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Reclaiming ‘productivity’ – using land to produce the things people need

Tom Kenny

We believe that land management should be productive. However viewing this simply as maximising the production of commodities is short-sighted. Truly productive land use delivers the things people need, whilst replenishing the land.

Too often, people see land as either something to be exploited for profit, or conserved for nature. It is important that human needs are not the only consideration in land use. However, in general we think that common good land use should be productive, in the sense that land is used to produce things people need.

The problem with most discussions about the productivity of land

Concepts like ‘productivity’ and ‘efficiency’ are often used to justify land management practices that do little for the common good. The story goes that to compete with other countries or industries, land managers need to produce more for less. This means driving down wages and environmental controls. It means focusing on maximising yields regardless of the damage this does to the environment. It means the consolidation of smaller farms into ever larger monoculture farms.

In this narrative, small scale agro-ecological farms or community woodlands are unproductive and inefficient. Their labour costs are high; they produce less commodities per pound invested. However, more labour means more local jobs. Expensive growing methods add real value to the soil, and avoid inflicting other environmental costs. They may be productive in a whole host of other ways, for example by delivering crucial value in health and wellbeing, recreation or education.

The Natural Capital Committee identified many billions of pounds of value that could be generated through investment into the environment. The Office of National Statistics put the value of the UK’s natural capital at over £1.5 trillion. The RSBP’s recent State of Nature report placed intensive agriculture as the biggest contributor to the decline of British wildlife. Yet the value of nature (or its decline) is rarely considered in discussions about the productivity of land-based businesses.

Reclaiming productivity – ‘producing the things people need’

People need food, fuel, and building materials. But they also need land to deliver a whole host of additional value, which mainstream land management often fails to deliver.

  • People need healthy food
  • People need commodities to be produced in a way that doesn’t reduce the opportunities of future generations
  • People need access to land for recreation and exercise
  • People need to be educated about and connected to the natural world

A similar idea was nicely phrased in a recent report, ‘A Vision for Nature: Young people’s vision for the natural world in 2050’:


We’d like to see children and adults alike connected to the outdoors as a space to continue traditions, maintain physical and mental health, and enjoy each other’s company on a daily basis. - A Vision for Nature: Young people’s vision for the natural world in 2050

When we describe productivity as a key part of common good land use we include all of these values alongside conventional land-based commodities. We need a land-based sector that produces enough food, but we also need a sector that maximises the amount land can contribute to society.

Of course successful land managers need good financial management and to pay close attention to costs and margins. But we shouldn’t elevate profit above everything else. Some land use struggles to be profitable despite producing huge amounts of social, economic and environmental value. This doesn’t mean the land use is unproductive or inefficient. Instead it is a sign that we need to find new ways to value and fund land use.

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