Close menu

Why the issue of land must be central to UK food systems transformation.

Aerial view of vast wheat fields

By Dr Christopher Yap, Research Fellow. City, University of London

Issues of food and land are inseparable. And yet the relationships between land, space, planning, and food systems are too-often marginal within food systems debates. In this piece we consider the role of land in leveraging change towards fairer and more sustainable food systems and reflect on the role of land in the forthcoming National Food Strategy.

Over the past decade, food systems approaches – which emphasise the interconnected nature of food system actors, processes, resources, and outcomes – have gradually been adopted by mainstream institutions, exemplified by the UK government’s commitment to produce a National Food Strategy White Paper that addresses the social and environmental dimensions of food systems. Recognising that food systems are complex and multi-scalar, and that interventions made in one part of the food system impact across the whole system, it is curious that important issues such as land remain at the margins of the conversation.

Food and land are inextricably linked, not least because food is produced on land. Around 70 percent of the UK is used to produce food. But the connections between land and food systems are multi-layered; unpacking this relationship can point towards under-addressed opportunities to transform food systems.

First, it is important to recognise that the land that feeds the UK’s population is distributed around the world; around 45 percent of food is imported, with many products passing through multiple countries before they arrive. In this sense, the UK’s food footprint is embedded within and across multiple jurisdictions and territories. The food system, then, is intricately connected to a diversity of food production practices, policy frameworks, and land management strategies, beyond the territory of the UK government. This represents a challenge of governance; recognising that national policy can only go so far to influence the relationship between land and food systems. But it also draws attention to the potentials of a normative approach to food purchasing in the UK; the idea that principles of equity and sustainability in food procurement, for example, can be invaluable for influencing land management strategies both in the UK and globally.

Second, Henry Dimbleby’s Independent Review for the National Food strategy (2021) indicates that 85 percent of the land that is used to produce the UK’s food – both in the UK and around the world – is used for animal rearing, including for pasture and growing animal feed. Meat production contributes directly to agricultural carbon emissions, but also indirectly through the opportunity cost of using land for grazing rather than woodlands or other forms of rewilding. As Dimbleby (2021, p.92). argues, “the biggest potential carbon benefit of eating less meat is the opportunity to repurpose land to sequester carbon.” This suggests that dietary choices have a pivotal role to play in determining the contribution of land towards mitigating climate change.

Third, the relationship between land and food systems extends far beyond agriculture and land management. Food production, processing, and distribution require labour and infrastructure. For this reason, the UK’s food system is intricately connected to every aspect of planning, infrastructure, and housing policy. However, decisions regarding housing and infrastructure development are made frequently without consideration of their impacts on wider food systems beyond environmental impact. This suggests that planning and infrastructure development can be key mechanisms for reshaping the UK food system, and also that food systems can be a productive organising principle for planning decisions. How, for example, might building a new supermarket in a small town influence the local and regional food system?

Food systems transformation demands an integrated land use strategy that engages with urban and rural contexts, and the connections between them. In the UK, this engagement with the urban is especially important (Dimbleby’s 290-page report includes the word ‘urban’ just seven times). 83 percent of the UK population lives in urban areas; decisions made by and for urban populations disproportionately affect food systems. Moreover, specifically urban policy frameworks regarding green and blue infrastructures, urban agriculture, and ecosystem services, for example, could all contribute to the aims of the National Food Strategy in ways that are not sufficiently recognised. It is often said that urban contexts represent spatial concentrations of the most intractable challenges, but also the political and financial capital necessary to address them.

Fourth, household food insecurity, the prevalence of food banks, and unhealthy eating practices all reflect socio-economic inequalities in the UK, which have been “brutally exposed and exacerbated” (Amnesty International, 2021) by the COVID-19 pandemic. In 2020, 18 percent of the UK population lived in relative poverty (meaning on less than 60 percent of the median national income). At the same time, land is the most valuable asset in the UK, accounting for more than half of the UK’s total net worth, approximately £5 trillion in 2016; between 1995 and 2017, the value of land in the UK increased by 412 percent. And yet, half of England is owned by less than 1 percent of the population.

The French economist, Thomas Piketty (2014), evidenced how, in the absence of policies that explicitly advantage labour, rates of return on capital wealth, such as land and property, always exceed rates of income growth, leading to “an endless inegalitarian spiral” whereby wealth is concentrated in the hands of those who already have it. This trend has been exacerbated by the increased financialisation of land and the rise of what has been termed “land banking”, contributing not only to a national housing crisis, but also preventing many small scale agroecological food producers from accessing land. This suggests a close relationship between the political economy of land in the UK, economic inequality, and food poverty, as well as the potentials of inheritance and capital gains tax reform to redress this relationship.

Finally, political ecologists have urged us to recognise the material “flows” of water, carbon, nitrogen, and pathogens, amongst many others, that are shaped and mobilised by social and market forces. Food systems play a key role in these circulations, whereby materials and nutrients physically move through space across rural and urban areas, within and between nested territorial levels. This suggests that food economies are directly related both to the material production of land, most obviously productive soils, and the social production of space, whereby “the countryside”, “cities” and everything in-between are continuously reshaped and remade by socio-ecological circulations. In a very literal sense, food systems are constitutive of land.

Building on Henry Dimbleby’s Independent Review, the UK’s forthcoming White Paper setting out the National Food Strategy is likely to adopt a far more limited approach to the issue of land that aims to balance and maximise the contribution of agricultural land to food production, biodiversity, and carbon sequestration; mobilising what has been termed, “the three-compartment model”, whereby a combination of sustainable intensification, agroecological production, and rewilding has been modelled to lead to the greatest net benefit. Such an approach represents an important step forward in UK land and food policy. But it overlooks the more complex relationships between the political economy of land in the UK and food systems, as well as the potentials of planning, amongst other mechanisms, to actively redress socio-economic inequalities in the UK.

There can be little doubt that food system transformation is necessary to achieve improved health outcomes, environmental sustainability, and a fairer and more inclusive economy. The UK’s National Food Strategy represents a once in a generation opportunity to institutionalise a food systems approach at the national and local levels that brings together these too-often disparate policy mandates. Land has a key role to play in this transformation as a vital resource, a point of leverage, a site of impact, and a site of struggle. For these reasons, land, space, and planning must be central to the National Food Strategy and wider food systems transformation.

Amnesty International. (2021). Amnesty International Report 2020/21: the state of the world’s human rights. London: Amnesty International Ltd. Retrieved from
Dimbleby, H. (2021). National Food Strategy. The Plan. National Food Strategy. Retrieved from
Piketty, T. (2014). Capital in the Twenty-First Century. Harvard University Press.