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Cambridge Global Food Security

An Interdisciplinary Research Centre at the University of Cambridge

With Brexit on the horizon, the UK needs a new agricultural policy. Ian Hodge, Professor of Rural Economy in Cambridge’s Department of Land Economy, believes this is our opportunity for a radical rethink.

Meet Professor Ian Hodge

Earlier this year he was involved in a workshop run by Cambridge’s Centre for Science and Policy (CSaP) to discuss the issue with leaders from academia, government, and biodiversity conservation organisations. The resulting policy brief describes an alternative approach to rural land policy after Brexit, focused on Ecosystem Services. In July Ian presented this approach to the economic advisory panel of the UK Government Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) – the department charged with delivering a new policy for the UK.

 Professor Ian Hodge


Q: What’s the point of your research?

A: I’m interested in the way we, as a society, organise land-use, and right now the question is what sort of agricultural policy we will have for the UK following Brexit. For the last forty years we’ve had a rural land policy that’s been negotiated with other members of the European Union, so ultimately it’s a compromise. Brexit creates a requirement for the UK for set up its own agricultural policy, which is something we haven’t done since the late 1960s. I’ve been looking at how have things changed since we last set out a rural policy, what we’ve learned, and how might we apply that to a new policy.

The existing Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) is heavily driven by an agricultural agenda. I think we should try to maximise the total benefit we can derive from land in the long term, rather than starting with agriculture as the primary concern. It’s a matter of finding the right balance between food and non-food outputs from agricultural land. The question is how you deliver that mix.

Q: How is this relevant to Global Food Security?

A: The CAP was established in the 1960s, when there was concern about food security - still heavily influenced by the experience in the Second World War - in terms of the proportion food we produced for ourselves within the UK. In the decades since then we’ve traded more, and food security is seen in a different way. Food production is much more reliant on imports from overseas: energy, fertilizers, chemicals etc, and if you’re growing food on this basis it doesn’t actually give you much food security as a country. So in terms of a rural land-use policy, agriculture has actually become less important. We’ve also come to appreciate the importance of the range of other benefits we derive from rural land, for example biodiversity, water management, carbon storage, and public access. 

Q: What are the key points of the new policy brief?

A: The point of an Ecosystem Services Policy is to rethink the balance between production of food as a commodity, sold into a market, and the delivery of these other non-market benefits from rural land. I think the balance has shifted, and that it would make sense to see food production as one ecosystem service, alongside these other benefits.

In essence it’s a policy that thinks longer term than the CAP. It provides more security for investments in the environment, and is prepared to fund a wider range of stakeholders. One of the issues is how to create incentives for farmers. There has to be some sort of process by which the government would pay land-holders to deliver these services. While an agri-environment policy starts by presuming it is paying farmers to change the way they manage the land, an ecosystem-services policy would be broader, and willing to fund any land-owner or organisation that can facilitate delivery of ecosystem services.

Q: Where do you have your best ideas?

A: When I’m out walking, and not particularly thinking too much, or when I’m reading something that’s slightly off the topic I’m usually focused on. It gives me a bit of space to be creative.

Q: What might other people be surprised to learn about you?

A: I’m a member of a chieftaincy council of a Nigerian community. I once spent a week staying near the University of Nigeria at the invitation of one of my postgraduate students. We went to a yam festival. I was dressed up in traditional costume and given a new name, and there was lots of dancing - it was a very curious experience! I was installed with two or three others. What struck me during my visit was that the University of Nigeria was not well-connected into western research, and that maybe our research wasn’t getting insights into the priorities that need to be addressed. 

Q: What’s your favourite research tool?

A: My brain. Quite a lot of my work is reading and reflecting, which doesn’t require much equipment or any tools. I try to see the simple insights in things that others might not have paid much attention to. I like to think from first principles, step back from things, and get a different perspective. You need to be doing that at the margin, because once something becomes established then lots of people get involved and it becomes really difficult to do anything novel and interesting. So in a way you need to keep moving and thinking beyond the mainstream. 

Q: How would you describe your speciality?

A: I started studying agricultural economics as an undergraduate just as we were joining the Common Market, and my course was largely about how this would affect farmers. I’m now reaching the end of my career and spending my time thinking about what happens when we leave. There’s been a very dynamic process of moving from concerns about food scarcity, to food surplus, to thinking about land not just for producing food, but for delivering other services. I’m not quite sure what my discipline is – I’m not really an economist; I’ve worked in planning, geography, and environmental management. By putting those things together I’m able to think differently from other people.

Q: Who or what inspires you?

A: Martin Whitby at the University of Newcastle, who died recently, was a man prepared to do things differently. He gave me my first job, on a rural development project, in the late 1970s and he taught me not worry too much about conforming to expectations of what a discipline encompasses, but think more broadly. We have communicated a lot since then on wider rural issues. 

Q: How would you like to be remembered? 

A: It would be nice to think I have influenced peoples’ thinking about rural land and its role in society as a consequence of what I’ve done.


Read the policy brief, Envisioning a British Ecosystem Services Policy 

Ian’s recent book, The Governance of the Countryside: Property, Planning and Policy, was published by Cambridge University Press in 2016.