UK faces 'significant' shortage of farmland by 2030

By Matt McGrath
Environment correspondent, BBC News

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image captionThe report warns that there may be tough choices ahead on how the UK uses land

Britain is running out of land for food and faces a potential shortfall of two million hectares by 2030 according to new research.

The report, from the University of Cambridge, says the growing population plus the use of land for energy crops are contributing to the gap.

It criticises the government's lack of a coherent vision on how to make the most of UK farm land.

The authors warn that tough choices may need to be made on future land use.

The total land area of the UK amounts to over 24 million hectares with more than 75% of that used for farming.

While self sufficient in products like barley, wheat, milk, lamb and mutton, the UK still imports large amounts of fruit and vegetables and other farm products including pork.

Overall the UK runs a food, feed and and drink trade deficit of £18.6bn.

Under pressure

With a population expected to exceed 70 million by 2030, the extra demand for living space and food will have a major impact on the way land is used, the report says.

On top of these pressures, the government is committed to using bioenergy crops such as miscanthus as renewable sources of energy, further limiting the stock of land for food.

"That is putting some very significant future pressures on how we use our land," said Andrew Montague-Fuller, the report's lead author.

"If you look at the land that is required under some of the bioenergy projections made by the Department for Energy and Climate Change, that could potentially take some significant chunks of land."

Another factor is the EU, in the shape of the Common Agricultural Policy which now requires farmers to put more land aside to protect nature.

"They are meeting one of the objectives but maybe hurting some of our other objectives like growing more food, and biomass type crops," said Mr Montague-Fuller.

The report estimates that all these factors will require an extra seven million hectares of land by 2030.

However there are a number of factors that will offset this, including reductions in the 19% of food and drink that are wasted in the UK.

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image captionUK land is under pressure from a growing population

Combined with increased yields and reductions in meat consumption that will boost land for farming, the authors say there is likely to be an overall two million hectare shortfall.

The report highlights the fact that there are a number of uncertainties about how land will be used, and they point the finger at government for lack of a coherent overall vision.

"What they are not doing is stepping back and looking at the overall direction and vision for future land use, and making sure that all of these different policies all add up so that we are clear about what our demands are and where the land will be released from to meet those needs."

According to a spokesman for the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, the government was taking steps to deal with land challenges.

"We are investing £70 million in agricultural technologies that will help us to increase the efficiency of food production and help our food, farming and science industries grow economically while meeting the increasing global demand for food."

The report has been produced by the Cambridge Institute for Sustainability Leadership in collaboration with the National Farmers' Union (NFU), and companies including Asda, Sainsbury's and Nestle.

According to Dr Andrea Graham from the NFU, the report highlighted some tough choices ahead.

"This report shows that agricultural land will need to be multi-functional, delivering a range of goods and services. We will need the full range of tools to meet future demand, employing the very best technology and innovation to drive efficiency, quality, yields and profitability."

Andrew Montague-Fuller says that there is a danger that the future farming landscape of Britain might not be compatible with the country's needs.

He said: "We may well find that there's a large amount of the land growing biofuels, has solar panels and wind farms on it, when actually we need more land put aside for the food needs of our growing population.

"We may get the balance wrong if we don't face up to this shortfall."

Follow Matt on Twitter @mattmcgrathbbc

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