to find their opportunities, achieving that by having open markets in land occupation and use and then supporting their choices in investment and innovation.

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