Land for trees or food?

The Future of Food and Farming reportLater today, Foresight publish The Future of Food and Farming report; looking at the implications of the world’s population reaching 9 billion by 2050.  Concerns about food supply are paramount but also coupled with the need to reduce carbon emissions and to protect the environment.  The challenge is huge and may need to include changes in diet for Western society, moving away from meat and dairy-based diets.  We may also need to accept that GM food may have to part of the solution.

The Great famines that struck Western Europe between 1315-17, due to adverse climatic conditions, saw the multiple failure of harvests and many starved to death.  Dramatic as this was, more worrying for you and I was the global food crisis experienced during 2007 and 2008, when riots occurred in more than 30 countries, and the UN held emergency meetings.  The implications to the UK, a country heavily reliant on imports, were obvious and prompted the government to consider seriously their food and food policy for the first time in fifty years.  In July 2008, the Cabinet Office produced a report entitled Food Matters: Towards a strategy for the 21st centuryChatham House produced their own report soon afterwards.

You are forgiven for wondering why I’m writing about this on my tree and forestry blog!  We need more trees, especially in Britain.  Everyone knows this, and even experts such as Sir David Read say so too: his 2009 report suggests we should double our woodland cover.  I am a great fan of tree planting, having planted tens of thousands of trees and created several new woodlands myself.  I appreciate that tree planting schemes can be a great way of mobilising communities and connecting the public with the environment.  They are good fundraisers and profile-building activities for charities too.  You can sense the ‘but’ coming …

Two thirds of all the woodlands in England are potentially not being managed, and worse still, possibly moribund.  Imagine a woodland, five miles across and 455 miles long: it would stretch from Truro in Cornwall to Newcastle-Upon-Tyne in North East England. That’s how much woodland in England is in this condition:  625,000 hectares.  We know little about the thousands of woodlands, copses and spinneys that make up this area: who owns them, why they own them, whether they manage them, nor what condition they are in.  It seems likely that many will be moribund and will be failing to deliver the range of benefits that we want from our woodlands: wildlife-rich habitat, landscape quality, access and recreation, timber and wood products, and good carbon management.

I realise that this may unpopular but wouldn’t it be great if we could focus less on new planting schemes and try harder to manage our existing woodlands better?  Afterall this may help us, just a little, in our quest to survive, as land becomes ever more precious.  If faced with starvation, I know what I would choose but I would have had to have made that decision 50 years before.

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