Less and Better? Episode 4: What is Land For?

Less and Better? Episode 4: What is Land For? 150 150 Farmerama Radio

What do we do about meat? With this urgent question as its starting point, this series seeks to move beyond polarised debate and identify key questions and shared values to help us build a better meat future for all.

In episode 4, co-hosts Katie Revell and Olivia Oldham ask: why do we use land the way we do, and how should we use it in the future? They meet with farmers, academics and land management advisors, to delve into the history of land use in the UK, reflecting on the cultural and political factors that continue to shape it, and looking for common ground between advocates of different approaches.

This episode features the voices of Kumar and Molly Vasanthakumar, Andrew and Seonag Barbour, Dr Elise Wach, Nikki Yoxall and Edwin Brooks.

Less and Better? was created thanks to the generous support of The Roddick Foundation and The A Team Foundation. Our series music is made by Alex Bachelor, with artwork by Jagoda Sadowska. The series was researched and produced by Katie Revell and Olivia Oldham, with support from executive producer Jo Barrat. Thanks to the rest of the Farmerama team, Abby Rose, Dora Taylor, Annie Landless, Eliza Jenkins and Lucy Fisher.

If you are interested in the ideas and questions raised in the fourth episode, we’ve linked some further resources below. Enjoy!

  1. Market Dependency as Prohibitive of Agroecology and Food Sovereignty—A Case Study of the Agrarian Transition in the Scottish Highlands
  2. The Origin of Capitalism: A Longer View
  3. Land sparers feel their oats
  4. Reframing the land-sparing/land-sharing debate for biodiversity conservation
  5. Nature’s Matrix: Linking Agriculture, Biodiversity Conservation and Food Sovereignty
  6. The agroecological matrix as alternative to the land-sparing/agriculture intensification model
  7. Decoupling from land or extending the view: Divergent spatial imaginaries of agri-food tech
  8. Fossil food: landed property as a hidden abode of global warming
  9. Crop intensification, land use, and on-farm energy-use efficiency during the worldwide spread of the green revolution
  10. Feeding Britain

Episode Transcript:

Katie Revell 00:03
less and better. Episode Four. What is land for? I’m Katie Revell.

Olivia Oldham 00:10
I am Olivia Oldham.

Katie Revell 00:14
We don’t think it’s possible to discuss the environmental implications of the production and consumption of meats or its alternatives, without also trying to understand the social, economic and political context they’re produced in.

Olivia Oldham 00:27
We’ve heard a few different visions of our meat future, from paying farmers to sequester carbon through grazing, to using catalyst strategically to conserve or enhance biodiversity, from the potential for legumes to enrich soil health, to some possibilities for collaboration between farming and lab grown meat. What all of these visions have in common is that they raise questions about land. Why do we currently use it the way we do? And how should we use it in the future?

Katie Revell 00:59
To explore these questions, we’re going to start in northern Scotland. But bear in mind that this is just an example. The story we’re going to hear is echoed all over the UK and in lots of other places, too. We’re also going back in time, 200 years back.

Elise Wach 01:22
Before capitalism in the Highlands and Islands of Scotland. The social system was clanship.

Katie Revell 01:28
Elise Wach is a grower and academic. Her research focuses on the politics of shifting to more ecological food systems.

Elise Wach 01:37
People looked at the amount of land they had and organised themselves based on being able to provide a diverse and adequate diet for everyone. And so, at that time, that meant that there was quite a lot of land under arable production. People also foraged and hunted, and then there was livestock grazing, but the arable was the priority. And livestock was was definitely there, but it kinda was to serve the needs of the arable. It was organised in order to make sure that everyone had enough to eat, and with the privatisation of land, when land became this private commodity, the focus was no longer making sure that everyone had enough to eat, but it was about maximising the commercial return on land. And in the context of high prices for wool in the industrialising lowlands and South, sheep farming became really widespread, and people were forcibly removed from the lands, most people in Scotland will be really familiar with the clearances. People were violently removed from the land and relocated on to what later became known as crofts. And the plot size was actually intentionally designed to be so small so that people couldn’t subsist off of their own land, they had to sell their labour into the industry separate owned by the landlord’s.

Katie Revell 03:01
This violent, dramatic social transformation, hugely reduced the diversity of Scotland’s agro ecosystems, making them much less resilient and more vulnerable to diseases. Diseases like the potato blight that caused the famines of the late 1800s.

Elise Wach 03:17
It kind of further exacerbated this narrative that the highlands weren’t capable ecologically of supporting a population through agriculture. Meanwhile, in the rest of the highlands, you know, sheep farming, the intensity increased and increased. Sheep are selective grazers. And so they really change the ecosystem if they’re not balanced out by, you know, cows, for example.

Katie Revell 03:42
Sheep are so ubiquitous as a cultural symbol. They’re so associated with Highland Scotland. Yeah, and it’s yeah, it’s really interesting just to realise that that’s a relatively recent phenomenon, and that there’s nothing sort of inevitable or quote unquote, natural or even particularly traditional about it.

Elise Wach 04:03
Yeah, over time, you know, the highlands did become degraded, and we saw this loss of this mosaic of landscape whereas before there was this combination of woodland and heathland and species which grassland and arable land that you know, had really good soil fertility, all of that kind of got converted to just grassland, often really species poor and some bracken and mosses. Again further, reinforcing this narrative that, you know, agriculture isn’t very viable in the highlands.

Olivia Oldham 04:39
Again, this story is specific to the Highlands and Islands of Scotland. But a similar process played out in other parts of the UK and around the world, as the spread of capitalism caused huge changes to the way that societies and their food systems were organised. The point is the way we think about land and what it’s suitable for. For what it’s good for, that can’t be separated from the broader way our societies are structured. Our ideas about what can and can’t be produced on a bit of land is informed by economic, political and social choices. It’s shaped by cultural assumptions and historical forces in ways that can be hard to unpick.

Katie Revell 05:25
At least partly thanks to the histories Elise has described, upland areas in the UK are now defined by the government, officially defined as being, quote, beyond cultivation. That’s cultivation in the sense of growing crops like wheat, or oats or barley or vegetables. Officially, these areas are now only good for rough grazing. And that tends to be what they’re used for grazing animals, especially sheep.

Elise Wach 05:52
Which is just bonkers because people have previously been cultivating it, and people are cultivating it.

Olivia Oldham 06:00
Even when these lands aren’t used for grazing, cultivation, growing crops is very rarely seen as an option. Instead, these areas might be used as grouse moors or other kinds of hunting estates. More recently, these kinds of quote unquote marginal lands have become attractive for a new use. Rewilding.

Katie Revell 06:25
This brings us on to a really key debate, one that often comes up in conversations about animal farming in the UK, the debate between land sparing and land sharing. At its most basic land sparing is the idea that we should intensify agriculture as much as possible, allowing us to free up and spare much more land for nature or for wilderness.

Olivia Oldham 06:48
Support for land sparing often comes from the idea that we need to minimise the greenhouse gas emissions that come from farming by maximising our production efficiency. In other words, producing as much food as possible while minimising our energy use and land footprint. But as we’ve discussed, whether this makes sense depends on what exactly we mean by efficiency,

Katie Revell 07:13
Land sparing also find strong support among advocates of rewilding rewilding usually means allowing an area of land that’s previously been farmed or cultivated to return to its natural state. According to rewilding Europe, it’s about stepping back and letting nature manage itself.

Molly Vasanthakumar 07:32
I think there’s this perception that in the UK, we have lots of livestock, because the only thing that we can grow is grass.

Olivia Oldham 07:38
Molly Vasanthakumar is a farmer’s daughter, a former vet, and now a land management advisor.

Molly Vasanthakumar 07:44
And that’s something that I feel very passionate about is kind of changing that perception and, and thinking about not just restoring land back to how it used to be, but kind of creating a new image for how we need our landscape to look for humans, but also for nature. And not just seeing the value of nature in terms of what it gives to us. But in terms of its intrinsic value, and kind of shifting our whole perception of what we think the British countryside should look like, not one that says, you know, you can carry on farming as you are. But as long as you have some trees planted here and some hedgerows there, and you leave a little bit of ground for nature, that’s not good enough, it’s got to be the entire system of farming needs to change. The way I would love our food system to look would be to have the United Kingdom is an area where we’re growing large amounts of plants on relatively small areas, really utilising the ground that is suitable for growing crops, that we wouldn’t have livestock, and that we’d be leaving our kind of upland and marginal areas for biodiversity.

Olivia Oldham 08:44
Not all supporters of land sparing want to see farmed animals removed from the landscape. But many do. Often that vision relies on a growth in the kinds of alternative proteins, like cultivated meat, that we heard about in the last episode.

Molly Vasanthakumar 09:00
I think the best future that I can imagine would be for countries where you know, you can exist without animal products, then they should no longer be part of our diet. I see the future of, of the kind of precision fermentation and the cloned meet has been really important in that, you know, I would love to be able to just see like a bunch of people walk into a kebab shop buy their kebab, but they’re not actually be any meat in it.

Katie Revell 09:27
Molly’s vision might seem quite radical, and in some ways it is, but in other ways the principles underlying her vision, like respecting the value of non human life and learning from natural systems. These principles are shared by many of the animal farmers and other people that we spoken to for this series. We don’t want to overstate things. These approaches are really different. Of course they are, but we do think there might be some common ground to be found.

Olivia Oldham 09:57
Land sparing is only one approach to changing our food and farming systems in ways that respect those principles of valuing non human life and natural systems. Many of the farmers we’ve spoken to have a very different idea of what this should look like in practice, an idea grounded in a very different understanding of the relationship between humans and the rest of the natural world.

Katie Revell 10:20
For a start. If our goal is to protect wildlife, then it’s important to recognise that there are some important habitats that just wouldn’t exist without some sort of human intervention or management. For example, the lowland heath landscape in Sussex that the cow club manages only exists because of large animals grazing it over hundreds, if not 1000s of years, and that grazing has been managed by humans. Edwin Brooks is one of the cow clubs directors.

Edwin Brooks 10:48
Peatland is itself something that has always been associated with human activity. And part of that has been grazing all sorts of different animals on there. If we’re going to conserve these environments, we have to do it with the interaction of humans, and people who live nearby to those areas. Having these amazing big animals nearby to where you live, or, or where you’re visiting, I think does bring people closer to the reasons why you’re doing that conservation. It’s a good point of entry to being like that, why are these cows here, and they’re amazing, and what are they doing here and so on.

Olivia Oldham 11:31
These kinds of ideas are more aligned with land sharing. Land sharing is a more integrated approach that aims for the whole landscape to provide benefits for biodiversity and the climate, and sees humans as an integral part of nature. In terms of what that actually means on the ground, Grazier Nikki Yoxall thinks this can and should happen through farming animals.

Nikki Yoxall 11:57
I think that ideas around like land sparing or land sharing just create these false binaries that don’t really exist in the natural world. You can produce food, and you can manage landscapes and integrate with landscapes in a way that enhances ecosystem functioning, biodiversity, wildlife presents, species richness in fields like in the same places, you know, the idea that 10% of farms should be for nature, no 100% of farm should be positive for nature. I use the word nature quite a lot when I talk to other people. But within our own kind of family context, we don’t really talk about nature, because it just is home, we just need to maybe get out of this idea that nature kind of happens over there. And we’re over here. And we either don’t go over there to protect it, or we watch it from afar as passive observers. Or we can do whatever we like, over here somewhere because over there is protected. And that, to me is just a continuation of really extractive dangerous systems that we’ve got ourselves into globally.

Katie Revell 13:06
Many conservation biologists support this view based on evidence that the land sparing model doesn’t really produce ideal outcomes, either for biodiversity or for food production. If we have highly protected areas, surrounded by regions of intensive production, regions that would most likely rely on the use of pesticides, monocultures or other harmful practices to achieve the necessary levels of intensity. That kind of landscape is actually likely to be pretty harmful to the very species it sets out to protect.

Olivia Oldham 13:40
I mean, I guess to bring it back to like, the issues with the kind of more simplistic model of land sparing, like I definitely think that there are problems there, right, like, when we talk about land sparing in the UK, you know, maybe in a very literal sense, it’s an island. But in terms of its food supply, it’s not, you know, the UK imports between a third to a half of its food already. So what would reducing the amount of land used for food production even further mean for wildlife elsewhere where that food is still going to have to be produced by somebody between 1961 and 2005, five times more land was brought into production. Most of that land being in the majority world, then was spared for nature or brought out of production, most of that land being in the minority world during the so called green revolution. There was three times improvement in the average yield of land. But that did not save land elsewhere. It didn’t produce land sparing, it actually resulted in a significant amount of further land being brought into production. And I think this is super interesting because Norman Borlaug, who is considered to be the Father of the Green Revolution, like his whole idea was that intensifying land use would result in land staring, and it didn’t happen then. And I don’t think that it makes any sense to repeat that same logic today. Land sparing could happen, but it’s not just going to automatically happen because of intensification. It’s it’s a result of policy decisions. And I think one of those policy decisions that should be very carefully considered is the decision to effectively export their biodiversity loss, the degradation, the deforestation, and the climate impacts or emissions that we don’t want to make here at home to somewhere else, and to different ecosystems and different people who may be not valued in the same way.

Katie Revell 16:34
How are these choices and assumptions about how change happens, about what’s more or less valuable? About which land is good? for what purposes? How are these embedded in these land sparing visions? What trade offs do they overlook, and will alternate futures for the land they make invisible?

Olivia Oldham 16:53
If wildlife doesn’t only exist in wild landscapes, and if in fact, in some circumstances, it needs human management to survive? And if it’s not only possible, but maybe necessary to have multifunctional landscapes that enhance biodiversity and produce food? If all of that’s true, then what does that say about how realistic it is to draw a clear line between natural and managed landscapes. Farmer Andrew Barber thinks that this kind of distinction obscures more than it reveals.

Andrew Barber 17:28
I think there’s a real dishonesty at the heart of that distinction. So I think land sharing is more honest, there are compromises. There are trade offs at every angle of it. But I think it’s a more honest way to view how we should produce our food and use our land. We would argue that this place has been rewilded in one sense, we use natural processes in our farming. So I’m a bit suspicious about some aspects of the rewilding philosophy. But in principle, using natural processes, if you take that as the definition, I’m all for it. And we should have much more of it in all our landscapes.

Katie Revell 18:11
I think it’s interesting that Andrew is sort of subverting that term rewilding. He’s kind of muddying the waters there, maybe between the land sparing on the lawn sharing, yeah, that we’ve talked about?

Olivia Oldham 18:25
I don’t know, I don’t always know what to think about this conversation, because it sometimes feels like there’s a bit of an unhelpful binary between the two ideas as well. For me, it seems more useful, again, to think about well, okay, what is our desired outcome in this context? You know, yes. In either model, there’s compromises and there’s trade offs, but shouldn’t we be facing those head on rather than trying to pretend that they’re not there? Isn’t that kind of the whole point that like, there are no silver bullets? Every choice is a hard choice. And and so

Katie Revell 19:08
And an imperfect choice.

Olivia Oldham 19:10
Exactly. And there will always be these trade offs.

Katie Revell 19:13
I totally agree. And I think I think in the past, I’ve sometimes myself been rather over simplistic in objecting kind of out of hand to any sort of proposition of land sparing on the basis that no actually what we need to be doing is getting more people onto the land. It doesn’t have to be either or it can’t be the case that every space should be being cultivated. However, regeneratively you know, however, agri ecologically there are places like temperate rainforest, some peat lands, spaces that are simply not appropriate for for cultivation and for human involvement in that way.

Olivia Oldham 19:55
Yeah. And I think that that’s exactly kind of my hesitation when it comes to all of this is that like 100%? Like conservation shouldn’t be about keeping people out. It should be about bringing people in, but in different ways, and I just don’t know that that always has to look like farming.

Katie Revell 20:17
I think it’s possible to both accept that a great landscape might be very, very beneficial for some wildlife, but also to accept that it’s probably not great for others.

Olivia Oldham 20:30
Yeah, definitely. And it’s like, none of this is to say that the kind of, huh, default or generic version of land, sparing the kind of passive model isn’t like deeply problematic for a lot of reasons. Yeah. It’s more just to question. Yeah, to question whether these two are really like the land sparing versus land sharing question is really a binary or if it’s more of a spectrum, and what that looks like in different places.

Katie Revell 21:08
Yeah, absolutely. And I think then, that raises all sorts of further questions that we probably don’t have time to go into here about who has access to the land, who owns it, who controls it, who has input and decisions made about it, who has this kind of historic relationship to that land? Who would like a relationship to that land? There are all sorts of other questions that I think are really, really important, and again, that complicate that apparent binary?

Olivia Oldham 21:43
Yeah. I think that there really are very serious issues with many of the leading models of land sparing as it’s presented. I guess my point is not to question that. But more just to suggest that, that doesn’t mean that the whole idea of having non-farmed landscapes is totally irretrievably like worthless. So if there isn’t just a simple binary choice between wild and farmed or managed landscapes, what else might be possible? It seems as though maybe we need to reconsider what land might be good for. If traditional upland grazing isn’t appropriate for a certain landscape. Does that mean all farmed animals need to go? Is the only option to replace them with a vision of conservation or rewilding that separates people and agriculture from nature or wilderness? Or might they be scope to integrate both?

Katie Revell 23:08
When Highlands Rewilding bought the estates, Nikki and James asked if they’d be interested in including cattle as part of their project.

Nikki Yoxall 23:15
And they were really keen, and particularly were interested in because of the type of land that’s they’re exploring regenerative agriculture, as one aspect of a rewilding landscape that helps to enable and support community prosperity, so puts more people on the land and creates food, which is obviously a really important part of land use in Scotland.

Olivia Oldham 23:42
Perhaps even more significantly, even if we might want to reduce livestock numbers, that still doesn’t necessarily leave rewilding as the only other option.

Elise Wach 23:52
On one hand, people have the sense that okay, the only agricultural activity that’s viable in the uplands is livestock farming. And on the other hand, this you know, kind of reaction of livestock farming is really ecologically destructive. We need to be rewilding it or we need to be doing forestry for carbon capture. And I was like, hang on. This is really familiar, because I’ve been, you know, growing hundreds of types of foods on a chalky hillside where everyone else thinks, you know, it’s only for sheep farming, and previously, there were loads of market gardens. So I’m thinking this probably isn’t quite accurate.

Olivia Oldham 24:33
As Elise described at the start of the episode, lots of the areas that are now seen as only good for grazing livestock once hosted multifunctional agro ecosystems that grew a wide range of crops, crops that went directly to feeding people.

Elise Wach 24:49
There’s one estimate from the Blacklands centre that about 100,000 hectares of the highlands, is in really good condition for cultivation. That’s a small amount, but it would actually quadruple the land area that’s gotten uses for vegetable and fruit production at present. And then on top of that there’s areas that have been degraded. So they’re not really good for livestock production. There’s nothing to be conserved are preserved there. And I think those are the areas where there’s a lot of scope for people to be rebuilding the soils and rebuilding biodiversity. And definitely see that those areas that it doesn’t make sense to cultivate. And, you know, I think it’s fine to have some livestock there. But yeah, I think there’s a lot of areas that are currently grazed that, you know, maybe we could think about using differently in order to feed people. Part of what got me into this research is that I was working in Kenya and people were exporting french beans to the UK and their neighbours were literally starving because of crop failures. And, you know, it’s like, this whole thing of using land in order to prioritise economic returns, commercial returns of commodities rather than, okay, what do we as humanity need to be producing on our land? And I think this is where we get into the question about me because almost all of the decisions about what land is used for are based either on existing commodity returns or on previous commodity returns. And in Scotland, we see it in relation to previous commodities. Because, you know, sheep farming now is not particularly lucrative. But because it was in the past, we had this idea that that’s the only viable agricultural activity, you know, government policy now, you know, it’s about keeping the lights on in the farm houses and keeping the sheep on the hills to a certain extent, rather than okay, what, what is the ecological potential of this land? And how could we be using that for society?

Katie Revell 27:21
What do we want to see on our plates? Meat, or beans, lab-grown steak or home cooked falafel? What about some combination?

Olivia Oldham 27:30
Can we even answer this question without digging deeper into what we think our land is good for, without unearthing the deeply embedded assumptions, the powerful political and economic forces, both historical and contemporary, that shape how land is used, without considering how these forces and assumptions shaped our imaginations of what land could or should be used for? Maybe a better place to start is to ask what kinds of landscapes we want to live in, and to work backwards from there.

Katie Revell 28:06
In the next episode, we’ll be asking what less than better meat might mean for health, individual and collective. Thanks for listening. You can find a transcript of this episode and links to relevant resources on the farmer on my website.

Olivia Oldham 28:27
If you value what we do at Farmerama, please consider supporting us on Patreon.

Katie Revell 28:32
Less and better is researched, produced and edited by me Katie Revell,

Olivia Oldham 28:37
And me, Olivia Oldham

Katie Revell 28:39
With the support of executive producer Joe Barrett.

Olivia Oldham 28:43
Our series music is by Alex Bachelor, and our artwork is by Yagoda Sadowska, thanks to the rest of the farmer on the team, Dora Taylor, Annie Landless, Eliza Jenkins and Lucy Fisher.

Katie Revell 28:56
Less and better was made possible thanks to generous funding from the Roddick Foundation and the A Team Foundation.

Transcribed by https://otter.ai