Changes in living under the Alt+Land model

The Alt+Land (Alternative Land) development model is a response to static models of land ownership that are prevalent today. Current models consist of fixed relationships to physical property- and while this facilitates the valuation of property over time, it has also led to overinflated and unaffordable property markets in urban areas. It has also led to exploitative farming methods that contribute to the climate crisis, where long term soil fertility is not valued.

As part of their contribution to the UK government’s 2050 net zero goal, the National Farmers Union (NFU) aims to reach net zero greenhouse gas emissions across the agriculture industry in England and Wales by 2040. The NFU’s president, Minette Batters, specifically talks about the importance of soil health and a holistic approach as answers to more sustainable farming.¹ Currently, farmland covers about 64% of the UK. Shockingly, 25% of that land is used to grow food for livestock in the meat and dairy industries.² As Brexit puts a greater strain on the future of local food production, there is a trend towards more factory-style ‘mega-farms’ across the UK countryside.³ Between 2010 and 2016 alone, there was a 26% increase in intensive factory farming.⁴ This type of large scale farming thrives off static land ownership, which encourages the optimized production of a single crop of livestock.

Intensive farming in the UK (source: https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2017/jul/17/uk-has-nearly-800-livestock-mega-farms-investigation-reveals)

In order to increase efficiency via shorter fallow periods, commercial farming methods overuse nitrates to maximize output. This drastically reduces long term soil fertility and its ability to sequester carbon. A vibrant bacterial ecosystem needed for effective carbon sequestration is impossible with the constant use of chemical fertilizers. The use of nitrates has also led to water pollution in the UK, where 58% of land in England alone is designated as a Nitrate Vulnerable Zone.⁵ Although government guidance exists to reduce and cap nitrate usage, farmers have little incentive to reform their methods. Small scale farmers, which used to be more common in the UK, find it increasingly difficult to compete with the low cost, high production models of industrial farming. Shorter fallow periods and reliance on fertilizers, have become the norm to remain competitive.

Nitrate vulnerable zones (source: https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2017/jul/17/uk-has-nearly-800-livestock-mega-farms-investigation-reveals)

In order to address these increasingly urgent issues, Alt+Land proposes a dynamic model of land ownership- one that promotes a symbiotic relationship between farmers and other members of the community. Centered on natural, rotational agricultural cycles, the model values long term soil fertility, ensuring biodiversity and crop resilience to disease.

Following a triennial cycle that allows for soil regeneration, a working farm rotates between production and fallow. A quarter of the field is left for fallow, while the remaining three quarters are productive. Fallow, recovering fields are occupied by non-invasive housing, which relocates to adjacent fields every three years. As the land rotates, the soil is able to rebalance its nitrate and carbon levels, as well as its bacterial ecosystem.

Ideally, an initial policy change in land use would enable farmland to be partly residential. Government subsidies to support farmers in their transition to a new land management model would be needed, where the soil will be monitored closely and consistently. Here, the land is split into shares overseen by a shareholding company consisting of both farmers and non-farming tenants. Dictated by the percentage of share ownership, tenants have exclusive use of a plot that is relocated every 3 years according to the soil cycle. Simultaneously, farmers maintain agricultural production and are guaranteed rotation to naturally fertile soil. Representing both parties, elected board members of the shareholding company will oversee the management of the system.

Rotational cycle for a sample parcel of land

Changes in Living

The system that Alt+Land proposes inevitably leads to new ways of living for tenants. With the potential to foster self-sustained communities that produce their own food, I am interested in the physical and psychological effects of living close to the source. Due to trends of rural to urban migration in the last century, many of us are distanced from the processes that make the products we consume. It is easy to fall into the illusion of endless supply and choices of supply for instance, when standing in front of an aisle of produce in a supermarket.

With growing trends of counterurbanisation, many people are leaving crowded, expensive cities to seek a more affordable, better quality of life.⁶ Figures from 2018 show Londoners, for instance, spend an average of up to 61 percent of their income on rent alone. “First-time” buyers battle to enter the housing market, whilst “second-steppers” struggle to move up the property ladder as prices rise.⁷ Exacerbated by lockdowns and stay at home orders in the covid-19 pandemic, green space has “become more important after months of confinement.”⁸ Richard Donnell, Zoopla’s director of research, reveals that while property demand has bounced back in many areas, London is “definitely lagging behind.”⁹ According to data from the ONS, “one in 11 London district authorities have properties where the average garden size is larger than a tennis court, while Preston and Bradford have gardens that are 1.5 times larger on average than those found in Manchester.”¹⁰

The pandemic has also led to the decentralization and downsizing of many commercial office tenants in the city centre. Employees working from home are anticipated to continue doing so indefinitely,¹¹ and research shows that over 50% of London office tenants expect a 30% decline in office attendance, whether due to working from home or redundancies.¹² Here, the commute to work becomes less of a limiting factor in choosing where to live, and working from home allows for more flexible hours. As a result, there is potentially already a demographic of young professionals and creatives who may be open to participating in a model such as Alt+Land.

It is evident that one of the main draws of urban living is the range of amenities (restaurants, cafes, retail, entertainment venues) that make a neighborhood attractive to its residents. The incorporation of these amenities could therefore be useful in encouraging a symbiotic relationship between farmers and non-farming tenants. Aside from housing, there is potential for fallow land to be useful in other non-invasive ways.

The problem with cheap food

“Cheap food culture” has dominated in places such as the UK, which comes third last in the world for the amount of disposable income spent on food per household.¹³ Pioneered in the US, the use of large scale farming and intensive livestock rearing in the form of concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs), has greatly contributed to the trend. Aside from economies of scale, industrial farming also means more efficient healthcare for herds and flocks, resulting in cheaper food and more profit in comparison to traditional methods. In the UK, an increasing number of livestock are “zero-graze”, raised almost completely indoors in warehouse-type facilities.¹⁴ An investigation in 2017 revealed there were at least 789 megafarms in the country, many owned by foreign multinational corporations. Currently, these farms are main suppliers to many major supermarket chains and food retailers on the high street. Tesco, Sainsbury’s, Morrisons and Asda are all supplied by companies that operate CAFOs and intensive farms. With the unprecedented demand for chicken, for instance, small scale farming is increasingly abandoned due to struggles with feed costs, energy prices and pressure from supermarket buyers. With Brexit, there is also fear that international trade pressure may bring even more US-style farming practices to Britain- there could be a pressure to lower standards in order to compete with imports.¹⁵ At present, the UK is not self-sufficient in food production, and relies on both imports and its agricultural sector to feed its population and drive economic growth.¹⁶

On the consumer side, the rise of food prices and wage stagnation in recent years has also pressured households towards the cheaper option. As a larger proportion of the family budget is spent on food, low income households face a choice between groceries and other essentials like heating and housing. After a spike in food prices in the mid-2000s, the poorest 10% of UK households spent 15% of their budget on food, whilst for the richest 10% this was only 7%.¹⁷ The issue of cheap food is therefore political, and extends beyond just the farming community. In order to shift consumer choices away from cheap food, people’s needs and spending power need to be considered. While it is easy to condemn consumers, many lower income households are left with no choice but to buy cheap meat.¹⁸

1.2m people live in ‘food deserts’ with limited access to fresh, affordable food (source: https://www.theguardian.com/society/2018/oct/12/more-than-a-million-uk-residents-live-in-food-deserts-says-study)

Symbiotic relationships

Diversification remains an option for smaller traditional farms to remain in business. Farms such as Pipers, a 20-hectare, family run meat farm in Devon, have had to diversify to maintain efficiency. This is especially the case when it comes to producing “higher-value” foods that are “grass-fed”, “hand-reared”, “free-range” and “self-sustaining”. According to Abby Allen, the marketing director at Pipers, they have “guys who will grow veg alongside pigs, and the pigs will eat the roots and spread the manure to grow more veg.”¹⁹ To fertilise her garden, Rachel Jones, an artist in residence at Grymsdyke Farm, Lacey Green, also uses horse manure from a neighboring farm, which was “just across the field so didn’t require much transportation.”²⁰ It is therefore likely that this symbiotic reliance between farmers will be essential in models such as Alt+Land, in order to generate a resilient, sufficient quantity and variety of high quality produce for the community.

A shift in values

Ideally, Alt+Land will ideally encourage a change in consumption patterns via raising awareness amongst its residents, away from cheap foods and in particular, cheap meat.

For example, Rachel Jones speaks about her heightened awareness since working with local plants, dyes and processes in a rural setting. She also now forages for plants to make teas, syrups and remedies as well as dyes, which she did not use to do.²¹ She has become more aware of the origins of materials used in products:

“When I see food in supermarkets, I have found myself picturing the whole plant and where it was growing. I am more aware of the link between food and clothing which is of course agriculture. This seems obvious now, but I don’t think I had considered the crossover in any depth before. I now have the same thought with many natural materials. If i see a wooden object, I can’t help but to think of the tree as a whole.”²²

Similarly, proximity and involvement with processes of growing food and raising animals will potentially lead to an overall change in value systems around food consumption. When consumers are distanced from the origin of products, buffered by complex business and distribution channels, cognitive dissonance occurs when it comes to the consumption of unethically raised meat. Because we cannot see firsthand the poor conditions an animal is raised in, the issue feels unrelated to us and we turn a blind eye to the consequences of our consumer choices, in order to reduce internal conflict. The same way hunger motivates us to find food and reduce that hunger, cognitive dissonance motivates us to find situations that reduce that dissonance. In the case of meat consumption, one can either stop eating meat or find reasons to justify meat eating. A common way to make meat-eating acceptable is to dissociate meat from the animal it came from. Words like ‘veal’, ‘beef’ and ‘ham’ are used instead of ‘baby cow’, ‘cow’ or ‘pig’ respectively.²³ Emma Slawinski, the director of campaigns at Compassion in World Farming (CIWF), says that “Moving animals away from the countryside into cages and crowded sheds may seem like a space-saving idea, but this ignores the fact that vast amounts of land are used elsewhere to grow feed for them.”²⁴ By reducing meat consumption and turning to a more plant-based diet, these ‘vast amounts’ of land will be freed to grow more food for people rather than livestock.

After continuous exposure to the process of rearing or slaughtering animals, there is a pattern of farmers turning to veganism after years of work. Craig Whitney, a former slaughterhouse worker from a family of farmers, witnessed cattle being branded, castrated and de-horned as a child. At 19, he worked at an abattoir in Western New South Wales, Australia, where he “spent most of the time dodging bodies as [he] tried to mop the floor clean from all the blood.” He remembers “having multiple close calls due to ‘cows lashing out from nerve twitches whilst hooked up by chains’”. Occasionally, a cow that hadn’t had its throat slit correctly would be “fully conscious during their ‘bleed out’”.²⁵

Even when meat is raised ethically, understanding the amount of labour and resources required to do so alters consumption in a way that respects the life of an animal. Coming from a long line of butchers in Panzano, Italy, Dario Cecchini, who runs two meat-centric restaurants alongside his shop, saw his work in a different light after reaching out to his father’s meat selector. He saw that people only wanted steaks and filets, and needed to get his customers excited about other cuts, so that all parts of an animal were consumed and not wasted. He opened Solociccia, a restaurant for “all parts of the animal which are considered less noble, from snout to tail.” While guests were initially surprised by the menu, the restaurant became a massive success and was featured on the Netflix documentary series Chef’s Table.²⁶

While models such as Alt+Land do not attempt to force its residents into vegetarianism or veganism, there is hope that reduction in meat consumption to more sustainable levels could be encouraged.

Access to affordable and healthy food

It is widely known that obesity in the UK, especially in children, is linked to food insecurity and limited access to fresh, affordable food. In Sheffield, a 2019 study showed that the city’s childhood overweight and obesity rates have “steadily risen” since 2014. One in five children is overweight and obese when starting primary school at 4–5 years, which increases to one in three when they leave primary school at 10–11 years old. Children in more deprived neighborhoods are more likely to be obese, with the gap between children from affluent and less well-off families widening.²⁷

In the UK, more than a million people live in food deserts — neighborhoods where poverty, poor public transport links and a lack of supermarkets limit access to affordable fresh produce. Nearly one in ten of the UK’s most economically deprived areas are food deserts. Typically large out-of-town housing estates or deprived inner city neighborhoods, these areas also have a high density of cheap fast food outlets that seem to fuel a rise in conditions such as obesity and diabetes, as well as food insecurity. Living in a food desert means a portion of an already stretched budget goes towards transportation to secure food.²⁸ Up to half the people living in food deserts in Sheffield also do not own a car. With rising bus prices, families are forced to “scramble to find more calories per pound they spend, leading them to buy cheap, unhealthy, energy-dense foods”.²⁹ In addition, a Cambridge University study in 2018 found that low-income households that lived furthest from supermarkets were more likely to be obese than those who lived close by. Thus improving access to supermarkets for the least well-off, in combination with raising incomes, would help reduce obesity rates. After housing costs, the poorest 20% of households in the UK need to spend 42% of their disposable income to maintain the government’s recommended diet.³⁰

Non-farming tenants in the Alt+Land development model will therefore benefit from proximity and accessibility to fresh, organic produce from adjacent plots. Compared to urban areas, the lower cost of housing (rent or share of land) would also mean more disposable income for spending on healthier, high quality food.

Long term benefits

It is evident that non-farming tenants living within this model will be able to enjoy various spillover health benefits. Proximity to fresh, high quality produce means more access to healthy foods and lower rates of obesity and obesity-related diseases in the community. Proximity to the processes involved in growing food and raising livestock will also hopefully encourage a shift towards more ecological diets, which are plant-based and lower in meat consumption.

Notes

  1. NFU. Achieving NET ZERO: Farming’s 2040 Goal, National Farmer’s Union, 2019.
  2. Ryder, Alistair. “7 Things about Farming in the UK That May Surprise You.” Cambridgeshire Live, Cambridgeshire Live, 7 Sept. 2017, www.cambridge-news.co.uk/business/7-things-farming-uk-surprise-13547743.
  3. Dalton, Jane. “Drone Footage Shows Size of Britain’s Mega-Farms That ‘Speed up Climate Change’.” The Independent, Independent Digital News and Media, 4 Mar. 2019, www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/home-news/farm-climate-change-animals-drone-footage-video-a8804661.html
  4. Harvey, Fiona, et al. “UK Has Nearly 800 Livestock Mega Farms, Investigation Reveals.” The Guardian, Guardian News and Media, 17 July 2017, www.theguardian.com/environment/2017/jul/17/uk-has-nearly-800-livestock-mega-farms-investigation-reveals.
  5. Environment Agency, editor. Environment Agency, 2016, Review of Nitrate Vulnerable Zone Designations for Implementation in 2017: Environment Agency Report and Recommendations to DEFRA, apps.environment-agency.gov.uk/static/documents/nvz/NVZ2017_Recommendation_Report_Final_HOEV151604_R_1611115.pdf.
  6. Internet Geography. “How Is the Rural Landscape Changing?” Internet Geography, Internet Geography, 28 July 2019, www.internetgeography.net/topics/how-is-the-rural-landscape-changing/.
  7. Olsen, Martine Berg. “Londoners Stump up More than Half Their Income for Rent.” Metro, Metro.co.uk, 27 June 2019, metro.co.uk/2018/11/23/how-much-of-peoples-salary-is-being-spent-on-rent-in-london-8169612/.
  8. Campbell, Chris. “UK Housebuyers Look to Swap Cities for Suburbs.” Financial Times, Financial Times, 11 July 2020, www.ft.com/content/72e12347-89f1-4ccc-9b58-92a99f5dcf7f.
  9. Ibid.
  10. Ibid.
  11. Isherwood, Kaylene. “How the Rise of Working from Home Is Changing the UK Housing Market.” Buy Association, Buy Association, 28 July 2020, www.buyassociation.co.uk/2020/07/29/how-rise-working-from-home-changing-the-uk-housing-market/.
  12. Consultancy.uk. “Two Trends for the Post-Covid Commercial Property Market.” Consultancy.uk, Consultancy UK, 9 Oct. 2020, www.consultancy.uk/news/25781/two-trends-for-the-post-covid-commercial-property-market.
  13. Thomas, Hugh. “Why We Need to Stop Small Family Farms from Disappearing.” Farmdrop Blog, Farmdrop, 6 Dec. 2017, www.farmdrop.com/blog/british-family-farm-disappearing/?utm_source=rakutenmarketing.
  14. Harvey, Fiona, et al. “Rise of Mega Farms: How the US Model of Intensive Farming Is Invading the World.” The Guardian, Guardian News and Media, 18 July 2017, www.theguardian.com/environment/2017/jul/18/rise-of-mega-farms-how-the-us-model-of-intensive-farming-is-invading-the-world.
  15. Ibid.
  16. Hazenbosch, Mirjam. “UK Threat.” Global Food Security, Global Food Security, 2021, www.foodsecurity.ac.uk/challenge/uk-threat/.
  17. Ibid.
  18. Harvey, Fiona, et al. “Rise of Mega Farms: How the US Model of Intensive Farming Is Invading the World.” The Guardian, Guardian News and Media, 18 July 2017, www.theguardian.com/environment/2017/jul/18/rise-of-mega-farms-how-the-us-model-of-intensive-farming-is-invading-the-world.
  19. Thomas, Hugh. “Why We Need to Stop Small Family Farms from Disappearing.” Farmdrop Blog, Farmdrop, 6 Dec. 2017, www.farmdrop.com/blog/british-family-farm-disappearing/?utm_source=rakutenmarketing.
  20. Loh, Ning, and Rachel Jones. “Interview with Rachel Jones, Artist in Residence at Grymsdyke Farm.” 3 Jan. 2021.
  21. Ibid.
  22. Ibid.
  23. Shaw, Julia. “What the ‘Meat Paradox’ Reveals about Moral Decision Making.” BBC Future, BBC, 6 Feb. 2019, www.bbc.com/future/article/20190206-what-the-meat-paradox-reveals-about-moral-decision-making.
  24. Harvey, Fiona, et al. “UK Has Nearly 800 Livestock Mega Farms, Investigation Reveals.” The Guardian, Guardian News and Media, 17 July 2017, www.theguardian.com/environment/2017/jul/17/uk-has-nearly-800-livestock-mega-farms-investigation-reveals.
  25. Chamberlain, Jade. “From Slaughterhouse Worker To Vegan: ‘The Work Made Me Sick’.” Plant Based News, Plant Based News, 28 Sept. 2020, plantbasednews.org/opinion/nightmares-killing-animals-ex-abattoir-worker/.
  26. Morabito, Greg. “‘Chef’s Table’ Recap: Dario Cecchini Redefines the Role of the Butcher.” Eater, Eater, 1 Mar. 2019, www.eater.com/pop-culture/2019/3/1/18246681/chefs-table-dario-cecchinir-recap-season-6-episode-2.
  27. Lala, Rizwana. “Childhood Obesity: The Food Around Us.” Now Then Sheffield, Dec. 2019, nowthenmagazine.com/articles/childhood-obesity-the-food-around-us.