Last edited 23 Mar 2022

Agricultural land classification

Agricultural land is land that is used for rearing livestock and producing crops. It is defined by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) as land that is arable, under permanent crops, and under permanent pastures. Agricultural land covers approximately 38% of the world's land. In the UK it accounts for 70% of the land area. Ref

The HS2 London-West Midlands Environmental Statement published by the Department for Transport in November 2013, defines ‘agricultural land classification’ (ALC) as:

‘The system devised and introduced by the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food to classify agricultural land according to the extent to which its physical or chemical characteristics impose long-term limitations on agricultural use. Land is graded from 1 (excellent quality) to 5 (very poor quality).'

  • Grade 1: 'Excellent’ quality agricultural land with no or very minor limitations to agricultural use. A very wide range of agricultural and horticultural crops can be grown and commonly includes top fruit, soft fruit, salad crops and winter-harvested vegetables. Yields are high and less variable than on land of lower quality.
  • Grade 2: ‘Very goodquality agricultural land with minor limitations that affect crop yield, cultivations or harvesting. A wide range of agricultural and horticultural crops can usually be grown, but on some land in the grade there may be reduced flexibility due to difficulties with the production of more demanding crops, such as winterharvested vegetables and arable root crops. The level of yield is generally high but may be lower or more variable than Grade 1.
  • Grade 3: Land with ‘moderate’ limitations. This affects the choice of crops that can be grown, the timing and type of cultivation, and harvesting or yield levels. The yields of more demanding crops are generally lower or more variable than on land in grades 1 and 2.
  • Grade 4: ‘Poor’ quality agricultural land with severe limitations which significantly restrict the range of crops and/or level of yields. It is mainly suited to grass with occasional arable crops (e.g. cereals and forage crops), the yields of which are variable. In moist climates, yields of grass may be moderate to high, but there may be difficulties in utilisation. The grade also includes very droughty arable land.
  • Grade 5: ‘Very poor’ quality agricultural land with very severe limitations which restrict use to permanent pasture or rough grazing.

Grade 3 is subdivided into agricultural subgrades 3a and 3b:

  • Subgrade 3a: ‘Good quality’ agricultural land that is capable of consistently producing moderate to high yields of a narrow range of arable crops, especially cereals, or moderate yields of a wide range of crops including cereals, grass, oilseed rape, potatoes, sugar beet and the less demanding horticultural crops.
  • Subgrade 3b: ‘Moderate quality’ agricultural land that is capable of producing moderate yields of a narrow range of crops, principally cereals and grass, or lower yields of a wider range of crops or high yields of grass which can be grazed or harvested over most of the year.

NB The glossary of statistical terms, published by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), defines agricultural land as: ‘land including arable land, land under permanent crops and land under permanent meadows and pastures.’

It states: 'Agricultural land and associated surface water is equivalent to the 1993 SNA category “land under cultivation” (AN.2112) except for the qualification on recreational land (see recreational land) and the exclusion of plantations. The SEEA goes beyond the 1993 SNA in identifying specific sub-categories of agricultural land: cultivated land, pasture land and other agricultural land.'

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