England’s future food security has been called into question after losing farmland capable of feeding the combined populations of Liverpool, Sheffield and Manchester their five a day.
New research by CPRE, the countryside charity, found almost 14,500 hectares of the country’s best agricultural land, which could grow at least 250,000 tonnes of vegetables a year based on typical yields, has been permanently lost to development since 2010.
There was an exponential rise in Best and Most Versatile (BMV) agricultural land set aside for housing and industry between 2010 and 2022, from 60 hectares to more than 6,000 hectares per year.
Almost 300,000 homes were built on more than 8,000 hectares of prime farmland.
This is despite there being space for 1.3 million homes to be built on more than 26,000 hectares of previously developed brownfield land, much of it disused and derelict urban patches of the midlands and north most in need of regeneration.
The increased risk of severe flooding caused by climate change will further challenge food security in future.
More than 200,000 hectares – or 60% – of England’s finest Grade 1 agricultural land is within areas at the highest risk of flooding, known as Flood Zone 3.
Our most productive farmland is disproportionately close to river and coastal flood plains, with 75% of BMV in the East Midlands and 95% of BMV in the east of England at the highest risk of flooding.
CPRE is calling on the government to introduce a comprehensive, cross-departmental land use strategy.
It must provide a planning framework to balance the competing and often conflicting demands for farming, housing and energy on a finite amount of land, while also meeting legally binding Net Zero targets.
The National Planning Policy Framework, which is due to be updated next year, should prioritise a ‘brownfield first’ approach to housebuilding, with a preference for medium- and higher-density units to help protect our most valuable agricultural land wherever possible. There should be a firm presumption against development on BMV land.
‘For the first time in several generations, our food security is at risk – yet we’ve seen a 100-fold increase in the loss of our best farmland to development since 2010. Heating, eating and housing are fundamental needs. A healthy environment, mitigating and adapting against the devastation threatened by the climate emergency, is the bedrock that underpins them all. We need to know what to put where. That’s why we need a land use strategy.
‘Maintaining agricultural land for domestic food production is critical. This must be achieved in the context of addressing and adapting to climate change, reversing the loss of nature and increasing demands on land for other purposes, not least housing and production of renewable energy.
‘As we face a cost-of-living crisis, housing crisis and the adjustment of our farming sector to post-Brexit subsidies, we have multiple, critical priorities for our land. We need to move away from intensive farming practices and towards a more ‘multifunctional’ approach, reconciling food production with better management for natural and cultural heritage, and for public access. Policies which are put in place now will be crucial in the coming years to ensure the most efficient use of our land in the face of these challenges.’
Chief executive of CPRE, the countryside charity
CPRE’s report on the loss of agricultural land is believed to be the first ever to quantify the scale of development nationally on the two highest and most productive grades of farmland.
The east of England has seen high levels of development on BMV land, with over 3,200 hectares lost over the past 12 years.
This is followed closely by the South East region, with almost 3,000 hectares of BMV land disappearing overall, and the greatest loss to development of Grade 1 land, which is rated excellent quality.
A further 1,400 hectares of BMV land was taken out of agricultural production for renewable energy projects in the same period.
CPRE estimates that this formerly productive farmland produces less than 3% of the UK’s total installed solar capacity, or 0.3GW out of 14GW, suggesting it’s entirely possible for the government to balance food and energy security, particularly if rooftop solar and offshore wind are prioritised.
Climate change is likely to have severe consequences for our finest farmland and presents an increased threat to food security. Protecting our Best and Most Valuable agricultural land from permanent development now is vital if we are to maintain a secure food supply in future.
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