aOn the way back from the party 15 years ago, I read an article on the environmental consequences of food production. It was made for factual reading, and ended by saying, “If you don’t like the system, don’t rely on it.” I was inspired to turn our garden in France into a vegetable patch in pursuit of self-sufficiency. This escalated quickly, and I ended up selling rights For songs with Groove Armada to buy a nearby ranch. After 12 years in agricultural school of swipes, what we learned there is now applied to a National Trust Farm Close to Swindon where we got our lease last year.
Back in France during last month’s heatwaves, the effect on the landscape was devastating. Spring-sown crops, drooping after little rain and relentless sun, will, for many, not be worth the harvest. Looking out over the dry valley, obscured by bushfire smoke drifting from the coast, I made a quick note to some farming friends about growing olive trees to deal with regular bouts of intense heat and drought. Someone replied that there was already a meeting that evening about the creation of the Gascon Olive Oil Group. The shift in weather patterns over the past decade has been astounding. Farmers feel the effects immediately; We grow without a hose.
Post-war farming practices played an important role in getting us here. Soil is pretty much the land The largest carbon storage outside the oceans It contains more than all the plants and forests of the world combined. Since the beginning of agriculture, soils have lost about 8% of carbon, and created up to 20% of human-made carbon dioxide emissions. Soil carbon is essential for water retention. According to the USDA, this loss in carbon can translate into a loss 800,000 liters per hectare of water storage. This makes crops vulnerable to drought and increases the devastation caused by flooding to communities downstream. biodiversity lossMost visible on the error-free windshield documented in the endless swarming charts of insects, birds, and life of all kinds, is a crisis as dramatic as climate change. It is closely related to agriculture because agriculture covers 71% of the UK’s land.
Done differently, agriculture has the potential to store carbon, harbor diverse wildlife and provide ample and nutritious food. But since the mid-20th century, Western policy has pushed farmers in the opposite direction. Research, education, and government-funded subsidies have been used to drive intensive chemical production over ever larger areas. Their most famous spokesperson for the Nixon Department of Agriculture was Earl Butz, who ordered farmers to “make big or get out.”
To maximize production efficiency, the agricultural landscape has become one of monoculture, with individual crops across fields, regions, or even entire regions. One type of plant across a large area is something that is never found in nature because it is incompatible with a healthy ecosystem. As such, it takes a constant battle against nature’s attempts to reintroduce diversity: the constant removal of what we see as weeds, and the killing of insects whose job it is to remove unhealthy plant growth, which is what crops chemically depend on. In 1943, Albert Howard, the godfather of what is now called “regenerative” agriculture, wrote that “the appearance of a pest should be seen as a warning from Mother Earth to put our house in order.”
Harvesting our food from the ecosystems that support us can be compared to extracting wood from a hillside forest. We have two options. Our current option is a short-term bountiful harvest, leveling the forest and leaving the exposed soil to disappear with the rain. The other option is to maintain the integrity of the forest and its timber management in the long term. Not only will this produce much more in time, but it will also preserve the habitat we depend on. Cultivation within nature’s limits may result in less production in one year, but it can do so indefinitely. Long-term yields must be seen. With a third of food wasted and an epidemic spread Diet related disease In the West, yield questions are often used to mask real questions about food quality and distribution.
During the first 10,000 years of agriculture, humans produced food from multiple cultures, diverse groups of plants growing together for nearly that time. Modern monoculture is an anomaly. All over the world, innovative growers are finding ways to bring diversity back to our fields. Plant diversity means habitat diversity, allowing wildlife to come back. The different plant families that grow together fuel a variety of soil life. Thriving soil communities feed and protect the plants, which means there is no need to spray our food with toxic chemicals. Soil covered with a variety of plants is an efficient solar panel, better at using the sun’s energy to pull carbon dioxide back from the atmosphere into the soil, where, by storing it as carbon, it will create conditions for ever stronger growth.
No new technology is required to harness the benefits of diversity, to grow our food using nature’s renewable biology rather than today’s destructive chemistry. So why doesn’t it happen everywhere?
The constant pressure on farmers has left many under enormous financial pressure. As a result, there is an understandable aversion to new agricultural ideas that come with perceived risks. Logistically speaking, our warehousing and distribution infrastructure is designed around monoculture. Culturally speaking, the aesthetic of what a “successful” farm field looks like runs deep: perfect rows of one type of plant, and nothing else.
Given that governments have long signed up to the story that famine awaits without chemical monoculture, it is perhaps unrealistic that these same structures, with the required speed, will mediate a new narrative between farmers and citizens. So it is up to us to create networks from field to board where citizens, through their food choices, can support farmers who grow in a way that rejuvenates the landscape. This has been my focus for the past 10 years, initially on our farm in France, and more recently by helping develop collections to effect change at scale.
The price of today’s food is not its true cost. It passes on its enormous environmental, health and social costs to future generations. Although these costs are deferred, farming that relies on fossil fuels means higher food prices and soil depletion means less abundance. The workforce efficiency of a single farmer presiding over thousands of acres of monoculture masks its enormous energy inefficiency. The combination of fertilizers, sprays, and machinery means that roughly 10 to 15 calories come from fossil fuel energy. Used to create 1 calorie of food in the United States. Affordable and nutritious foods must be grown in ways that mimic natural systems, restoring soils and with much lower inputs.
We are nourished by the eternal optimism of the farmer. For this irrepressible spirit to persist during these rapidly changing times, we need to do everything we can to re-engineer our diet around diversity, nature’s fundamental principle of health and resilience. Instead of despair, let’s use this summer’s dystopian visions to spur action. We know everything we need to know. There is no reason to delay.