Green Food Report: Land Tenure is a missing link

We are overlooking the importance of land tenure in trying to map the future balance between food production and the environment.

Defra (Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) has published the conclusions of its Green Food Project today (Green Food Project Conclusions, July 2012).   Further reports are also available from Defra, on its Green Food Project website.  There are also reports on wheat, bread, dairy, curry and three geographic studies at farm, catchment and landscape levels.

Land management will need to be based on a very broad view of the requirements of society and the environment, while also being much more focussed on the particular attributes of individual sites.  This will be a particular challenge for policy-makers in the design of incentives and other instruments with which to influence long term and day to day land management decisions.

The report stresses the importance of a number of issues which in my view need to be highlighted in relation to land tenure.  These include:

  • The importance of long-term decisions by farmers
  • Investment requirements and security
  • Payments for nature’s bounty: ecosystem services and their valuation
  • Land management and its fundamental importance
  • Effective structures for businesses, markets, supply chains
  • The difficulties facing new entrant/young farmers seeking investment and land

Yet nowhere in all this is the importance of land tenure recognised or discussed to any extent – the closest we seem to get is in paragraph 4.29 where there is mention of contract farming in the context of consolidation in farming.  To highlight how land tenure is important to these points, consider this:

  • If a farmer occupies land under short term arrangements, what incentive does he have to consider longer-term measures?
  • Secure tenure and underlying property values are often of the greatest importance in securing funding, and to the terms on which that funding is made available.
  • To whom should payments for ecosystem services be made: landowners, or occupiers under traditional grazing rights, tenancies, or licences?  And how should they be divided between these parties.  There is already a strong view that tenant farmers in the uplands miss out on a number of environmental schemes for example.
  • Land management has to start with fundamental considerations of tenure – this is the basic foundation on which land use and management decisions are made.
  • Effective structures therefore also need to deal with land administration, tenure and management structures
  • The new entrant/young farmer problem is a complex one involving economics, risk and tenure – but questions over availability of land inevitably revolve around related considerations of tenure, value and returns.

Some of these points were recently highlighted in a Farmers Weekly article on ‘Quarry Farming‘ by Ian Pigott, himself a farmer, arguing that high rents for short term agreements lead to exploitation rather than stewardship.  Ian’s perspective is certainly not the only way to look at this problem, but it does again emphasise the importance of land tenure in short and long term food security, environmental protection and business development.

Internationally the fundamental importance of land tenure governance has been well recognised – see for example the United Nations FAO (Food and Agriculture Organisation) Voluntary Guidelines on responsible governance of land tenure, endorsed by the FAO Committee on World Food Security on 11 May 2012

The UK is currently leading the way in the development of new approaches to ecosystem services, food security and environmental sustainability issues over carbon and water.  But we are now lagging in their relationship with land tenure.  We are in danger of overlooking the fundamental importance of land tenure and the basic workings of land markets to both security and sustainability.

14 thoughts on “Green Food Report: Land Tenure is a missing link

  1. The recent lettings I have dealt with the landowner has wanted short term grazing and cropping licences in order to receive the SFP and ELS, in addition to the rent. There are greater tax advantages with the landowner being the farmer, particularly of there is a farmhouse.

    Some of these lettings have been to farmers growing maize for digesters / green energy. The local dairy farmers have not been competitive on rents tendered.

  2. It would have been too much for the Green Food Project steering group to tackle this when there’s so much vested interest/infighting between farming factions. Let alone taking their eye off counteracting the RSPB’s view – as can be seen within the appendix of the subgroup paper around pages 101. See page 4 for NFU snarling at the whole idea of farmers being told what to do or having to reduce yields.

    The freeing up of the tenure market might see a need to tighten statutory clauses within land rental agreements to ensure that basic land management requirements are met; such as maintaining soils fertility (any decrease was a dilapidation claim under AHA agreement and assume they slip out of FBTs to keep the rents up….)
    Under land sharing and sparing – land management clauses would work in totally different ways depending on the ecosystem service (please, can we find another phrase?) required – block the drains for more wildlife or enhance the drains for more food (

    Too much to think about and not enough time to earn the crust;
    but we must try to input or others will fill it by default.

    1. Thanks for your comment Rob. I can see your point about the complexity of the task facing the group – and I think they did a good job in identifying issues and setting a direction. However part of the task was to identify all of the issues and I think we would agree that land tenure is of the utmost importance in any aspect of land management. Looking at the organisations which made up the group there’s a notable lack of representation of either independent land management viewpoints (RICS being the obvious organisation in this respect), or the tenant’s position. NFU clearly has tenant members and has been promoting its services to tenant farmers recently, but realistically has a very broad remit which means it cannot focus wholeheartedly on the position of tenant farmers. Tenant Farmers Association weren’t there but in any case would only have focussed on their particular aspect of land tenure. Equally, CLA were there but would tend to concentrate on the landowner/owner-occupier perspective. Land tenure aspects also demand in-depth expertise to see the relationship between the statutory frameworks, typical agreement terms, and practical day to day action on the ground for example. We will see the importance of this again as we develop payments and other incentives for ecosystem services (incidentally we do need a day to day name for these: ‘what nature does for us’?)

      So my point is that there is a missing piece of the jigsaw. Without it, the report can’t present the whole picture even if the bits aren’t fitting together yet.

      Your 60th letter to the Times sits behind their paywall – is there another way that readers can see it? Thank you again for your comment.

  3. Copy of my Times letter today Early doors on such matters but we must explore however unpalatable to some; hill farmers who only want to farm sheep and conservationists who want Fenland as bittern habitat.
    You will note I slipped in ecosystem services (quite diverse range of services from soil, to peaceful hillside, to tourism, to food production, to shooting…) Rural benefits?!!

    1. Thanks for the link Rob. There’s lots more to do on ecosystem services, including working through the tenure issues – eg payments for water management or carbon storage. Who gets the money? Landowner, tenant, grazier ….. Who bears the brunt? Landowner, tenant, grazier ….

  4. I agree with Charles’s basic point that land tenure is excluded from policy considerations of food and food production when perhaps it shouldn’t be. But I’m not convinced it would signficantly alter the broader picture.
    Short term agreements have their place and, on the other hand, the need for long-term investment in major farming commitments is unquestionable. The perceived problem with the old tenancy regime was its inflexibility and, to a large extent, its excessive tenant bias. Hence it was replaced by FBTs with the intention of providing greater flexibility.
    The reasons for the short average duration of FBTs are essentially commercial – the mindset of the parties. There is no theoretical limit on the potential duration of FBTs. Indeed, we saw, for tax reasons, a number of surrenders of AHA tenancies in favour of FBTs of 20, 25, 30 years and more when the “new” law came in in the middle 90s.
    I think, however, that the real issue is one of mentality. Many old landed estates around the country were able to satisfactorily deal with land management issues – albeit different from those we face today – using the old tenancy structure. When the succession law was introduced in the 70s, several commented that it wouldn’t affect them because they had been operating on that basis for generations.
    What is needed – and by no means all landowners fall foul of this – is a longer term perspective on the management of the land. Whilst tenure questions are part of that broader picture, there are many more that play a greater part.

    1. Thanks very much for such a thoughtful comment Geoff. The original post prompted one tweeter, Jon Birchall, (@jon_birchall)to ask if Farm Business Tenancies have failed, creating short term attitudes and high rents? I replied that it depends on your yardstick (or should that be metre rule?). For flexibility in the industry they seem to have been a great success whereas for opportunities for new entrants they have contributed little (and I think it was always unlikely they would). This is little more than the invisible hand of economics at work – landlords are more likely to accept high rents offered by successful farmers than lower rents offered by unproven farmers. Larger farm businesses thus prosper and smaller ones struggle without clever adaptation or development.

      Nor do short term agreements inevitably lead to ‘quarry farming’ as Ian Pigott has described it. For example I am aware of one 5 year FBT where the land was in poor fertility at the end of a long period of owner-occupation and part of the agreement was that the tenant would spend £10,000 a year on improvements to the property – details to be agreed annually with the landlord. The first year’s expenditure all went on fertiliser and lime, coupled with an obligation to leave the farm no worse at the end than at the start (not an onerous obligation in this case sadly!). And as Geoff says, there are several much longer-term FBTs up and down the country. So a series of short term agreements can still be shaped by a long-term view, even though this clearly isn’t always the case.

      But to return to my fundamental point about land tenure. Land is one of the three basic resources, factors of production, recognised by economists: land, labour, capital, with entrepreneurship as the driving force that puts them to profitable use. If we ask ourselves to define ‘land’ we would have to recognise not only the physical resource but also the legal framework in which it is used. A fundamental part of that framework is ownership and occupation – land tenure. So many aspects of policy touch and concern land – green food, energy, urban development, ecosystem services – yet so many of these policies seem to start with the premise that the land is there and broadly available for whatever the intended policy outcome is (growing food, growing energy, providing other natural services, for building on ….). The planning system of course tries to deal with land allocation, but a lot of important and extensive land uses are virtually outside the reach of formal planning at either national or local levels.

      Perhaps we need a different approach, which might start with a broad discussion about what we want from our land, what it’s there for and how we want to see it managed – this might help to set a framework in which individual policies can be developed with proper regard to land tenure and management. As an example from a different era, perhaps we might reconsider the rules of good husbandry and good estate management from the 1947 Agriculture Act?

  5. When the ownership model catches on, which it surely will do, what happens to the “inefficient” farmers pushed off their land by industrialisation?

    In industrialised nations, they must win a place in the globalised market place to afford a roof overhead – a roof which the communal model had provided for generations past and for future generations. (We are talking billions of people here)

    Under the welfare provisions in industrialised nations, welfare recipients are demonised & welfare is under threat from the competition (now global) which is intrinsic to the ownership model. I think the advocates of the ownership model have a duty to build an alternative to “welfare” into their model.

    My suggestion is for an urban public land provision to compliment the owner ambition for a better environment. see

    1. Thanks for this comment Chris. I followed the link and can see that while your geographical context is Australia, the points you make are equally applicable in many parts of the globe. It’s interesting to look back on the issue you have raised. In an English context I have in mind a very early system of farming where open fields were shared in strips between villages, often overseen by a community council, or moot. This was at the time of the Saxons but this all changed in 1066 when English land was entirely redistributed by William the Conqueror. By the time of the 17th and 18th centuries we had the heyday of the great rural estates, the best of which had good reputations for the treatment of their tenants – although this later came to be seen by many as an undesirable form of paternalism. And it is indeed the case that farmers in many parts of the globe, including here in the UK, are under increasing financial pressure. The current plight of our own dairy farmers is an example of this in the UK now. We have seen high rates of suicide amongst farmers in recent years which underlines the tragedy which can accompany these pressures.

      Given however, that we ‘are where we are’ with current patterns of land tenure the central point of my post is that in developing rural policy we need to make sure that tenure considerations are brought into account at a very early stage – and I think your comment is underlining that point in a way, with regard to some of the wider economic and social effects which can follow the relationship between market economies and systems of land tenure. It’s a fascinating and much wider point, so thank you for making it here.

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