A new land reform can address climate challenges facing the agricultural sector, researchers argue
Rewetting low-lying organic soils that are currently under agricultural cultivation has a significant effect on greenhouse gas emissions, but can be a difficult and time-consuming process. Researchers from UCPH have studied the process and argue that a new national land reform may be part of the solution.
One of the main sources of CO2 emissions in the Danish agricultural sector are from the drainage and cultivation of former wetlands such as bogs, lakes, river valleys and meadows. Rewetting these areas is thus a main strategy to reduce the sector’s emissions.
But what is the best way to take these low-lying organic soils out of production for the benefit of climate, environment and local biodiversity? And what is impeding a faster pace of the process?
These are key questions in a policy brief recently published by researchers from the University of Copenhagen (UCPH) based on the ongoing research project ‘Lokale Landvindinger’ (‘Local Land Reclamations’).
The research project follows three pilot projects in Central and Northern Jutland, where the Danish Nature Agency and three municipalities create land use change through so-called ‘multifunctional land consolidation’. It implies striking a balance between agricultural production, biodiversity, climate change mitigation and adaptation, as well as outdoors, recreation and local development.
In the policy brief, the four authors conclude that taking lowland soils out of production is a slow process. Combined with the structural challenges facing the agricultural sector, this calls for acting on the political ambitions of a land reform – only the third major land reform in Denmark.
“Our research shows that, in practice, taking lowland soils out of production is a difficult and time-consuming process, which is made even more complex by the many additional factors that are to be taken into consideration,” says Post.doc Inge-Merete Hougaard from the Department of Anthropology, UCPH.
“Therefore, one solution could be to consider a land reform that seeks to upscale the current efforts and address challenges relating to pace, funding and ownership in relation to changing landscapes and land-use changes. Other potential tools to consider are new forms of ownership and a new democratic land fund focussing on buying low-lying organic soils,” she says.
Multifunctional land consolidation concerns more than land
Apart from Inge-Merete Hougaard, authors of the policy brief include Associate Professor Stine Krøijer, PhD Student Kathrine Dalsgaard and Associate Professor Lone Søderkvist Kristensen. In the policy brief they present five specific recommendations for a land reform (see box below).
The five recommendations are based on interviews and field observations in the projects in Northern and Central Jutland, in which the researchers have identified problems and possible solutions to the process of taking low-lying organic soils out of production and planning other uses of landscape through multifunctional land consolidation (see box right).
The researchers conclude that multifunctional land consolidation is a productive way of ensuring collective landscape planning and enhancing broad, local support to meet societal challenges. They have found that many stakeholders, especially landowners, which are typically farmers, are interested in contributing to the collective effort.
However, the process is complicated involving landowner meetings, public meetings and land negotiations, and the principle of voluntariness can be a challenge when political ambitions, local considerations and private interests are to find a common ground.
“Multiple matters are at stake here – not just land prices, agricultural subsidies and the concrete land consolidation, namely the merging and swapping of fields to ensure proximity to the farm. Taking low-lying organic soils out of production is also a matter of relations between neighbours, appreciation of particular landscapes and concrete future plans for the individual farm, including generational change,” explains Associate Professor Stine Krøijer from the Department of Anthropology.
Land reform can address further challenges
In the former parliament, a vast majority agreed on reducing CO2 emissions from the agricultural sector in Denmark by 55-65% and ensuing more biodiversity towards 2030. Taking low-lying organic soils out of production is an important key to achieve this, and politicians have voiced the need for a major land reform on several occasions.
In addition, the researchers suggest that a land reform may help solve other related challenges:
First, whereas the current pilot scheme for multifunctional land consolidation only covers legal expenses related to the land consolidation process, a land reform will be able to ensure broader finance to cover for instance compensations, land replacements, citizen involvement and other related projects such as afforestation, walking paths, etc.
Second, the structural development of the agricultural sector has entailed an increase in farm size and a reduction in number of farms, concentrating ownership in fewer hands and leading to the disappearance of gravel roads, hedges and mini-biotopes. Here, a land reform could enable locale collective ownership of lands removed from production, such local collective ownership is not possible within current legislation.
“But above all, taking agricultural land out of production is a slow process. We have learned, from agricultural circles too, that the process as a starting point should be based on a principle of voluntariness, which imply that there are other, more direct ways of doing this. We highlight the advantages of voluntariness, but it is necessary to increase the scale and pace of the process. A land reform could make that possible,” says Inge-Merete Hougaard.
Read the brief policy (only in Danish): ’Ny jordreform i Danmark’ (’New Danish Land Reform’)
The brief is based on the research project ‘Lokale Landvindinger’ (‘Local Land Reclamations’), which the researchers conduct in collaboration with the Danish Nature Agency (department Himmerland) and the municipalities of Viborg, Randers and Mariagerfjord under the auspices of LIFE IT Natureman. The research project is funded by the Velux Foundations.
The five recommendations
According to the Danish Council on Climate Change, carbon-rich low-lying soils are responsible for more than half of emissions from land-use in the agricultural sector. Taking low-lying organic soils out of production therefore plays a key role in the green transition of the agricultural sector.
To support this process, the policy brief ’Ny jordreform i Danmark’ (‘New Danish Land Reform’) provides five recommendations based on the research project ‘Lokale landvindinger’ (‘Local Land Reclamations’):
- Act on the political ambition of a national land reform addressing climate change and biodiversity crisis as well as the increasing land concentration and indebtedness of the agricultural sector.
- Create models for new forms of ownership ensuring local, collective ownership focussing on nature conservation and recreational use.
- Provide a broader financing framework for the multifunctional land consolidation process
- Establish a national democratic land fund able to purchase low-lying organic soils that are taken out of production, partly for resale to private parties and partly for management under the auspices of state agencies.
- As a point of departure, the conversion of low-lying organic soils should be based on a principle of voluntariness, but policy makers should assess whether other, more direct avenues are better for achieving the necessary pace and scale of a land reform.
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