More and more people are asking this question, which is not surprising, because these days everyone is worried about the impact of intensive farming systems on climate change, biodiversity loss and public health.
UNTIL recently the debate about climate change was largely confined to exploring ways to switch to renewable energy production, more efficient heating systems and transportation. But now, the IPCC and many others are concluding that our farming and food systems are responsible for a very significant share of total greenhouse gas emissions – possibly up to 30 per cent, according to some estimates.
I have had the very good fortune to be involved with the application of sustainable farming principles for more than 40 years on my 300-acre mixed organic dairy farm in west Wales, producing a raw milk cheddar style cheese from the milk of my 80 Ayrshire cows.
Our farming practices are based on the principles of the circular economy and the law of return. We aim to produce as much food as possible from the natural capital over which we have stewardship on our beautiful hill, while at the same time looking after the soil, the wildflowers and biodiversity, and of course the people and the human skills that they represent, as we would never want to diminish these resources that we have inherited. This for me is the challenge that confronts all the world’s farmers right now.
However, unfortunately in the period since the Second World War when nitrogen fertiliser and pesticides became widely available, farming has become a mining operation. Although farmers have succeeded in dramatically increasing yields, they have done so at the expense of degrading our soils, destroying biodiversity and polluting our water and air. Although we now have plenty of food that seems cheap when we purchase it in the supermarket, its nutritional density has declined dramatically and very often intensively produced foods contain chemical residues that are harmful to our health.
On a wider scale, Professor Johan Rockström has calculated that our food and farming systems are operating outside so-called planetary boundaries and, in order to address the multiple crises of climate change, biodiversity loss, soil degradation and damage to human health, fundamental changes in farming methods will have to be applied, not just locally but globally within the next 10 to 20 years if we are to avoid a breakdown of current civilisation caused by a combination of climate change, growing food insecurity and damage to public health.
Against this background, it is hardly surprising that more and more of us are thinking hard about what we should eat to be part of the solution rather than part of the problem. Over the last few years a number of highly influential reports have addressed this question, notably the EAT-Lancet report, published in 2019, which unsurprisingly had enormous media coverage, bearing in mind its 37 high-profile authors and the fact that it was funded by the Wellcome Trust and published by one of the world’s most prestigious medical journals.
The key recommendations of the report included the adoption of a plant based sustainable and healthy diet comprising a dramatic reduction of livestock products, with a particular emphasis on red meat. Linked to the very considerable publicity that this report attracted and the more general discussion about the damage that ruminant animals, namely cattle and sheep, are perceived to be causing to our climate through methane omissions, there has been a very significant increase in people adopting vegetarian or vegan diets.
Of course the Sustainable Food Trust completely understands and supports those who have ethical objections to eating livestock products, but when it comes to the right diet to address the emergent crises that I identified at the beginning of this chapter, we take a different position.
Our recommendation is that to be healthy and sustainable, the best diet should be related to the productive capacity of the country or region where we live. For obvious reasons this will vary according to the climate, rainfall, latitude, geography and cultural traditions of the region. However, in the UK, we are a landscape of grassland – in fact around two-thirds of the total area is in permanent or temporary pasture, which has important implications for our diets, because the only way that we can turn grassland into food is by grazing it with ruminant animals.
That is why pasture-fed and mainly pasture-fed red meat used to form the staple part of our meat intake, with chicken and pork as an occasional luxury. The agricultural intensification which commenced in the 1970s changed all that, since with the availability of chemical fertilisers and pesticides, grain production costs were reduced and this important development, combined with so-called genetic improvement of poultry breeding, heralded the beginning of a new chapter of cheap chicken production. The result of this is that since the 1980s beef and lamb production has declined by around 25%, whereas chicken consumption has dramatically increased by several hundred per cent.
Back to the EAT-Lancet report: the authors recommend a weekly intake of approximately four ounces of red meat, in other words one beef burger or equivalent, and four times that amount of chicken. The Sustainable Food Trust takes a very different position, based on our estimate of the production that would result from the application of sustainable farming practices on the entire British landscape. In our view, a sustainable diet would comprise more vegetables and lightly processed plant foods such as grains, no intensively produced chicken or pork whatsoever or dairy products from intensive dairy farms, but probably a slight increase in consumption of grass-fed and mainly grass-fed lamb and beef and dairy products from sustainable systems.
The reason we would recommend this diet is because it would be consistent with the output of the farming systems we need to reverse the degradation of soil fertility which has been a feature of the post-war period of farming intensification. As an example, if you take a mainly arable farm in the east of England and apply the principles of sustainable agriculture, the farmer concerned will need to introduce a crop rotation split around 50-50 between fertility-building grass and clover and arable crops such as wheat, barley, potatoes and vegetables. In order to enable the farmer concerned to make a decent living out of such practices, we have to eat the food that comes from this farming system.
All this begs an important question – how many farmers are moving in this direction? Right now, the answer is not very many, and the main reason for this is because farmers are operating in an economic environment where they have to follow the best business case and currently it pays better to farm intensively than it does to adopt the sustainable farming systems that I have described above. What could be done about this? Firstly, the government needs to redirect the payments that farmers have been receiving during our membership of the common agricultural policy.
Until now, these have effectively been social security payments which all farmers can receive as long as they don’t break the law. In a post-Brexit world, we are recommending that these payments of around £100 per acre per year should be targeted on rewarding sustainable farming practices such as crop rotations, building soil carbon and pasture diversity and the increased production of nutrient dense food.
It is of critical importance that not only should the subsidies be redirected, but that we also apply the ‘polluter pays’ principle, regulating against farming inputs and practices that have damaging environmental or public health outcomes, either in the form of taxes or as a condition of the receipt of future subsidies.
Take the example of dairy farming – I believe that UK dairy farmers have become commodity slaves, trapped in a race to the bottom, producing milk from ever more industrialised dairy farming systems. We’ve been forced into this position by brutal price pressures from milk buyers and damaging consumer preference for dishonestly priced, but apparently ever cheaper, dairy products.
The terrible truth is that these trends have been accelerating for most of my farming career. Dairy farming intensification has led not only to overproduction, but increasingly to ‘cow stories‘ that we wouldn’t want our consumers to know about. One shocking statistic is that more than 50% of the milk produced in the UK now comes from permanently housed herds.
I went into milk production in 1973, as one of the hippy generation of ‘back to the landers’. We purchased 30 Ayrshire dairy cows and decided to farm sustainably, but quickly learned that our practices were less profitable than those of our more ‘conventional’ neighbours.
So in response, we decided to write a prescription for sustainable dairy farming, which ended up becoming the world’s first draft of the organic dairy standards. This might have been all very well for us because we could get a higher price for the milk, but meanwhile, most of the remaining dairy farming community were trapped on that treadmill of intensification.
More recently we’ve been able to carve out a niche market for our relatively expensive cheddar cheese, plus I’ve also got a day job working for the Sustainable Food Trust, which has enabled me to continue to apply my sustainable principles without feeling the cold winds of the global dairy commodity market.
Although through good fortune we managed to escape the intensification treadmill, I don’t blame for a moment the majority of dairy farmers who have had no choice but to follow the best business case.
However, we are now witnessing the devastating consequences of this 50 year sequence of events, including what might be described as the ethnic cleansing by price of virtually the entire smaller scale dairy farming community, particularly in West Wales.
To add insult to this injury, millions of consumers are now switching to vegetarian and vegan diets, because they are repelled by the perception that the modern dairy farm cow has become the casualty of an industry whose scale and attendant economic pressures prevents her from being loved and cared for in a way which is consistent with our obligation to respect the lives of the animals we farm.
Can all these trends be reversed? Yes, I believe they can, but only if the dairy farming community throws its support behind a multi-pronged initiative, working on three levels.
First, we need top-down action from government in the form of redirected Pillar I payments, which offer rewards for dairy farmers who are less intensive, have smaller herds and whose cows are out to grass for at least six months of the year, in other words those who deliver environmental and social benefits. Such payments should not be available to permanently housed herds.
Secondly, we need to apply the ‘polluter pays’ principle, taxing inputs and practices which have damaging consequences to the environment and public health, including nitrogen fertiliser and prophylactic antibiotic use.
Thirdly, we need a harmonised and transparent labelling scheme, which empowers consumers by providing accurate information about the degree of sustainability and provenance of all dairy products.
Some dairy farmers and companies reading this might have legitimate concerns about the potential for dairy imports to undercut our UK higher standards and cost of production, if we introduced some of the ‘carrots’ and ‘sticks’ I have described above.
In response, we are advocating the introduction of an internationally harmonised system of sustainability audits, facilitating trade in sustainably traded foodstuffs and applying tariffs and taxes to lower standard imports.
Some might think this is a far-fetched proposal, but I would remind them we are in the last chance saloon so far as climate change is concerned, and farmers are in the front line in terms of addressing most of the actions which could lower emissions, enhance biodiversity and improve public health.
In my opinion, we have no choice but to take these steps, because if we leave things as they are with current intensive dairy farming practices paying better than their sustainable counterparts, we will all be the long-term losers.
Encouragingly, there are signs that both Defra and the Welsh government are listening to this new need and are in the process of introducing policy measures that will, for the first time in my farming lifetime, reward sustainable practices and outcomes and penalise farming systems that are causing damage to soil, water, air, biodiversity, nutrient density and public health. This is a tremendously exciting development, but not before time in relation to taking the necessary actions to avoid a collapse of civilisation as we know it. I believe the key to stabilising our climate, our soils and our food systems is to transform the way we farm, operating within the planetary boundaries that I mentioned right at the beginning of this chapter.
If you want to support the changes that I have described above, you could do so using your individual citizen power in two ways: first, you can buy food that comes from sustainable production systems from farms that are as close to where you live as possible. Secondly, you could use your citizen power as an elector and a voter by putting pressure on politicians to introduce the measures I have outlined and which could improve the economic environment for sustainable food production.