It is increasingly clear that the industrialisation and intensification of farming in the UK have caused huge damage to our wildlife, soils and rivers. A growing number of scientists, anglers, and farmers are now speaking out about the rapid impoverishment of our countryside and the need to change our farming policies and subsidies. Change may be on the way.
The recently published consultation document from DEFRA entitled “Health and harmony: the future for food, farming and the environment in a Green Brexit” has been described by the Dorset Wildlife Trust as a potential revolution for farming and wildlife. Presented by the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, Michael Gove, the paper proposes a radical restructuring of the £3.5 billion subsidies that UK farmers currently get from the Common Agricultural Policy or CAP. In recent years, CAP payments were largely based on the size of the farm, providing unfair benefits to large land-owners. Mr Gove wants post-Brexit subsidies to be based on the delivery of “public goods”, such as more wildlife, healthier soils, better flood prevention and generally more sustainable and resilient rural communities for both humans and non-humans. It sounds wonderful, but it also makes a lot of sense. It’s an opportunity to help farmers become greener and also to realign their business strategy, diversify their products and benefit from the rapidly increasing consumer-led movement for more natural and healthier foods. Whatever your views on Brexit, none of us want to eat unhealthy food or see our environment deteriorate even more.
Soil erosion and degradation is one of the main concerns that DEFRA is trying to tackle. Farmers do not cause soil degradation deliberately, but the drive for cheap food has led many to work the soil harder over the past 60 years, with increasingly large and powerful machinery that compact the soil and exacerbate erosion. DEFRA estimates that farmers across England and Wales lose approximately 2.9 million tonnes of soil every year – that’s the weight of around 240,000 double-decker buses. A recent report by the World Wide Fund for Nature, Angling Trust and Rivers Trust entitled “Saving the Earth – A Sustainable Future for Soils and Water” examines the cost of soil degradation caused by current farming practices and highlights the risk this presents to future food security, particularly as soil erosion is now happening ten times faster than soil formation. The report describes the impact that increased pollution from sediment, nutrients, chemicals and slurry is having on our rural rivers and streams – only 14 percent of which are now considered healthy. The cost of this pollution is not only more expensive drinking water, as purification becomes more difficult, but the loss of those magical places that should be rich in wildlife, such as mayflies, kingfishers, trout, even otters.
The need for a new approach to farming is powerfully presented by Mark Cocker in his recent book “Our Place: Can we save Britain’s Wildlife before it is too late”. Cocker makes the point (a rather uncomfortable one) that the British regard themselves as lovers of nature yet live in one of the most denatured and wildlife-impoverished countries on Earth. We have lost a staggering 99 percent of our original flower meadows, numbers of farmland birds are plummeting – turtle doves may disappear from the UK. Bees, butterflies, hedgehogs, frogs, newts, barn owls, bats, cuckoos, the list goes on, are all in serious trouble. Cocker’s polemic is passionate but also grounded in science, drawing heavily on authoritative studies such as the State of Nature 2016. This comprehensive review of the status of British biodiversity states that “intensification of agriculture has had the biggest impact on wildlife, and this has been overwhelmingly negative. Over the period of our study (c40 years), farming has changed dramatically, with new technologies boosting yields often at the expense of nature”.
Most of the damage has happened in the East of England where soils are most fertile, but the less fertile pastures of the South-West have not been spared either. Ninety-eight percent of our grasslands, which once supported a huge diversity of grasses, wildflowers, bees and butterflies, have been “improved” by fertilisers, herbicides and reseeding with monocultures of fast-growing rye grass. Milk may be cheaper, but so much of the beauty and biodiversity of our landscape has been lost.
In 2015, over 17,800 tonnes of pesticides were used on British farms to kill weeds, insects and control crop diseases. The rapid increase in the use of glyphosate, the active ingredient in Roundup, has been particularly controversial. Glyphosate is a broad-spectrum herbicide that is not only used to kill weeds but is also often sprayed onto certain crops just before harvest to ensure they dry more uniformly. In the past 20 years, glyphosate use in the UK has increased by 400 percent and globally by a staggering 1,500 percent. It is one of three pesticides regularly found in routine testing of British bread, as carried out by the Defra committee on Pesticide Residues in Food (PRiF). Most people in Europe have glyphosate in their urine (Ecowatch, 2016). Monsanto, whose sales of glyphosate and glyphosate-resistant GMO seeds exceed $5 billion a year, have always claimed it is safe. That view was recently challenged by the International Agency on Cancer Research (part of the United Nations World Health Organisation) who found “convincing evidence that glyphosate can cause cancer in laboratory animals and is probably carcinogenic to humans”. Since then, hundreds of lawsuits have been filed against Monsanto by farm-workers and landscapers in the USA suffering from cancer.
The current trajectory of industrial farming is clearly not sustainable. We have been neglecting our soils and wildlife and allowed potentially harmful chemicals to enter our food. No one disputes the need to produce affordable food, but we need to start accounting for the real cost of food production. We need to include the costs to ecosystem services, to the life-support systems that provide us with clean water, healthy soils, pollinators, natural pest control, resilient and biodiverse landscapes, carbon sequestration, etc. We also need to include the cost that cheap food may impose on our health and the growing problem of chronic diseases linked to poor nutrition like diabetes, heart disease and cancer. Once we include all these “external costs”, cheap food may turn out to be something we can’t afford.
Mr Gove’s proposal is not suggesting that farmers abandon all herbicides and insecticides and go back to the Middle-Ages, but it is seeking stronger regulation to limit the risks to wildlife and humans. A more integrated approach to pest and weed management, using crop rotation, the use of biopesticides and encouraging natural predators. Simple measures like leaving wide margins around crops for wild-flowers, insects and birds have been shown to reduce the need for pesticides. The study of agroecology, once a fringe movement, is now recognised by many agronomists as an essential part of sustainable food production. Organic farming, agroforestry and permaculture, which all focus on soil health, are part of this increasing ecological awareness. The new farming subsidies proposed by DEFRA will encourage more farmers to switch to more enlightened and sustainable farming practices. While the details of how this might work are still unclear, the overall principle is certainly good news.
Restructuring government subsidies will make a big difference, but consumers also need to play their part in greening the agricultural sector. A GREAT Britain campaign aimed at supporting British farmers after Brexit would gain even more popular support if it was linked to high-profile wildlife conservation projects and rural job creation. Community Supported Agriculture (CSA), box schemes, food hubs and farmers’ markets are all helping to build trust between farmers and consumers, and we need to develop more food distribution systems that shorten the supply chain and give “green farmers” a greater share of our food bill. In 2015, it is estimated that of the £198 billion British consumers spent on groceries, nearly 90% was in the big seven supermarkets – Aldi, Asda, Lidl, Morrisons, Sainsbury, Tesco and Waitrose. More direct selling, with less food processing and less packaging, must be possible in this age of technological innovation and e-commerce.
A big push to eat more locally-grown fruit and vegetables would improve our health, but also create a lot of rural jobs. The Landworkers’ Alliance, a grassroots organisation based near Charmouth, is advocating for more resilient mixed-farming systems, with more horticulture and shorter supply chains. As they suggest, if just 10 percent of the £7.8 billion worth of fruit and vegetables currently imported was produced in the UK, this would bring £780 million into local economies.
Reshaping agriculture could be one of the real benefits from Brexit that could unite the British people, with a new future for farming and our countryside founded on our love of nature and healthy locally-grown food. Bring it on!
Ref: ISBN 978-1-5286-0138-2, CCS1217522878 02/18, CM9577PDF, 1.24MB, 64 pages
Study by Angling Trust, WWF and the Rivers Trust on Soil erosion
Other relevant references:
Can Organic Farming Feed Us All?