New approaches to rural land management and governance: restoration, regeneration and rewilding

We are pleased to welcome this guest post by Professor Ian Hodge, Professor Emeritus of Rural Economy in the Department of Land Economy, University of Cambridge, UK.

Agricultural policy reform will always be unfinished business.  Shifting political priorities and power bases, changing technologies and developing environmental pressures will all alter the balance of priorities and mechanisms.  But opportunities for radical policy reforms are rare.  The periodic reforms of the CAP have as yet failed to deliver the level of change that many readers of this CAP reform blog would like to see.  However, in the UK, Brexit offers a unique opportunity to rewrite policy from the ground up.  While the focus here is on the UK, the same principles and opportunities arise across the EU.

The environment has come to take pole position in discussions about rural land policy.  We have identified and designated our most precious habitats through a comprehensive system of protected areas.  Natura 2000 sites designated in the EU cover 18% of the land area. We have supported the conversion of farms into organic production.  Over the past 35 years we have developed both broad and intensive agri-environment schemes, in England at one point covering up to three quarters of the agricultural area.  The Water Framework Directive in 2000 set out a long term programme for the improvement of water quality.

And yet, while there are some gains, we continue to face environmental losses across the farmed environment.  At global, EU and UK scales, we are still seeing a decline in the populations of numerous species.  This loss has been recognised in the Leaders’ Pledge for Nature: “Science clearly shows that biodiversity loss, land and ocean degradation, pollution, resource depletion and climate change are accelerating at an unprecedented rate”.  The RSPB has claimed a lost decade in the failure to address the Aichi targets.  

The indexes of farmland birds in the EU and the UK continue their downward trend.  There are no obvious improvements in water quality with many water bodies failing to meet Water Framework Directive standards.  There are growing concerns about soil and air quality.  And agriculture is a major driver of these changes.  In this context, the UK government has pledged to be the first to leave the environment in a better state than that in which it inherited it.  What more can we do?

The implication must be that we need to see more fundamental changes in land management systems than we have seen to date.  This requirement seems to be recognised by the European Commission (2020 p.8) : “To achieve these aims, it is essential to increase the value given to protecting and restoring natural ecosystems, to the sustainable use of resources and to improving human health.” Three new approaches to rural land systems stand out as being potentially significant elements of such new approach: large-scale ecosystem restoration, regenerative agriculture and rewilding.

Large-scale ecosystem restoration

Proposals for landscape-scale restoration of nature have been widely discussed in the UK.  In particular, the 2010 Lawton report’s mantra of ‘more, bigger, better and joined up’ in support of biodiversity has increased attention to the need for larger areas and linkages across landscapes.  The authors of the report have written to the UK Prime Minister on the 10th anniversary of its publication urging him to commit an additional £1 billion as a one-off capital investment to make more space for nature. 

But the demands on landscapes have been broadened beyond biodiversity, especially in calls for ‘nature-based solutions’.  The natural environment regulates a broad range of increasingly valued ecosystem services.  A large proportion of terrestrial carbon is locked up in soils, particularly in peat.  Poor land management, or even in some soils well-managed conventional farming, cause high losses of carbon.  These can be reversed through land restoration or alternative farming methods to conserve soils and sequester carbon from the atmosphere.  Climate instability and flooding have led to calls for upstream areas to hold back rainfall either through more absorptive surfaces or by floodwaters being redirected onto lower value land.  Less intensive land uses allow more rainfall to penetrate into the soil and slow the rate at which water flows down catchments, reducing flood risk and the cost of engineering flood protection works downstream. 

This may be facilitated by the reintroduction of particular species into the landscape.  For instance, habitat manipulation by beavers slows water flow and increases pollution assimilation in the environment.  Lower and/ or uncertain summer rainfall demands more water storage for irrigation competing with other land uses for space.  The Covid outbreak has re-emphasised the importance of access for the public to the natural environment for health and welfare.  And, of course, perhaps the only policy that all parties in last year’s UK general election agreed on was the need for more tree planting. 

These land uses need to be accommodated in landscapes that are predominantly used for agriculture.  A few of them are in direct competition with agriculture, but many can be accommodated on agricultural land, particularly with more extensive farming systems.  And there can be synergies in the delivery of multiple ecosystem services within a particular local area.  Areas set aside to hold back floodwaters can also be beneficial for biodiversity and landscapes, sequester carbon and offer attractive places for recreation.  This demands an integrated approach to planning and implementation, coordinated at a larger scale than is possible on individual holdings.

Lower input and regenerative agriculture

At a more local scale, on the ground, we may question whether conventional farming systems delivered through the intensive use of chemicals and fertilisers are leading us in the right direction.  There are increasing claims that less may be more.  Less intensive systems may produce lower levels of output but the savings in input costs and the potentially higher output price for better quality products can more than offset the loss of volume.  And environmental harm is reduced. 

There are elements of this increasingly being adopted into conventional agriculture, such as minimum tillage and precision farming, but some argue that we should go further.  For instance, Gabe Brown in Dirt to soil describes his challenging journey into regenerative agriculture.  He sets out five principles: limit disturbance, armour the soil, build diversity, keep living roots in the soil, and integrate animals.  These are quite different principles to conventional approaches. 

A comparison of regenerative and conventional farming in the Northern Plains of the USA by LaCanne and Lungren found that regenerative systems were more profitable than conventional systems.  There was no correlation between yield and profitability, but there was a direct correlation between profitability and Soil Organic Matter.  Pests were 10-fold more abundant in insecticide treated corn fields than on insecticide-free regenerative farms.  A recent study in France has concluded similarly that the ‘agroecological’ model is “profitable in the medium-term”, and that organic farms are more profitable than their conventional counterparts.  But this is more than just ‘organic’ that is constrained to follow predefined rules; individual managers in regenerative agriculture need to find by experience the systems best suited to their local soils, climate and markets. 

Have we become locked into our conventional farming systems even though an alternative may be better in the long term?  There is a strong element of path dependency in the development of agricultural systems.  Decades of research in the public and private sectors, arguably substantially motivated by the interests of commercial companies to sell more products to farmers, has achieved large increases in production under carefully controlled growing environments but at significant environmental cost and often only viable with subsidies.  We cannot know what might have been achieved if similar levels of research effort had been devoted to alternative systems. 

There is of course no single alternative.  Regenerative agriculture requires the identification of an approach that is specifically tailored to an individual farmer’s unique resources and circumstances.  It is not a matter of buying a standard product off the shelf, but requires experimentation and learning by doing.  It seems unlikely that advice provided by people whose primary goal is expanding the sales of chemical inputs are going to lead a shift towards this approach, indicating a need for more research and education in order to test the potential. 

We anyway need to find new approaches to mitigating greenhouse gas emissions and sequestering carbon, so here too we need more innovation and experimentation together with systems for capturing and disseminating the results of those experiments.  This can potentially be stimulated and supported through the new Environmental Land Management Scheme in the UK but it needs an extra element to capture the experience and consolidate and cycle this into better advice for other farmers.

Rewilding

Or should we go further?  Rewilding might be seen as the ultimate system change and has come to be widely advocated.  Isabella Tree’s book Wilding on the experience on the Knepp Estate in West Sussex reveals some remarkable achievements in terms of biodiversity restoration in a relatively short period of time.  The evidence suggests that the estate has also been beneficial for carbon storage, flood protection and aesthetic values.  But rewilding can also be controversial in terms of its impact on local communities such as through dispersal of weed species or introduction of wild animals.

In the light of the planned withdrawal of direct payments in agricultural policy in the UK, might we expect to see large areas of land, where farming is currently only viable on the basis of public subsidy, lapse into rewilding?  This would represent a major challenge to the widely held view of cultural landscapes as necessarily being maintained by the current farming systems (or at least some version of them).  Given the inevitable demands on public finances, we may, of course, get rewilding by default.  This would be a mistake.  Rewilding should be located in areas where there are greatest potential social benefits and as with other forms of land use, it needs to be integrated into wider land use planning schemes.

The implications for governance

None of these three alternatives represents a ‘solution’ to the challenges facing rural land management.  They are relatively untested at scale.  Each seems to have something to contribute to our thinking about future land systems but we don’t know which elements are of most consequence and how they might fit together.  However, they have a number of common features.  Their adoption can enhance the provision of a range of ecosystem services beyond food production, generally characterised as public goods, so that financial return may not be a good indicator of social value.  They can, for instance, reduce chemical emissions and improve water quality, enhance nature, sequester carbon, reduce atmospheric emissions and mitigate flood risk.  And they don’t necessarily reduce returns to food production, especially if products can be sold at a premium price. 

They all also require long-term commitment and experimentation with uncertain outcomes.  Large-scale ecosystem restoration has potential to deliver a varied range of ecosystem services but the outcomes identified to be targeted within a particular area will only emerge from negotiations amongst multiple stakeholders and those services actually delivered may remain uncertain well into the future.  Flood risk may be predicted to be lower, but this will not be tested empirically until a major rainfall event occurs.  The best approach to regenerative agriculture will be specific to a particular location and may not be known when the system is initially adopted. 

The development of the approach over time will require innovation and experimentation.  Similarly, the end state of a rewilding project will be uncertain too.  In such contexts, if the outcomes are unknown, investments in these approaches are not amenable to ex ante cost-benefit analysis.  The degree of uncertainty will reduce over time with experience, but in the early stages it will be high and management will need to be innovative with high levels of skill in order to map out appropriate pathways over time.  Thus sponsors need to be prepared to take a risk and accept a long-term commitment.

We thus need a policy environment that promotes more devolved, collaborative, innovative and learning approaches towards the development of rural land use systems.  These challenges require a redesign of rural land uses at scale to deliver the sought ecosystem services alongside the continuing demands for agricultural production.  This is complex given the multiplicity of stakeholders, the lack of markets for most of the ecosystem services, the uncertainty about outcomes and the relatively small scale of ownership units.  The issue then is how to identify the best locations, engage with local landholders and communities and deliver land use change at sufficient scale. 

There are three elements of governance that follow from the systems considered here.  This requires institutional structures that:

  • identify local priorities for ecosystem delivery and establish incentives to integrate delivery across different ecosystem services at an appropriate scale;
  • provide information and establish incentives for land managers to explore the potential for lower input and regenerative agriculture systems that are best suited to their particular local conditions, to monitor their performance and to cycle that information on performance into guidance for other local land managers; and
  • establish support for land managers to be able to rewild their properties in areas and at scale where this meets social objectives for the area, and to support traditional farming systems where they are socially valued but not profitable at ruling market prices in order to avoid land abandonment where this would be inconsistent with social objectives.

This takes us beyond a conventional approach to agri-environment schemes and, so far, it seems unlikely that the Environmental Land Management scheme being developed in the UK will have sufficient ambition.  Similarly, eco-schemes under the new CAP, while they can potentially provide substantial levels of funding, will add little scope for this sort of approach.  The restriction of funding to ‘genuine farmers’, annual contracts and uncertainty regarding outcomes will not be well suited to the long term commitments required. 

There is, in this and other contexts, a governance gap.  The requirements are too complex to be solved at a national scale.  Decision-making and financial resources need to be devolved to Local Environmental Governance Organisations (LEGO) that would take broad responsibility for the conservation of natural capital and sustainable delivery of ecosystem services within a defined area. We have sketched out some elements of how this might operate elsewhere (Gawith and Hodge, 2019; Hodge, 2019).  A LEGO needs to assess the state of natural capital in its area and, working with stakeholders, to develop a natural capital plan.  This will form the basis for the promotion of ecosystem restoration and alternative land uses.  This may involve the adoption of a local agri-environment scheme or co-financing schemes for the provision of biodiversity, carbon sequestration or flood mitigation.  It could involve support for conservation covenants or land purchase by non-profit organisations.  The LEGO would then have responsibility for monitoring and enforcement.

We need visions of the potential for new approaches and institutions as well as incentives to bring the potential suppliers and demanders of ecosystem services together in a local context.  But first we need government vision, a supportive policy context and well designed and targeted public funding.  This implies a new approach to ‘agricultural’ policy.  In fact, we don’t need an ‘agricultural’ policy at all, we need a policy for rural land.

This post was written by Ian Hodge.

Photo credit: © Copyright Peter Evans and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence.

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2 Replies to “New approaches to rural land management and governance: restoration, regeneration and rewilding”

  1. I almost fully agree with this and I made a very similar set of comments to the IFA request for comments on what farmers wanted from a “New REPS”. The current agri-environmental schemes under CAP, while they might make good sense on a macro scale can be completely counter intuitive on a local scale and this is where local priorities can be set even by individual farmers for their own farms. Some strange anomalies then exist which bring the whole ego schemes into disrepute and they become just another subsidy to be drawn rather than encouraging farmers to continually consider the environment in their everyday work. I have many examples from my own farm but my current favourite from GLAS is where I planted a copse of native woodland. I have thousands or wind sown Birch/Rowan/Alder/Ash saplings growing on my farm. But rather than use these native and locally selected for the local conditions, I have to purchase saplings from Wexford over 200km away because my native grown ones didn’t have the paperwork. And furthermore, good farming practice, to maintain my Single Farm Payment, means that I have to plough these every few year to keep my land in good farming shape. The amount of carbon consumed in transport of materials and ploughing natural hotspots tells you much about the environmental goals of GLAS. And absolutely and new scheme should include re-wilding principles which can be approved on a farm by farm basis. While we may not initially get the large ranges of space small pockets have a habit of connecting to each other when given the space and time.

    One area which believe that we overlook, is that I believe we still need large scale, intensive farms to provide the volume of food we require. And in this context organic farming is not the panacea that sometimes is described by its advocates. And while producers should have a choice in how they produce and get a price premium if they can there is still a requirement for the volume producers. You mentioned Isabella Tree’s book which is an excellent read but, while we all should take from her ideas, being able to implement these is only possible in a tiny minority of cases. If you can do it great but we all don’t have large historic estates, with significant public interest, to make this route viable. But as farming needs to move towards reducing carbon footprint and being more environmentally aware, we should be able to take a macro viewpoint to this. Therefore intensive farming would continue but there is no reason that their environment obligations cannot be taken elsewhere (but they would, of course, have to continue to use good environmental practices). So farmers who choose to become more extensive and implement the more “extreme” environmental practices such as re-wilding, re-wetting and others could not only continue to draw their own subsidies but would also be able to draw down from the more intensive farming envelope some of theirs because they were undertaking additional measures on their behalf.

    Another book I recomment=d you read for another perspective on this discussion is “Feral” by George Monbiot.

  2. Good article and comment. My contribution is to incentivise good hedgerow and buffer strip management throughout the country including intensively farmed tillage and dairy areas. Tall hedges with an unsprayed margin are huge biodiversity corridors and reservoirs. We have a Facebook page ‘Save our Hedgerows’

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