Transforming university farmland to increase soil health & sequester carbon, offsetting overseas research and international student travel
Describe your relationship to the place you’ve selected.
Students Organising for Sustainability (SOS-UK) is an educational charity that seeks to get more students leading on and learning about sustainability. Building on fifty years of leading-edge campaigns and programmes, developed by the National Union of Students (NUS UK), SOS-UK aims to harness the desire of students and young people to respond to the climate emergency and lead society to a better future.
SOS-UK currently coordinates a group of universities, businesses and other NGOs focusing on creating a sector-owned carbon offset scheme that funds tenant farmers on university-owned land to farm in an agroecological way that maximises carbon sequestration and biodiversity. Within this group the following members are based within our chosen Place; University of Oxford, University of Lincoln, the University of Sheffield and Lancaster University. These organisations have a deep understanding of the how the food system operates in the region and who the key stakeholders are.
Each of these highly regarded universities have previously worked with SOS-UK on projects that empower students to make change and are keen to pilot this offsetting vision. For example Lancaster University have already planted over 3500 trees on their land and won national awards for their Edible Campus, a student-led project created to give everybody at the university and further afield the opportunity to learn about cultivating and sourcing sustainable food (https://lancastersu.co.uk/articles/national-award-for-edible-campus-project).
Describe the People and Place: Provide information that would be helpful for an outsider who has never been there and may have no context about this Place to better understand the area.
Student led enterprise SCRAN, at the University of Central Lancashire, provides nutrition workshops and pop up catering using sustainable food.
Lancaster University's EcoHub, a student growing space
Our four co-joined regions contain 50 universities, which is about a third of all UK universities. The universities are diverse in their type and topography. We will use them as a testbed for our approach, seeing if the concept of farming for carbon sequestration, funded by offset money, is potentially replicable across the 14,000 universities around the world.
Our current working group contains representatives from all four of our chosen regions. Although the climate is similar across our regions, their regional farming outputs differ substantially. The South East is know as the Garden of England with a high emphasis on horticulture whereas the North West is dominated by livestock grazing.
There is however a strong shared identity across our four regions, with farming dominating the landscape in rural areas. Our approach will provide us with case studies for how various farming systems can be put to use for carbon sequestration, as well as demonstrating how universities can collaborate locally for the greater good.
Challenges: Describe the current (2020) and the future (2050) challenges that your food system faces.
Following serious food shortages created by World War 2 the rural land covering the majority of our designated Place was farmed with the sole purpose of increasing yield i.e. the amount of food that could be produced per hectare. The European’s Common Agricultural Policy was introduced in 1962 and reinforced this approach by awarding the highest subsidies to big farms that produced the highest yields. Over 70% of land in our Place, and across the UK, is farmed and in 2020 we face the following challenges as a result of this intensification over the past 50 years:
- Environment: The UK is one of the most nature depleted countries in the world. More than 1 in 7 native species face extinction (including 30% of UK birds) and more than half are in decline. Soil is being destroyed 10 times faster than it's being created and the UK has lost 84% of its fertile topsoil affecting the health of our rivers, aquatic life and costing £1.2 billion a year. Agriculture is also responsible for 88% of the UK’s ammonia gas emissions causing harmful air pollution.
- Diets: Intensive agriculture has depleted micronutrients in our soils and food, high antibiotic use in intensive livestock farming has caused anti-microbial resistance and as people choose more convenient processed foods made from mass produced cheap ingredients high in sugar, salt and fat diet-related illness and deaths in the UK are increasing.
- Economics: The impact of unhealthy diets and obesity is estimated at £27bn.The average age of UK farmers is 58 years and few young people want to enter the profession as it’s low paid, physically hard and it’s been estimated that more than 1 farmer a week in the UK dies by suicide.
- Culture: A third of Britons now have meat-free or meat-reduced diets because of an increased awareness of the climate and nature crisis but the reliance on convenience food means people have lost their connection with food & farming as well as cooking skills.
We urgently need to move to low carbon food production which boosts biodiversity but looking towards 2050 we face further additional challenges:
- Policy: Leaving the European Union means UK farmers won’t receive European subsidies, will be part of new international trade deals and subject to a new Agricultural Bill and National Food Strategy.
- Technology: With the fear of irreversible climate breakdown and the collapse of ecosystems, technological solutions are rife, but many will create unintended consequences due to a lack of systems thinking e.g. addressing soil carbon sequestration but not soil health.
- Universities: Universities are passing progressive net-zero carbon reduction targets however, between now and 2050 they will continue to attract 100,000’s of overseas students and procure millions of miles of international travel for academic research. Universities also own more than 52,000 hectares of land, much of which is rented to tenant farmers who are contributing to the challenges in our food system as detailed above.
Address the Challenges: Describe how your Vision will address the challenges described in the previous question.
In the UK many universities and colleges have large agricultural landholdings, totalling more than 52,000 hectares; and the University of Oxford in our Place owns more land than any other university. Some of this land is managed for research but most is rented out to tenant farmers. When it comes to our food and farming system this presents an enormous opportunity for universities to be part of the solution rather than the problem.
In our vision the four universities in our chosen Place (the universities of Oxford, Sheffield, Lincoln and Lancaster) will be the catalysts and inspiration for widespread change. Where all other possibilities of carbon reduction have been used, universities will use their land to offset remaining emissions thus helping them reach net zero carbon targets.
The way we work collaboratively to do this will be very important as soil health, social equality, human health and animal welfare will be as important as carbon sequestration in order to fulfil our vision.
We envision a sector-owned carbon offset scheme based on managing university farmland, or farmland adjacent to or linked to universities, for maximum regeneration through a farming regime of leys for low or no tilling, using cover crops and nitrogen fixing crops in rotation, reducing animal stocking densities and only 100% pasture fed livestock. Farms may be arable, pastoral or mixed farming managed under organic, agroecological or low input systems and include agroforestry, increased tree cover, hedgerows and other perennials where appropriate.
Through the pilot scheme and associated PhD research we will be able to quantify the increase in soil organic matter and certify carbon sequestration levels. We will develop a fiscal model where institutions, or their tenant farmers, are paid for the sequestration of carbon through prescribed farming techniques that also improve soil health.
The tenant farmers will distribute their produce for consumption locally – both within the university and also in other institutions where good food and diets are critical such as local schools and hospitals.
The UK is currently in the process of passing a new Agricultural Bill (mentioning agroecological farming), an Environment Bill and Fisheries Bill as well as conducting an independent consultation to inform a new National Food Strategy which we have fed in to. With apparent government support for regenerative farming our vision of universities providing practical experience and tenancies for students could open the gateway for young people to enter and revitalise the farming profession.
The scheme will be an internally-managed system within the tertiary education sector, externally verified by a leading offsetting organisation. Our vision includes developing a collective action target for carbon sequestration through regenerative agriculture for the sector as well as other sectors where possible.
High Level Vision: With these challenges addressed, now provide a high level description of how the Place and the lives of its People will be different than they are now.
The universities in our Place (four adjoining regions in England, UK) will eliminate all carbon emissions related to their operations and buildings before calculating how much unavoidable carbon they emit through conducting international research and teaching international students. They will use their land to offset these carbon emissions and reach their zero carbon targets.
The tenant farmers who rent the university land will be excited to transition to regenerative farming practices as it will improve their pay and working conditions at the same time as maximising carbon sequestration. Through our contribution to academic research there will be a clear and accurate framework for universities to understand the carbon sequestration potential of their farmland. The offsetting scheme will be an internally-managed system within tertiary education and externally verified by a leading offsetting organisation.
The food produced on university land will be used by university and students’ union catering and retail operations, rather than being subjected to current lengthy supply chains, over packaging and processing and sale through supermarkets. Depending on the scale of production this might extend out to nearby schools, hospitals and prisons providing nutritious and local food not only for university students and staff but also others in their local community.
By working more collaboratively with their tenant farmers universities will be able to provide opportunities for students to be tenant farmers on their land, offering incubation plots to allow youth entry into farming where the cost of and access to land is often prohibitive.
Building upon the youth climate movement students will campaign nationally, or even internationally, for their institutions to join this unique world-leading carbon offsetting scheme.
Full Vision: How do you describe your Vision for a regenerative and nourishing food future for your Place and People for 2050?
Our Place - the South East, the East Midlands, the West Midlands & the North West of England - totalling around 48,000 km^2
The 4 English regions that make up our Place are in the center of this image, as you can see they are mostly comprised of rural areas.
The University of Oxford, University of Lincoln, the University of Sheffield and Lancaster University are highlighted, they each occupy 1 of our 4 chosen English regions within our Place.
Students at Lancaster University get involved with planting 3500 trees.
The University of Central Lancashire's farmers market, connecting up students, staff & local residents with farmers from the North West.
Imagine an area of rural England that stretches from the north to the south with its green rolling hillsides interspersed by small wooded areas, and quaint little villages, with fields of wheat swaying in the breeze, and fluffy sheep or herds of cattle roaming fields neatly divided by sculpted green hedgerows. Sounds idyllic but that’s what we’ve got now, alongside less visible factory farmed chickens and pigs.
This ‘beautiful’ landscape is really a window onto a farming system that has decimated our wildlife, polluted our rivers and our air, produced food lacking in vital micronutrients and that hasn’t valued our farmers or farm workers to the extent that farming is now seen as one of the least attractive professions in the UK.
Much of UK farming, as described above, is done by tenant farmers who rent university owned land…so imagine if universities could lead the way in transforming the UK’s food and farming landscape.
Students are demanding climate action and universities are responding by agreeing to ambitious net-zero carbon emission targets. But universities won’t be able to reduce their emissions to zero because they will always welcome international students and will always need to undertake research overseas.
So, what if universities worked with their tenant farmers to produce food in a way that regenerates the soil and wildlife, produces more nutritious varied food, ensures farmers make more money than through conventional yield-based methods, provides hyper local distribution opportunities AND ALSO sequesters carbon that the universities can measure and use to reach their net-zero carbon targets?
We know four universities, in four adjoining regions of England, who want to give it a go, and as soon as possible. This is where our vision gets really exciting. Seeing the undeniably positive impact these universities have on producing food that benefits farmers, soil, people’s heath, the local economy and also the environment can’t help but inspire other institutions, landowners, governments and countries to follow in their footsteps.
This vision is genuinely a catalyst for systemic change. Building on the youth climate movement we envision students campaigning for their universities to use their farmland more responsibly through regenerative farming. Student campaigning is a huge force for change and of raising general awareness of issues as shown in the Divest-Invest movement led by SOS-UK and People and Planet which recently announced over half of all UK universities have committed to divest from fossil fuels and participate in the just transition to a low-carbon world. The fact that universities can use this scheme to offset their unavoidable carbon emissions, as well as positively respond to the demands of their students, will make it an extremely attractive opportunity to them.
Initially the idea that universities could use their land to offset unavoidable carbon emissions focussed on tree planting. After taking time to understand the role of the farmers, how they farm the land and how they generally feel about mass conversion of farmland to woodland (rewilding) we realised that it would make no sense to take vast areas of land out of food production.
This would have the unintended consequence of requiring even more intensive food production in other areas of the UK or, more likely, larger imports of low-quality cheap food that would put remaining British farmers out of business and export our emissions, animal welfare and social injustices to other countries. Importing food provides great opportunities to support lower income countries and provide a more varied UK diet but we need to be supporting regenerative food systems in other countries at the same time as striving for this ourselves.
Having soil scientists on our team as well as a representative from a leading carbon offsetting organisation, highlighted to the universities that moving towards regenerative farming practices, rather than just blanket tree covering, could provide the required carbon sequestration potential needed.
Further discussions with food sector specialists working in the area made it clear that we need a future with shorter supply chains and alternative (more local and direct) routes to market for farmers. At present much of the food grown on university landholdings is processed nationally and not eaten locally. We would love to see university land producing sustainable and nutritious foods that will be consumed on-campus by students and staff and ideally in local schools, hospitals and prisons too.
We work with students in universities and colleges across our designated ‘place’ supporting them to adopt no dig organic horticulture principles on small campus growing sites and allotments to provide student-grown nutritious food whilst creating healthy soil. But there are numerous and varied barriers for students to take the next step towards entering the farming sector such as unaffordable land and unaffordable rural accommodation; it’s perceived to be an undervalued profession (there’s no requirement to have academic qualifications); there’s no clear route to entry; often neither pay nor working conditions are good, it’s frequently physically very hard with long hours; and put simply it has an image problem. The average British farmer is likely to be described as an aged character with a flat cap and a tweed jacket, possibly sucking a piece of straw - not great marketing to encourage young people to enter the profession.
Part of our university land regeneration and carbon offsetting vision would be for universities, particularly those already offering courses related to food, farming, horticulture etc, to provide opportunities for students to be tenant farmers on their land, offering incubation plots to allow youth entry into farming, work shadowing with tenant farmers, business advice and ideally to be given priority when current farm tenants move on.
In our Place, our vision starts with four universities that transform their agricultural land using regenerative farming practices that increases soil health and biodiversity, produces more nutritious food, improves livelihoods for farmers, gives local people access to healthy affordable food and also sequesters carbon which universities will use to offset the impact of their international students and overseas research; this will be there motivation.
The results will be so transformative that students across the UK and overseas will enthusiastically campaign for their universities to adopt the same scheme as part of their university’s climate commitments and zero carbon targets.
Our ultimate vision is for other significant farmland owners, such as the National Trust, the Crown Estate and DEFRA (the government’s Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs) in the UK, to be so inspired by the sustainable, just and regenerative circular food economies created by these universities that they will want to do the same.