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How the Green Belt can be at the heart of sustainable farming

11th June 2024

Farming makes up two-thirds of all Green Belt land, making the Green Belt crucial for our food security.

However, while the English landscape has been farmed for thousands of years, we now find ourselves at a critical point of the climate crisis. The pressures of development and climate change represent an ongoing threat to farming and food security, and so we need not only a step-change in how we farm, but in how we value the Green Belt (the 14 areas of land that surround our major towns and cities).

What is currently being done?

An awareness of what needs improving does exist, evidenced for example in agri-environmental schemes which offer farmers funding to farm more sustainably to support biodiversity and combat climate change. These schemes have many aims, ranging from storing carbon and restoring habitats, to slowing water flow and providing improved access to green spaces, alongside supporting food production.

However, while the schemes are prevalent in many rural areas, there is a low uptake in farms in the Green Belt. Our report shows that just over a quarter of all usable farmland in the Green Belt is covered by agri-environmental schemes, suggesting that farming in these areas is likely to be less sustainable.

The impact of changing land use

Our research shows that currently, thousands of hectares of productive farmland are being lost to development, with much of this on Green Belt land. Instead of being used for farming, good quality fields are being taken over by corporate housebuilders and developers who do not see the wider social and environmental value of the Green Belt, or its contribution to place and character.

It comes as no surprise, then, that with these developments comes little or no consideration for the knock-on effects of changing land use. Despite the government’s acknowledgement of the pressure on food security, Green Belt land continues to see large-scale developments which disrupt food supply chains and food production. This is not to mention the impacts on wildlife habitats, tranquility and brutal changes to landscape character.

What is the sustainable solution?

The 2023 consensus on food, farming and nature, supported by CPRE, calls for ‘a system that restores habitats, provides fresh air and clean water, and nurtures the landscapes that make our countryside so special’. While sustainable farming in the Green Belt is more resilient, and can secure longer-term food production, it is essential to note the other services it can provide. Known as ‘ecosystem services’, the Green Belt provides cleaner air, carbon storage, and is the countryside next door for millions. This is an approach that values and enhances the health of both the land, and local communities.

To see in our vision for farming, we need to achieve two things. Firstly, the government needs to recognise the value of the Green Belt. In addition to farming, the Green Belt can also be a powerful nature-based solution to climate change, and provides space for nature to thrive. These are vital ecosystem services, and we need to challenge inappropriate development and land use change to ensure they continue to be provided. Secondly, we need to move towards more sustainable practices and away from a dominant landscape of intensive, monocultural (single-crop) farming. We want to see a rich and evolving landscape with manifold benefits to communities and our planet.

Much like we seek ecological diversity – a range of habitats to support wildlife – we seek diversity in our farming, from what we grow and how we grow it to different farm sizes and field configurations. Farming systems which support a healthier environment can be critical for food security, as climate change represents one of its biggest threats.

Going local

Beyond this, CPRE supports the need to (re)build local and specialty food supplies,  which is just one way we might restore diversity and perhaps dignity to farming. When land around urban areas is farmed sustainably to provide food for town and city dwellers, food is not only much fresher, but its carbon footprint can be reduced. Farmers also have a better chance to receive a fair return for their produce, whilst food prices are still kept affordable for the consumer. Additionally, there are further benefits for nearby communities, who have the opportunity to support their local landscape and engage more fully with where their food comes from. This is particularly important when we factor in the education of future generations.

Looking ahead: government action needed

When considering what lies ahead for farming, it is clearly crucial that we look at the bigger picture, taking into account not just farming itself, but supply chains, government support and more localised food production. We must strive to enhance the health of farming through a combination of sustainable approaches: an increase in agri-environmental schemes; a renewed focus on local food production, particularly in peri-urban areas; and a greater awareness of how the farming industry, and its importance in the Green Belt, impacts local communities.

You can find out more by reading CPRE’s farming policy here, and you can read our vision for the future in our State of the Green Belt report here.

A ‘make-or-break’ general election

A monumental general election awaits. From land use, to development, climate change and food security, the pressures on our countryside are at an all-time high. We’re working to make sure that rural communities are heard, and that the next government recognises the true value of our countryside. You can find out more by reading our general election manifesto here, or joining our mailing list.

Growing fennel at Riverford Organic Farms, Dartington, Devonshire
christopher jones / Alamy Stock Photo