Currently in the UK, the entire country’s farmland is in the hands of less than one per cent of the population. Land prices have escalated, increasing by an average of £2000/acre over the last 10 years or so. There are a number of issues at play here but property speculation plays a large role. Raising capital to fund a smallholding is also becoming harder, taking out a mortgage to fund a small-scale farming project is no longer an option available to many aspiring landworkers.
With the average age of a UK farmer being between 60 and 70 and farming traditional skills being undermined, something needs to be done to ensure the future of our food and farming system. Relying heavily on imports, large scale production and fossil fuels we need to build a sustainable food system that is based on small-scale producers. Efforts must be made to make it easier for small scale food producers to gain access to land and also learn skills that are being lost as larger scale production takes over. It must be made easier for young people to gain access to land and build knowledge and skills to farm it in a sustainable manner.
Securing land for agroecology
In increasing numbers, consumers, civil society organisations, citizens, local authorities, and other stakeholders are calling for healthy, local food, and agricultural practices that protect the environment and nurture local communities and economies. Agroecology can best meet these demands. But for agroecological forms of farming to develop, they must have access to the primary requirement for food production: land.
Yet, today’s reality is very different. Most agroecological farmers, particularly new entrants, are struggling to get adequate and secure access to the land. They are faced with several opposing trends:
- Land concentration on large, intensive farms
The functioning of the property markets, de-regulated in most European countries, augment and intensify existing agricultural policies, benefiting large farmers and giving them advantages in accessing land. As a result, farmland coming onto the sale or rental market mostly ends up enlarging existing large farms. Today, 3% of EU farms (over 100 hectares) control 50% of farmland.
- Speculation and land grabbing
With the global financial crisis, and tensions on global food markets, an increasing number of governments, large agri-businesses and private investors view farmland as a priority investment, either to ensure food security, develop their business and/ or provide a safe heaven for wealth. While widely seen as a problem in the global South, land grabbing has become a reality in the UK as well. On a different level, some landowners are holding onto unused farmland or speculating on land prices, in the hopes that prices will increase as a result of urban develoment.
- Lack of tenure security
Many farmers access land through tenancy: they rent their land from one or several landowners. In most cases, the tenancy conditions are very unfavourable to the farmers: the duration is limited, prices go up, landowners refuse to renew the lease, fail to provide certainty or try to negotiate in their favour(i.e. higher rent). These situations create obstacles for farmers who wish to develop their activities in a long term and sustainable way. Insecurity of land tenure has other knock-on effects, for example making it harder to access bank loans to develop the farm business.
- Competition between food and energy
The EU set itself an objective of sourcing 10% of its energy from biofuels by 2020. This decision sparked a rapid development of energy crops. This negatively impacts land available for food production and agroecological forms of farming.
All over Europe, civil society initiatives are taking action to secure access to land for agroecological farming. It can be achieved by freeing the land through citizen investment, agreements with public authorities, knowledge transfer or land stewardship agreements. These have to be upscaled and more ideas and methods need to be developed to increase agroecological regeneration of our food an d farming sector.
We are losing fertile farmland at a fast pace. In Europe alone, 11 hectares of soil are sealed under the concrete of expanding cities every hour. Since 1990, the EU (in its current borders) has lost 15% of its agricultural area, that is approximately the size of all Spanish farmland.
The main reason for this is the pressure exerted on land for the development of towns, infrastructure (such as roads and railways), tourist facilities, etc. This trend particularly affects the very fertile land around old urban centres, which were chosen as human settlement for this same fertility. It is all the more damaging as it is largely irreversible, and has many negative environmental impacts. In other parts of Europe, in mountain areas or where land is poor, the main problem is land abandonment, which results in farmland reverting to woodland or turning farmland in woods or natural landscape.
Farmland also needs to be preserved from degradation due to overuse, the use of pesticides and fertilizers, salinisation, desertification, erosion, or pollution, all of which constitute real, everyday threats to our land.
We need farmland to grow our food. We also need it for the production of timber and fibres. And we need to preserve farmland for the many wider functions and public goods it delivers: it can sustain a rich biodiversity, it helps mitigate climate change and stores and purifies water.
We strive to preserve farmland through a variety of tools:
- freeing land from the market and locking it in sustainable agricultural use,
- using land stewardship agreements and tools,
- training and supporting a new generation of agroecological farmers that will be able to preserve farmland, and
- advocating for sustainable farming and land preservation.
Supporting a new generation
Farmers are a greying population. More than half of our farmers will retire within 10 years, while only 7% are under 35. Many senior farmers have no successors in their family, and have no identified successor outside of it.
The question of who is going to be the next generation of farmers is a very pressing one. Who will grow our food? Who will sustain rural economies and communities? Who will maintain open landscapes for everybody to enjoy?
There is also a major challenge in ensuring both the continuity and the necessary evolutions between the generations of farmers. How to avoid losing preciously developed soil quality and know-how held by the current generation of passionate farmers? And how to allow new entrants to develop more agroecological forms of farming?
Our organisation approaches these challenges in a number of ways:
- training and advising young farmers and future farmers,
- acquiring farms to put them at the disposal of new entrants, particularly newcomers, on favourable terms,
- advocating for the preservation of existing farms and their transfer to a new generation,
- advocating for better support mechanisms to new entrants and progressive entry into farming.
Managing land as commons
Land is predominantly under individual ownership. Landowners (both private and public) are granted very significant, sometimes absolute, rights on their property, which are often used at the expense of tenant farmers, and other land users: neighbours, local residents, consumers, local authorities, hikers, etc.
We strongly believe that everybody can and should have a voice in defining how land is used and managed, as well as its agricultural orientations. From the local to European levels, citizens and local communities can participate in planning and managing land use, together with farmers, farming institutions, local authorities and others.
Should a piece of land be used for farming or for development? How to organise land use to meet the need for local, high quality food? How to ensure farming practices respect the regenerative capacity of the soil? How do we organise human activities to preserve a balance between urban and rural areas? How much do we, as a society, want to capitalise value in the land, through our tax systems, inheritance laws, subsidies and other mechanisms?
For us, managing land as a commons means finding a better balance between the needs and capacities of landowners, farmers and other users of the land. Our approaches take into consideration the central concern of preserving farmland for current and future generations, and ensuring that the vital contribution of the land towards the quality of our water, soil and ecosystems is respected. Managing land as a commons also means directly engaging consumers, local communities and other land users in the way farmland is used and managed, while respecting farmers’ autonomy.
We want to experiment with various ways of managing land as commons:
- freeing land from the sales market and holding it in perpetuity for the benefit of agroecological farmers,
- supporting and developing various tenure regimes that re-balance users’ rights and ownership rights: leasehold, environmental leases and stewardship agreements, common lands
- providing tools for local communities to directly engage with and support agroecological projects, through donations, ethical investment or volunteering,
- collaborating with public and private landowners, who wish to develop better use and governance of their land.
All this is part of a much broader transition aimed at restoring living, community-connected ways of farming, rural life and co-sufficient economy.