Land use change connected with the evolution of farming systems: modernisation in practice

Richard Aspinall and Michele Staiano

How land use changes through time says a great deal on the story of a country; a review of the path it followed in biophysical and economic terms could significantly help in highlighting the trajectory and capturing the relationships it discloses about the nexus. The recorded history of land use change encapsulates and summarises the ways that policy and institutional changes, including governance, and national and international pressures, play out in practice, rather than in the economic theory that attempts to inform decision-making.

In a recently published study we have explored the sequence of changes in agricultural land use and the dynamics of change in provisioning services from agriculture in Scotland between 1940 and 2016. The goal, to develop understanding of whole-system and landscape-scale approaches to ecosystem services, food production, and land use, calls for including a metabolic analysis alongside an economic reading of the long time series. Specifically, our analysis identifies ways in which funds of capitals and flows of inputs and output ecosystem goods are linked to land management practices and policies at a national scale.

Figure 1 shows for Scotland as a whole, for the periods 1950-4 and 2005-9,the average economic inputs and outputs, the energy inputs, outputs and end-uses of agricultural products, and the land used for agriculture,  The figure thus provides a summary of  the funds of land and the related flows within the agricultural land system.

Figure 1a

figure 1b

Figure 1. Sankey diagrams for financial and energy inputs and outputs through agricultural land in Scotland, 1950-4 and 2005-9.  All financial values are in 2010 prices.

Although Scotland’s has remained a mixed arable-livestock farming system, with livestock the more significant component, these figures highlight large changes within the system. Even though the total area of arable land has remained almost the same throughout the time there have been increases in area for wheat, barley, oilseed, cash crops, fallow, and permanent grass, and declines in area for oats, potatoes, turnips, and rotation grassland (Figure 2).

Comparison of inputs and outputs for finance shows a greater return on investment in 1950-4 compared with 2005-9, total output being more than double the input as opposed to about 1.2 times for 2005-9. Return on direct operating costs, ignoring capital investment in farming, in 2005-9, though, remains at about 1.95 times.  The financial data in Figure 1 also show the increased real terms value of cereals, horticulture, and payments and subsidies in 2005-9 compared with 1950-4.  Similarly, finished and store livestock, and livestock products are relatively of lower value.  Fertilisers and seeds cost less in real terms in 2005-9 than in 1950-4.

Figure 1 also summarises inputs and outputs measured as energy.  Although the total energy inputs in 1950-4 and 2005-9 are similar, the total energy outputs are much higher in 2005-9 than in 1950-4.  There are large increases for wheat and barley, and large relative increases for pork, and poultry between the two periods.  Oats and fodder crops show declines, while grass silage has increased.  Inputs of fertiliser measured in the energy account shows that about three times as much fertiliser is used in 2005-9 compared with 1950-4.

Further, Figure 1 shows the end uses of the outputs from agriculture, measured in energy units.  Although the total energy content of agricultural products used for human food is similar in the two periods, the amount used for making drink, through distilling and malting, has increased by 9 times over the last 50 years. The proportion of cereals used for stockfeed remains at just over 50% of production.

Figure 2

Figure 2.  Change in area of key crop types between 1950-4 and 2005-9 in Scotland

Using an integrated accounting approach for understanding the use of agricultural land to supply provisioning services, and, particularly, examining a long time-series of accounts, enables understanding of land changes and underlying drivers, as well as the contribution of cultural and other aspects of human systems coupled with environment systems. Accounting for ecosystem services using costs as well as benefits, measured by metrics beyond financial benefit, can effectively support debate and evaluation of trade-offs between services, impacts of land management activities, and has direct relevance for decision- and policy-making.

It is not surprising to see that, in general, Scotland’s agriculture has modernised since 1940, and particularly since 1973 when the UK joined the Common Market. Interestingly, it has become more efficient in conversion of resources, with a consequent increase in delivery of provisioning goods and services, albeit with associated increase in pressures on natural capital.


Aspinall, R. J. and Staiano, M. (forthcoming) Ecosystem services as the products of land system dynamics: lessons from a longitudinal study of coupled human-environment systems.  Landscape Ecology