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Seven competing demands for university and college land

Tilly Jarvis
May 15, 2024

Colleges and universities in the UK own more than 36,000 hectares of land without buildings on it. This is similar in size to 50,000 football pitches or the size of the Isle of Wight. Are students aware of the amount of land their institution owns? Or are most staff even aware? And what should this land be used for? This is something we’ve been thinking a lot about as part of our Farming for Carbon & Nature project.

Institutions are having to make difficult decisions regarding their land management to ensure they are providing the best student experience possible, can remain financially viable, and are creating positive environmental and social change. There are now more demands than ever on how this land should be used.

Seven competing demands for land

  1. Biodiversity. Legal requirements have recently come into force requiring biodiversity net gain (BNG) of at least 10% following any new development, this can be on any land, it doesn't have to be on the site of the development. BNG is a way of creating and improving natural habitats and making sure development has a measurably positive impact on biodiversity, compared to what was there before development. As institutions continually develop, this is something that is likely to affect them all. There is also a huge national push to rewild large areas of land as well as a general understanding of the need to transform traditionally mowed campus estates into havens for wildlife. As the UK is one of the most nature depleted countries in the world, increasing biodiversity on our land should undoubtedly be a priority.

  1. Carbon storage. There is a voluntary carbon market where land can be used to sell carbon credits. Verified carbon credits can only be sold in the UK by planting new woodland or by restoring peatland via the government regulated Woodland Carbon Code and Peatland Carbon Code. There are also several private companies that offer landowners the opportunity to sell carbon credits by increasing the amount of soil carbon sequestered on their farmland. These schemes have been subject to much controversy and are not regulated by the government, but they are generally accredited through independent certification bodies. It’s important to add that if a landowner is storing carbon on their land this should be used within their own carbon accounting and they should be carbon neutral before considering selling carbon credits to anyone else; they should also only to sell to buyers who are using the carbon credits to offset unavoidable scope 3 emissions.

  1. New buildings. Universities and colleges are continually expanding and looking at how they can maximise their land assets to improve the student experience. This could be by building new academic facilities such as research centres, libraries or laboratories; or by building new student accommodation, catering and retail outlets, or new modern leisure facilities.  

  1. Academic studies. Many institutions offer courses that require significant areas of land for practical training, research, fieldwork, or hands-on learning experiences. This includes courses such as sport, agriculture, equine studies, forestry and arboriculture, conservation and ecology.  

  1. Renewable energy. UK universities and colleges have ambitious carbon reduction targets and one of the ways they can help meet their targets is by using their land for renewables. For example, Lancaster University has a wind turbine that produces 14% of the university’s electricity needs and they have planning permission for a solar farm which will reduce energy related emissions by up to 40%.

  1. Leisure. Offering leisure facilities and outdoor spaces is important for all universities and colleges. It enhances the overall experience for students and staff by providing opportunities for social interaction, to improve wellbeing, and to engage with the local community. Examples include allotments, edible campus spaces, walking trails, recreational sports areas, relaxing green spaces, and conservation areas.

  1. Food production. All the above examples of how university and college owned land is, and could be, used are probably the ones most people would think of first. But food production is essential in any conversation about land use because over 70% of the 36,000 hectares of undeveloped land owned by universities and colleges in the UK is farmland.

Farmland has multiple benefits

Farmland produces food, this is an obvious benefit. We all need to eat! But it also has the potential to increase biodiversity, store carbon, improve livelihoods, and produce energy. Adversely, unsustainable farming practices can also use and emit large amounts of greenhouse gases, destroy biodiversity, have poor pay and working conditions, and be economically unviable.

It is of paramount importance for universities and colleges to be fully aware of what is happening on their farmland, as well as how their farmland could help them reach targets around carbon, biodiversity, and sustainability in general but also sustainable food and student experience. Join our webinar on 16th May 2024, 2-3pm with Farm Carbon Toolkit by registering here, or watch later on YouTube, to learn about the financial and climate impacts of different regenerative farming practices.

Through SOS-UK's Farming for Carbon & Nature project we are working to help ensure farms on university and college owned land can adopt (or maintain) farm management practices that can generate all the positive benefits. We support a just transition to agroecological, organic, regenerative, and nature friendly farming practices – these all focus on slightly different things but will all result in multiple positive impacts for people and planet.

The commonality between these approaches is creating healthy soil. Although it is often argued that healthier soils will produce healthier food, healthy soil is not vital for food production. Synthetic fertilisers, herbicides, fungicides, and pesticides can all be added to poor soils to make them grow vast amounts of food, and most of our food is produced in this way. But to what cost? There’s the financial cost, fertiliser has tripled in cost over recent years, as well as the environmental and health costs. Our recent research shows three quarters of students are concerned about the environmental and human health impacts of pesticide and herbicide use in farming.

Although healthy soil may not be vital for food production, it is however, vital for:

  • Biodiversity - there can be no biodiversity above ground without biodiversity below ground
  • Water regulation – healthier soils increase water filtration and reduce flooding
  • Carbon storage - healthier soils can store more carbon, and
  • Reducing emissions - less need for fertiliser that uses large amounts of carbon to produce, less ploughing which means less soil carbon released into the atmosphere, and less need for farm machinery for ploughing so less diesel is used

Farming for Carbon & Nature

SOS-UK is in the final year of the Farming for Carbon & Nature (FCN) project funded by Esmée Fairbairn Foundation. As part of the project we are working with 10 farms on university/college owned land. Some are managed directly by the institutions, others are rented out to tenant farmers; some are farming regeneratively or organically, others are farming using more conventional practices; and some are mixed farms, while others focus mainly on animals or on arable crops. They are all farming in different ways, in different locations with different climatic conditions, with and different soil types.

Despite these differences, we have discovered that farmers on university and college owned land have unique challenges and opportunities and can benefit hugely by sharing experiences with each other, so we run regular Farmer Knowledge Exchange sessions.  

Feedback from farmers involved in Farming for Carbon & Nature:

“Another highlight has been being involved with people who are on a similar journey in similar situations who understand some of the challenges. It’s nice to hear from all the other universities and hear what else is going on”

“We've really enjoyed being part of the programme particularly from my point of view it's been so helpful and you know it's opened a lot of doors for sustainability. So we've made like a huge amount of progress this year in lots of different areas.”

To genuinely know whether certain farming practices are producing the benefits we want, we need to collect data. Through FCN we have been able to give students the opportunity to get training, go out on the farms, do biodiversity monitoring, collect soil samples, test soil samples in labs, and earn digital badges to recognise the skills they’ve developed.

We didn’t realise students would be so interested in farmland! Some of the reasons students have given us for wanting to be involved in FCN include “I am an environmentalist, I love food and I have a great interest in food production”, “I write for my student newsletter, and this could be great to form the basis for a future article!”, and “I feel like soil is the single most important thing we need to take care of to combat climate change”.

Quotes from students involved in the Farming for Carbon and Nature project

Ultimately, university and college owned land should be used in ways that align with an institution's aims and values and what their students want to see, as well as considering the broader societal and environmental impacts of any decisions made.  

At SOS-UK we would like to see all universities and colleges that own farmland seriously consider how they can support the farmers managing that land to do so using more agroecological, regenerative, and nature friendly practices.

We understand there are financial implications in changing farming practices and that the benefits of different practices aren’t always clear. This is why we commissioned Farm Carbon Toolkit to write a report about Understanding the financial and climate impacts of regenerative farming practices specifically for farms on university and college owned land.

In a webinar on 16th May 2024 2-3pm, Liz Bowles, CEO of Farm Carbon Toolkit, will be discussing the report in detail as well as answering any questions.

My university/college owns farmland, how can I get involved?

  • Register for our webinar with Farm Carbon Toolkit on 16th May 2024, 2-3pm where they’ll explain the financial and climate impacts of regenerative farming practices. If you miss this, the recording will be available on YouTube.  
  • Email us at foodandfarming@sos-uk.org to be added to our FCN mailing list if you are interested in being part of the project in the future.  
  • Senior Project Manager for Food and Farming at SOS-UK, Tilly Jarvis, will be speaking at the EAUC Conference on 27 June 2024 and will be happy to talk to you about FCN while she’s there.

Further reading and resources in relation to farmland

  1. The Need to Understand the Financial and Climate Impacts of Regenerative Farming
  1. The Impact of Regenerative Farming Practices: What Does the Evidence Say?  
  1. Financial and climate impact of regenerative farming practices

If you have any questions or comments after reading this article, please get in touch with us at foodandfarming@sos-uk.org.