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“One common message was the need to recognise the multiple functions of land”

NCUB’s Food Economy Task Force instructed Work Stream 3 to investigate the optimisation of sustainable land use, resources and pull through into innovation. I was a member of the working group, and led the research to identify opportunities for greater collaboration between universities and businesses to inform more sustainable land management decisions.

The first stage of work comprised interviewing members from the working group, including from businesses (Sainsbury’s, Waitrose, Syngenta and Thanet Earth), universities (Leeds, Cranfield) and other stakeholders such as NFU, WRAP, and the Organic Research Centre. I heard a lot of different perspectives on ‘optimal land use’, but one common message was the need to recognise the multiple functions of land. A single farm may produce food, provide habitats for wildlife, generate renewable energy and provide amenity to local communities. As a result, defining ‘sustainable’ land use can be complex and requires working on multiple functions that are often highly location-dependent.

Some of these functions can be effectively managed at the level of an individual farm. However many operate at larger scales and need to be managed by multiple actors through so-called ‘landscape’ level approaches. Examples of functions that benefit from landscape level action include land management for flood risk, for populations of pollinators, and for cultural heritage.

“Over the course of my research, I was most struck by the common barriers identified by researchers and businesses”

This line of thinking secured unanimous support from the working group, so the second stage of research focussed on landscape approaches, and specifically how universities and businesses can collaborate to this end. The team advised the requirement for trusted intermediaries who can link the needs of businesses with the knowledge and services from universities and other research organisations. We developed two landscape case studies – East Cambridgeshire and the Lincolnshire marshes – and created maps showing land use patterns and flood risk, as well as plotting the location of Sainsbury’s fresh produce suppliers.

These case studies – and the supporting list of landscape signals such as pollination, flood risk management, cultural heritage, and soil condition – led the working group to develop and agree a six-step process for landscape collaboration. That process identified the critical roles of both universities and businesses in prioritising areas, assembling spatial data, on the ground consultations and assessment of benefits for any landscape collaboration.

“Collaborative land management will surely emerge as the optimal approach for more sustainable land use in the longer term”

Over the course of my research, I was most struck by the common barriers identified by researchers and businesses. Challenges such as: how to find partners ‘from the other side’ to work with; the lack of common language to develop ideas; and a need for multi-disciplinary skill sets, were cited time and again. We’re under no illusion that seeking multi-farm, co-ordinated landscape approaches will be either a quick or easy win, but collaborative land management will surely emerge as the optimal approach for more sustainable land use in the longer term.

Simon Miller is Managing Partner at 3Keel.

Food Economy Task Force Reports: