Opinion: Satellite mapping will help better land use policies

The swollen tide of fluorescent yellow from oilseed rape is quickly receding, with UK production falling to its lowest level in 15 years.

Recent history – particularly the example of oilseed rape – shows that government regulation and incentives have had major implications for how our land looks (and smells).

EU farming legislation affected not only the farming community, but the entire population.

Incentives and disincentives over what crops can be grown change the landscape and can have a major effect on the experience and attitudes of the wider population towards farmers.

See also: FW Opinion: Angst over trade deals has only just begun

About the author

Toby Waine
Senior lecturer, Cranfield University

Toby Waine is a senior lecturer in applied remote sensing at the Centre for Environment and Agricultural Informatics, Cranfield University. Here he explains why national field mapping will be so crucial as UK land use policy changes after Brexit.


Moving from the EU to UK legislation, with the planned Environmental Land Management (ELM) scheme, is the first opportunity since 1973 to reshape our landscape.

That means a real opportunity to make sure there is thoughtful management that balances economic viability with “public good”.

Oilseed rape was not a crop traditionally grown in the UK. Regulation introduced in the late 1990s encouraged its use in diesel fuel as biofuel.

By its peak in 2012, oilseed was the third-biggest occupant of arable land, accounting for up to 10% of the area and causing the smell that has become a familiar part of late springtime.

The next big story affecting our landscape will be the increasing demand for other energy crops as we aim to achieve net-zero carbon emissions by 2050.

We will probably need to dedicate 10% or more extra arable land to energy crops by that date – a twentyfold increase on current levels.

This is because of the commitment to anaerobic digestion (AD) plants that turn food waste and animal manure into biogas and fertilisers.

There are about 700 AD plants in operation now, with plans in place for 1,000 more, and they all need sizeable supplies of feedstock from crops that are bulky and burnable.

That will change our landscape, because the best crops for conversion into biofuels are maize and miscanthus – tall, grassy crops that grow up to three metres high.

Imagine what this will mean for residents and walkers used to views across low-lying grass and cereal fields…

How do we achieve the right mix of economic value – to protect the livelihoods of farmers and the wider industry – and food production, alongside sustainability and the “social” role the countryside plays?

Can the net-zero 2050 targets be met alongside the landscape protection required by the Sustainable Farming Incentive?

Data is king

To make the ELM scheme work successfully, decision-ready data is needed to ensure rewards for those delivering land recovery, sustainability and public good are given out fairly.

Continual national mapping and monitoring – not to spy, but to ensure a real-world understanding of the changing landscape – is needed as the foundation to a more flexible and responsive policy.

In this way farmers can be incentivised in the right ways, and the larger reputation of farmers can be secured.

The good news is that the technology, in the form of remote sensing via satellite imagery, already exists.

Remote sensing means an independent, near-real-time source of data, not relying on farm inspections or yet more admin and form filling.

The lockdown age has demonstrated how much local landscapes are valued.

A better future under ELM needs to involve a clear-sighted vision of exactly what changes are planned, and what new crops and land use decisions really mean for everyone.

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