Access to land represents a significant obstacle to the vision of ecological farms filling Britain’s landscape, according to experts speaking at the recent Oxford Real Farming Conference.
Concentration of land in the hands of the few, combined with the high price of land, means that the barriers to entry are too high for those wanting to start farming but don’t own any land.
In a session on ‘A small farm future’, author of Who owns England, Guy Shrubsole, said that: “less than one per cent of the population own 50 per cent of the land.”
“It’s a hangover of feudalism” explained Shrubsole, “a huge amount is owned by the aristocracy.” This dates back to the enclosure’s act of 1602 to 1914, he said, in which, 6.8 million acres of common land, was transferred from to private landowners leading to the lack of access to land faced by the public today.
Although this disparity has its roots in medieval times, Shrubsole said “modern agriculture is at the heart of this land ownership”. In part, this is driven by global markets that mean UK famers compete with others around the world, driving down prices. As a result, industrial farms with large economies of scale stay in profit, while small farms fall by the wayside.
Robert Levesque, a French agronomist specialising in land sales, said: “Land has become a commodity, interesting for financial actors who are seeking a return on investment and not interested in food production.”
When land is a financial asset, “it disconnects social and ecological services that allow for a sustainable and dignified life and instead is an instrument to extract wealth for those distant to it,” Levesque told delegates.
“We need to move away from land as a commercial investment and actually using it in the public interest,” added Shrubsole.
“Of the annual 800 million pounds in inheritance tax breaks afforded to landowners, 70 per cent went to properties worth over one million pounds,” he said.
“A small number of already wealthy or certainly capital wealthy landowners and farmers are benefiting from these tax breaks.”
Subsequently the price of land is very high, (£16,525 per hectare for ‘average’ quality land), and Shrubsole said this prevents people from farming who actually want to produce food in a sustainable way.
Crowdfunding can be used to purchase land, he said, but pointed to the challenges faced in raising £3.8 million to buy land from the Duke of Buccleuch in order to convert a former grouse moor into a community regeneration project, as an example.
“Why should it be the case that the public at large, through crowdfunding, or government grants, are ending up handing millions of pounds to already wealthy landowners in return for land that they’ve managed to screw up environmentally?” Shrubsole asked delegates.
Elise Wach, a research advisor at the Institute for Development Studies, finished on the point that access to land was just the starting point. “Land distribution is necessary but totally not enough to have an agro-ecological food system and food sovereignty,” she said.
“As a farmer I’m incentivised to produce fancy salad leaves for restaurants, rather than swede and potatoes. We need to think about what society needs, rather than what the market rewards.”
“We have a finite amount of agricultural land for our collective humanity and I think we need to think about we organise things.”