Land Conversations 2021

Scottish Ecological Design Association’s Land Conversations, spring 2021. Six online discussions on the future of land use in Scotland. Including all forms of land – urban, wild, agriculture, forestry, industry. A call for people to decide the future of land in Scotland. With some recollections of earlier work with SEDA.

Back in 2012, the Scottish Ecological Design Association (SEDA) got in touch with an invitation to join them at their annual meeting and give a presentation on some of our work on the state and future of land, particularly that used for agriculture [1]. The meeting proved to be a refreshing example of searching discussion by people with interests and professions that were mostly outwith the scientific disciplines typically associated with food and agriculture.

Following the meeting, Sam Foster from SEDA wrote an appreciative summary of the talk (left, click to see a larger version), then he and David Seel, also from SEDA, asked if we would edit an Issue of the SEDA magazine.

The issue came out in 2013 [2] and included articles from several Hutton Institute people, and also friends and collaborators in soils, ecological processes, human fallibility and their links to land use and food security (more on the issue below).

Land Conversations 2021

So David Seel’s call, seven years later, in autumn 2020, with a request to advise SEDA on their proposed series of online Land Conversations, brought back some of those memories. Over the last few months, there has been continued interaction with SEDA, mainly through Gail Halvorsen and David Seel, who are leading the Land Conversations project, and then with ex-colleagues from the Hutton Institute who will be offering their expertise. The programme for the Conversations is now published on the SEDA web site [3, and flyer below right], which gives more on the scope and purpose. Here’s why it appealed to me.

First, the coverage of land use is comprehensive. It included production land comprising agriculture, forestry, and rough grazing; wild land and rewilding; water, both visible on the surface and underground; but also urban land, industrial and residential, transport infrastructure including roads and rail, and then energy – wind, solar, hydro (fossil and nuclear coming under industry). This broad consideration will be particularly appealing to those (me included) who have repeatedly queried why even activities as close as agriculture and forestry have been treated separately in census, subsidy and planning.

Second, most people in SEDA, and their circle of related interests, are not specialists in food systems or land use, except where that cuts across architectural design. Yet they have an abiding interest in the future of the planet, and how things can be done differently. They also bring, in my experience to date, a professionalism and businesslike drive that derives from hi-tech, commercial business.

There is little difference, when it comes to the principles, between designing architecture and designing a food system or field [4].

The science of food and agriculture has tended to produce many reports and papers that summarise the present status and what needs to be done, but not enough (my view!) of integrated planning and putting that planning into practice. Special meetings and working groups, all charged with redefining policy, commonly achieve less that what is needed, often due to vested interests pulling in different ways.

There will be little progress until enough people come together to act and demand. The Conversations and their aftermath should make a major contribution to such progress.

In the meantime, some mild effort is going into structuring diagrams and decision trees based around each of the six Conversations (examples of which will appear on this site over the next few weeks).

The 2013 SEDA ISSUE on SOIL and natural capitaL

The conclusions of the talk at the SEDA AGM in 2012 were based on much field work on farm land, augmented by modelling and analysis over many years. The long history of agriculture and food production here was acknowledged, as was the diverse range of farming systems and the high productivity of the region, as good as anything else in north-west Europe. But the talk exposed threats due to the way some land is treated and to the dominance of external influences.

The field-based threats reside mainly in excessive intensification, which continued after the main phase of agricultural yield gain, 1960-1990, but with very little further increase in yield. The result was accelerating disruption of the essential cycles of energy and matter (carbon, nitrogen, phosphorus, etc.), leading to soil degradation, loss of functional biodiversity, and then loss of pollutants to water and to air as greenhouse gas emissions from both arable and livestock farming.

External influences arise from the pressures to serve national and international markets, ill-thought subsidy regimes and the late 1900s divorce between society and farming. The many consequences of such pressure included a degree of decoupling of much farming from food production, payment for destructive practices, money in the food chain going more to manufacturing and retail than the producer, and the country’s continued reliance on imports to guarantee food security.

Action needed at all scales

The solution required action at a wide range of scales, but the essential scale for future provision of food in decades and centuries to come must be that of the field. Fields must be treated not as an expendable workspace, but acknowledged as a complex ‘organism’, whose health and survival needs constant attention. Degrade the field and land will not feed the people when they next have to rely on it.

The choices may seem stark – but to continue as at present is not an option. There are many examples in Britain and abroad of very well managed land and rural enterprises that turn a profit [5]. One example that repeatedly comes to mind is a small tea plantation in Sri Lanka, visited in the 1991 [6]. The image below shows full ground cover of young tea, planted on mini-contours, shaded by several species and ages of tree. The trees provide shelter from sun and rain and most of them are legumes, fixing nitrogen from the air and otherwise stabilising and enriching the soil.

Contrast that with the field in the inset, not far away, in the same climate and on a similar slope, but ill-managed with no contouring and no cover, ensuring severely eroded soil and virtually no yield. In this case, the terminal state of this farmed land was due to poor management that had its origin in past politics.

The experience with SEDA in 2012 and 2013, including some joint writing with Sam Foster and David Seel, gave me a greater appreciation of ecological design in architecture. The understanding of the sun, the seasons and solar energy is an example – vital to modelling agricultural crops, grass and trees but also to the positioning of buildings and their windows [7].

The influence of architectural design and planning rubbed off onto our own research on design of ecological production systems. It strengthened my view of a system-first or system-led rather than innovation-led approach to the future of food production [8].

Sources / references / links / notes

[1] Presentation at the SEDA Annual General Meeting 2012: Design: crops, biodiversity and fragile ecosystems by G R Squire. Thanks to Mary Kelly for the kind invitation.

[2] SEDA Issue Spring 2013: Soil and Natural Capital. Available to members only. The issues contained articles from several Hutton Institute people including Cathy Hawes and Ed Baxter and also an appreciation of LEAF Linking Environment and Farming by GS. Page 2 of this article, in progress, will give a summary of the talk.

[3] A New Vision for Land Use in Scotland : 6 conversations – more at the Land Conversations pages of the SEDA web site.

[4] Design of arable and grassland systems based on bio-physical principles is far from new, being evident for example in the structuring of rig systems before 1700 and of multi-species grass-legumes mixtures in the 1800s. But by the end of intensification in the 1990s, the functioning and health of many fields in mainstream agriculture had been left to mis-chance, unsafe in the notion that they had been there for a long time and would remain however they were treated. Biophysical design continued to guide various ‘agro-ecological’ farming methods and increasingly does so, but they remain a minority. A well designed field has its main stores (of energy, carbon and plant nutrients) in balance and regulates fluxes between them, such that (for example) offtake is replenished and losses are minimal. Management achieves this by ensuring synergy and coexistence between the microbes, wild plants and invertebrates that determine the integrity of a field and the economic products (crops, grass, livestock) that they periodically sustain.

[5] One of the articles in the SEDA Issue of 2013 was on the early history and principles of LEAF Linking Environment and Farming. The James Hutton Institute, and the Scottish Crop Research Institute before it, was a LEAF Innovation Centre. LEAF is a broad church, with few rigid prescriptions, encouraging farming to move gradually to forms of sustainable management. The UK hosts a range of progressive farming organisations, some of which, including LEAF, will partake in the Land Conversations.

[6] For much of the 1980s and until 1992, self-employment in land use (measurement, assessment, recommendation) paid the bills. A visit to Sri Lanka to appraise some of the research there gave a unique opportunity to see some of the best (and the worst) of land management. But to be fair, the worst of land management can be found in almost any country.

[7] One of the most authoritative and accessible descriptions of the annual solar cycle, including the effects of the earth’s tilt and elliptical orbit round the sun, is given by an architect: Szokolay S.V. 1996 (rev 2007). Solar geometry. Passive and Low Energy Architecture International (PLEA) and Department of Architecture, University of Queensland.

[7] The contrast between innovation-led and system-led approaches to design was debated through EU projects such as AMIGA on environmental risk assessment. The prevailing approach to risk assessment was (and a to a large degree still is) innovation-led. An innovation such as a biotech crop or new crop-protection chemical is examined for its safety, but usually in comparison to current practice within an existing system. Such a comparison came to be considered (in our view) flawed if the existing system was itself not safe, for example if its soils and functional diversity were degrading. Far better then to define an ideal ‘safe’ system first and then consider which innovations would be needed to help move the existing system to this safe state.

Page 2 (in progress)