The scale of changes to the countryside in the last 50 years has been vast. The push towards more ‘efficient’ methods of production has resulted in larger, more simplified and more specialised agricultural enterprises that use bigger machines, more fertilisers, pesticides and faster-growing but less resilient varieties of crops and breeds of livestock. Agricultural communities have been decimated by these changes: farms have gone out of business, jobs lost and the conditions of the work that there is – often dictated by the demands of the supermarkets – means that much of it is done by migrant labour. There is a danger that, feeling ignored by seemingly prosperous cities, those in rural communities who have lost out turn to political extremists who seem at least to give them someone to blame for their plight: migrants and the ‘metropolitan elite’. Thus in 2016 the base of support for Trump was in rural America, and in the UK support for Brexit was highest in Lincolnshire, an area of intensive arable agriculture.
The relationship between the agricultural community and the environment movement has not been a happy one. In his recent book English Pastoral, An Inheritance, Cumbrian farmer James Rebanks talks of a culture war that has grown increasingly polarised and toxic: on one side are those who see the cheap food that modern farming has made possible and think that farming should make use of all available technologies to become ever more productive and efficient; on the other are those who believe that farming is trashing the earth but who, according to Rebanks, don’t understand the reality of what has to be done to produce food – which, he says, is that killing is always involved, whatever you eat. The rise of veganism and calls to cut meat consumption only increase the beleaguered feeling of many farmers.
As Greens we should be seeking changes to the food system and UK agriculture that can provide a sustainable future for UK farmers, as well as tackling the crises of climate change and biodiversity loss. The best chance of achieving this is, I suggest, through promotion of regenerative agriculture on better quality land and ‘farming for nature’ on less fertile land.
Whereas industrial agriculture has focussed on maximising yields of particular crops, or growth rates of livestock, regenerative agriculture focuses on improving the health of the soil by stopping or reducing ploughing, growing cover crops so the soil is never left bare, cutting down on inputs of fertiliser, pesticides and medication, and increasing diversity - of plant and animal species and of enterprises on the farm. At its end-point, regenerative systems probably should meet the requirements of organic agriculture, with no use of artificial fertilisers or pesticides, but because there is no regenerative agriculture standard, paperwork and inspection system, it is less daunting for farmers. It is a journey they can start out on, working things out as they go along.
A diversity of enterprises on a farm can make work on it more varied and interesting and less seasonal. This, and the continual experimentation, learning and innovation that characterises regenerative agriculture means it has potential to provide high quality, knowledge-based work. It could also save jobs in the countryside by making farming more profitable, through cutting down on input costs and producing more different things from the same land. Proponents of regenerative agriculture, such a Gabe Brown from North Dakota, say that a change in mindset is needed, from seeking to maximise output to maximising profit per hectare.
While producing high quality food, regenerative agriculture can also increase soil carbon, reduce flooding, and increase biodiversity: these are by-products of the farming activities. In some situations however, maintenance or restoration of particular habitats or of natural processes are the main aim of farming activities such as grazing of cattle; food is the by-product - the farming is for nature. In both regenerative agriculture and farming for nature, appropriately managed grazing livestock play a crucial role – in recycling nutrients and building soil carbon and fertility in regenerative systems and in habitat management in farming for nature. For example, it is difficult to maintain fertility in arable systems unless the rotation includes a period of temporary pasture, without using artificial fertilisers. Grazing ruminants such as cattle and sheep do produce the greenhouse gas methane, but the use of artificial nitrogenous fertilisers results in the production of nitrous oxide, an even more potent greenhouse gas, and promotes loss of carbon from the soil.
Rather than fixating on veganism as being the answer to reducing the impacts of our food system we need to have a better understanding of the complexities of farming. We should support those UK farmers who are changing the way they farm; reducing their inputs, building soil health and increasing biodiversity. We should buy what they produce, including animal products, and support policy changes to promote regenerative agriculture and farming for nature.
Anne Chapman is a director of Green House think tank and author of A Just Transition for Agriculture published by the Green European Foundation with the support of Green House Think Tank as part of the transnational project, Just Transition, carried out with the financial support of the European Parliament to the Green European Foundation