“Conservation is a solution for a more regenerative future for people and wildlife.”
Almost every week, we encounter versions of the same argument that there is no room for conservation and that we need all the land we have for feeding people.
These discussions are usually accompanied by claims that conservation, especially tree planting, is displacing farming, and are often voiced by the very farmers looking to sell their land. They argue that conventional farming is no longer economically viable, and that the next generation isn’t interested in pursuing it. Yet still, they blame conservation…
To address this debate, we’ve delved into the existing literature this week.
At Oxygen Conservation, our ambition is to secure at least 250,000 acres (just over 0.4%) of the UK to Scale Conservation and deliver positive environmental and social impact. But how might this affect overall land use, and could it unintentionally affect our ability to feed ourselves?
Land Use in the UK
The United Kingdom boasts approximately 60 million acres of diverse land types. In England, for example, 23.5 million acres (63.1% are allocated to agriculture, whilst 7.5 million acres (20.1%) are designated as forestry, open land, and water. Another 3.25 million acres (8.7%) are developed, and 1.8 million acres (4.9%) serve as residential gardens (DLUHC, 2022).
Somewhere within this patchwork mosaic, approximately 1.3 million acres (4% of England) are dedicated to grouse moors (Shrubsole, 2016) – of a total 2.6 million acres (almost 8%) across the UK (Macdonald, 2019), and nearly 700,000 acres (1.8%) are allocated to golf courses (Allen, 2016).
As I write this article (and with these figures in mind), I can only assume that many of these same farmers are also challenging traditional sporting enthusiasts and golfers about their impact on agriculture…
It’s important to note that land use figures in the UK can vary, and the sums provided are illustrative. Finch et al. (2023) use the figure of 60% for agricultural land (35.8 million acres), while DEFRA (2023) suggests 71% (42.7 million acres), and Savills (2019) claims 72% (43.5 million acres). These disparities often stem from whether and where certain land types like heather, bog, and fen are included (Heal et al., 2023).
Agricultural Land Breakdown
Roughly 72% of agricultural land is covered in grass, 26% in cropland, and the remainder is set aside or left fallow (DEFRA, 2023). Arable land consists of 60% cereals, with wheat accounting for 54% of this category. Grassland accommodates 1.6 million dairy cows and their followers, with an average herd size of approximately 140 cows. Additionally, there are 1.4 million breeding beef cattle and their followers, with an average herd size of 80 cows, along with 15 million breeding sheep and their average flock of 275 ewes. The UK is home to around 192,000 farms, with only 20% exceeding 250 acres and approximately 50% under 50 acres, many being family-run units. Despite this, the larger farms cover three-quarters of the farmland (Savills, 2019).
UK Farmland is Declining
The truth is that the land currently used for agriculture within the UK is dwindling. The country’s total agricultural area has decreased by approximately 64,000 acres per year over the past two decades. This decline can be attributed to factors such as transport infrastructure, property development, woodland expansion (more than doubling over the past 20 years), non-agricultural uses (e.g., golf courses, grouse moors, mineral extraction), and land lost to the sea (Savills, 2019).
“We treat our soils like dirt” – it’s not only alternative land uses that are eroding our agricultural land but agriculture itself. A report by DEFRA in 2023 identified that almost 10 million acres of soil are at risk of heavy compaction, severely impacting its capacity to support food growth, sequester carbon, and capture water during intense rainfall. Another 5 million acres of soil are at risk of erosion. This results in nearly 3 million tonnes of soil being lost from agriculture annually, most of which finds its way into rivers and waterways, destroying habitats and endangering wildlife (EA, 2023).
Food Flow in the UK
The UK imports around 46% (DEFRA, 2023) to 48% (GFS, 2022) of its food from various countries, none of which contribute more than 11% of total imports. In 2020, the country imported £48 billion worth of food, feed (yes, for animals), and drink, while exporting £21.4 billion (DEFRA, 2023).
DEFRA (2016) claims that the UK is 76% “self-sufficient” based on its production-to-supply ratio. This figure would be higher if not for exports (DEFRA, 2023). The greatest threats they recognise to domestic production are climate change, soil degradation, deteriorating water quality, and biodiversity loss.
For instance, in 2020, wheat yields plummeted by 40% due to heavy rainfall and untimely droughts during the growing season. Although they rebounded in 2021, this demonstrates the potential impact of increasingly erratic weather patterns exacerbated by climate change on future food production (DEFRA, 2023).
As a result, I’m left wondering if failing to dedicate sufficient land for nature and conservation, helping to address the challenges caused by climate change and the biodiversity collapse, is not a far bigger risk to agriculture than that perceived by land use change.
Food Waste in the UK
When challenged on the impact of land use changes for conservation on agriculture, we often ask about the challengers’ thoughts on food waste. To my surprise, this aspect is frequently dismissed as irrelevant or inconsequential largely because it doesn’t fit within the more comfortable narrative that conservation is to blame.
Let’s delve further into this perspective. In the UK, approximately 13 million people (nearly 1 in 5) struggle to access sufficient food (The Food Foundation, 2023). Yet around 6.4 million tonnes of edible food, valued at £19 billion and equivalent to 15 billion meals, go to waste each year (WRAP, 2020). Of this, roughly 3 million tonnes never even leave the farms they are produced on (WWF-UK, 2022). For instance, a study by Porter et al. (2018) revealed that up to 31% of fruit and vegetable produce is discarded on farms merely because it doesn’t meet aesthetic standards. Additionally, British farmers have reported that crops are often left unpicked because market prices don’t justify the expense of harvesting (Bowman and O’Sullivan, 2018).
If this edible food that never left the farm were no longer wasted, it would represent the equivalent of an additional 2.3 million acres of food production that could be available to benefit the UK population. For context, this is equivalent to half the land area of Wales again being available for agriculture with no additional environmental impact or emissions.
On-farm food waste also contributes roughly 10% of greenhouse gas emissions from UK farming (WWF-UK, 2022). The root of many issues related to climate change and biodiversity collapse lies in our choices and behaviours. We’ve developed unrealistic expectations regarding the aesthetic appearance of food and are unwilling to pay the true value of food. This undoubtedly results in excessive food waste and unpicked produce, contributing to many farms becoming economically unviable.
In a broader context, Jeswani et al. (2021) found that about a quarter (13.1 million tonnes) of the 58.7 million tonnes of food consumed in the UK is wasted each year throughout the entire supply chain. Almost half of this waste (46%) occurs at the consumption stage, with about a third (28%) being lost in the primary production stages. Manufacturing and distribution contribute 17% and 9% to the total waste, respectively.
Despite accounting for only 10% of overall food waste, meat and fish have the most significant impact on total life cycle environmental effects. This waste results in 5.9% of national greenhouse gas emissions (27 million tonnes of CO2 equivalent per year).
Household food waste in the UK is responsible for 3% of greenhouse gas emissions (Chapagain and James, 2011) and 6% of the nation’s water footprint (WRAP, 2015). Almost half of avoidable food waste (48%) is discarded due to not being used in time, 31% is thrown away because of large servings and leftovers, 14% due to personal dislikes for certain foods, and 4% due to accidents such as freezer failure (WRAP, 2013).
Creating Space for Conservation
Finch et al. (2023) assert that to achieve Net Zero emissions by 2050, the land area allocated for farming must shrink by an additional 22% (around 5 million acres). This reduction is necessary to make space for woodland creation and peatland restoration. Meeting the Net Zero target also necessitates a transition of up to 17% of land currently used for livestock feed to produce food for humans. This shift would require substantial reductions in food waste and a more significant adoption of plant-based diets. For instance, to approach Net Zero, we’d need a 37% decrease in beef, lamb, and dairy consumption, a 29% reduction in pork, poultry, and egg consumption, and a subsequent 13% increase in plant-based product consumption (Finch et al., 2023).
It is important to note that land use choices don’t have to be binary, and we recognise that a conservation-focused approach to land management can (and in many places should) also include regenerative agriculture. At Oxygen Conservation this will most commonly include a small number of organic, rare breed grazing animals, as well as organic arable and agroforestry enterprises. The commercial viability of each of these enterprises remains challenging and is often incredibly reliant on highly skilled, experienced individuals working in these rural businesses. We’re hugely fortunate to partner with some of the very best, but the environment sector needs many more of these people. How we help find, develop, and support them is an article for another day.
Changes of this type and magnitude are understandably unsettling to many, especially to people later in life or those who enjoy their current lifestyle. The reality is that if we don’t make the choices to prioritise the natural world, the choice will no longer be ours. The floods, the fires, the failures of entire ecosystems, and eventually the collapse of our economic system are coming and coming quickly.
It’s of Our Own Making
The responsibility for achieving Net Zero and halting the biodiversity crisis should not be levied on any individual group of people or any industry. Instead, we must all look in the mirror and challenge our decisions and choices on a day-to-day basis because, in so many ways, the challenges we face are of our own making.
Many of us waste too much food. Many of us eat too much meat – me included. Many of us don’t pay the real costs for the food we eat. In fact, virtually none of us do, if we’re really honest with ourselves. That said, archaic subsidy schemes have incentivised production at all costs and resulted in significant declines in the rural environment, landscape, and economy. And now these subsidies are being taken away, rendering a commercially unviable industry completely fucked! Perhaps then it isn’t all our fault with the supermarkets and the government holding some of this responsibility too.
Whether we can articulate it as such, we are all scared about the effects of climate change and the impacts it will have on our way of life in one way or another, and that goes for environmentalists and farmers.
Land use change and nature-based solutions are not a threat to food production. They’re a solution for a more regenerative future for people and wildlife. If we do not create more space for nature, for people, and for wildlife, our entire agricultural system and ecosystem will collapse under the weight of our own ignorance, incompetence, and arrogance.
Unfortunately, the government has set largely unambitious targets for nature in its 25-year Environment Plan and yet they clearly don’t even intend to hit these! They claimed they would dedicate a further 1 million acres for conservation by 2030 and they won’t, they aren’t even going to try.
But I can assure you, we are!
Brexit: food prices and availability (House of Lords, 2018)
British food and farming at a glance (DEFRA, 2016)
Current agricultural land use in the UK (Savills, 2022)
Farmers talk food waste: supermarkets role in crop waste on UK farms(Bowman and O’Sullivan, 2018)
Food insecurity tracking (The Food Foundation, 2023)
Food waste in the UK (Dray, 2021)
How much of your area is built on? (CLCi, 2017)
Land use statistics: England 2022 (DLUHC, 2022)
Multifunctional landscapes Informing a long-term vision for managing the UK’s land (Royal Society, 2023)
The extent of food waste generation in the UK and its environmental impacts(Jeswani et al., 2021)
The scourge of the grouse moor (Macdonald, 2019)
The water and carbon footprint of household food and drink waste in the UK(Chapagain and James, 2011)
UK threat (GFS, 2022)
United Kingdom – Country Commercial Guide (ITA, 2022)
What is the British countryside really for? (Heal et al., 2023)
Who owns England’s grouse moors? (Shrubsole, 2016)