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Brexit & Sustainability: Time for a Farming Revolution?
” If we are to halt and reverse declining biodiversity, we have to reconcile farming and nature “
By Professor Dave Goulson, 16th July 2019.
Planet in Peril
We inherited a beautiful planet with abundant resources and natural wonders, and look set to hand it over to future generations in a parlous, degraded state. As a result of man’s many activities, our climate is changing, and may soon reach a point where it becomes a runaway process that we cannot stop. Our soils, rivers, air and seas are polluted with plastics, heavy metals, pesticides, fertilizers, and many thousands of other man-made chemicals. Globally, rainforests are shrinking, soil is eroding and degrading, rivers and aquifers are being drained, fish stocks are being over-harvested, and coral reefs are bleaching and dying. We are in the midst of the sixth mass extinction event, with species disappearing at a rate that the Earth has not experienced for 65 million years, since the dinosaurs were wiped out. A recent study from the World Wildlife Fund estimated that the abundance of wild vertebrates on the planet has fallen by 60% since 1970, within my own lifetime (I was born in 1965). Insects have also experienced massive declines in abundance; UK surveys show that butterflies, moths, bees and hoverflies have been in steady decline for at least five decades, and a recent study from Germany found that insect biomass on nature reserves has dropped by 76% over the last 26 years6, 10. This is particularly alarming, since insects are vital to the functioning of ecosystems8. They make up about 60% of all known species, and are food for many of the rest. They pollinate the large majority of wild plants and ¾ of the crops we grow. They recycle dung and corpses, keep the soil healthy, and control pests. In short, without insects, life as we know it would cease.
Why is wildlife disappearing? In short, it is due to us. We are destroying habitat around the globe, to make way for roads, factories, housing estates, open cast mines, car parks and much, much more. Intensive industrial farming in particular covers vast and growing areas of the Earth, eradicates almost all life from the land, focussing on growing endless monocultures of single crops that have to be drenched in fertilizers and pesticides. Five hundred different pesticides are licensed for use in the EU, 900 in the USA. Farmers in the UK alone apply 16.9 thousand tons of pesticide to the landscape each year4,5. Our landscape is awash with a toxic cocktail of poisons.
Wildlife versus Food?
If we are to halt and reverse declining biodiversity, we have to reconcile farming and nature. Seventy percent of the UK is farmland, and while that remains mostly inhospitable to life, the nation’s wildlife will always struggle. Most of us seem to accept that industrial farming is the only way we can feed the world, and we implicitly seem to accept that wildlife declines are unavoidable collateral damage. In a sense, it is a choice between nature and us; and of course we will always choose us. But is this really the choice? Is it impossible to grow food and support nature at the same time? I would argue that we can do both, that we can have our cake (or carrot) and eat it. I would go further, and argue that if we continue to pursue intensive, industrial farming we will wipe out not just nature but ultimately ourselves, for our very survival depends upon a healthy environment.
Options for more sustainable food production
One approach is to take conventional farming and tweak it to enhance biodiversity. For several decades we have used farm subsidies to support agri-environment schemes – planting wildflower strips, bird food strips, nesting plots for skylarks and so on. Roughly half a billion pounds is spent each year on such schemes, and there have been some small local successes, but at a national scale these measures have not halted the seemingly inexorable decline of our wildlife (though it would presumably have been worse without them). I would argue that this tinkering with the current system is not anywhere near enough; we need profound change to the way we grow food.
Another option would be to encourage more organic farming, to reduce the pesticide burden on the environment. An argument often used against organic farming is that it produces lower yields, so that if the world went organic we would need to bring even more land into production, with negative impacts for wildlife. It is true that organic yields are often lower – global estimates suggest that organic yields are 80-90% of those obtained by conventional farming1, 11. On the other hand, we currently waste approximately 1/3rd of all the food grown in the world, a staggering figure. If we could significantly reduce food waste, the whole world could abandon pesticides and we could still easily feed everybody. Consider too that people in developed countries now eat far more than is good for them, propelling an epidemic of obesity and diabetes that is estimated to cost the UK economy £27 billion per year, and rapidly rising9. Not only do we eat too much, but we eat too much unhealthy, processes food, and too much meat. Eating grain-fed beef is a spectacularly inefficient way of feeding people, requiring about thirty times the land that would be needed if a person ate plants directly. If we could reduce food waste, reduce overconsumption, and switch to eating only small quantities of meat (eliminating grain-fed beef entirely), we would need much less farmland than at present, while using no pesticides, and we would all be much healthier.
Learning from Allotments
So far this all sounds pretty attractive to me, but I think we need to go further. Some organic farms look pretty much like conventional farms; they are still trying to grow large monocultures of crops. This is difficult, because large scale monocultures are breeding grounds for pests. Even on an organic farm, a large field of wheat does not have much biodiversity, so that there are few natural enemies to control outbreaks of pests and diseases. I think there are better ways to grow food, and I would argue that farming could learn something from allotments. Allotments typically have lots of different crops grown in small patches, and often look quite messy. You might think them an unpromising model for what food production could look like, but let me tell you a little more about them.
Firstly, a recent study from Bristol University, based on data collected from around the UK, found that allotments had the highest insect diversity of any urban habitat, higher than gardens or city parks, higher even than city nature reserves2. Secondly, data we have been collecting at Sussex University on productivity of allotments suggests that they can produce a surprisingly large amount of food. Allotmenters regularly produce the equivalent of about 35 tons of food per hectare, a few producing even more. This compares very favourable to the main arable farmland crops in the UK, wheat and oilseed rape, which produce about 8 and 3 ½ tons per hectare, respectively (much of this going to animal feed or to produce the processes foods that helps make us fat). Bear in mind also that the allotment produce is ~zero food miles, zero packaging, healthy fruit a veg, often produced with minimal or no pesticides. Thirdly, allotment soils tend to be healthier than farmland soils, with more worms and higher carbon content, helping to tackle climate change3. Fourthly, an intriguing study from the Netherlands found that allotmenters tend to be healthier that neighbours without allotments, particularly in old age (though whether this was due to the consumption of fresh fruit and veg, the exercise gained from allotmenting, or perhaps from the social benefits of having an allotment was not clear)12. To summarise, allotments seem able to produce lots of food, support high biodiversity, have healthy soil, and make people healthy. A win, win, win, win. Producing food and supporting biodiversity are not mutually exclusive.
It is sad, then, that an estimated 90,000 people are on waiting lists for an allotment in the UK. Given the benefits above, wouldn’t government be wise to free up more land to accommodate these people? Perhaps a tiny fraction of the £3.5 billion currently given out in farm subsidies could be diverted to purchase of land for allotments? Some might also be spent on encouraging even more people to grow their own food (either in allotments or in their own garden), perhaps via a program of public education as to the benefits, and provision of training, support, and free vegetable seeds?
In the UK we currently consume about 6.9 million tons of fruit and veg per year, of which 77% is imported at a cost of £9.2 billion, shocking statistics when one considers that our climate and soils are well suited to growing many of these crops. Why do we import two thirds of the apples we eat, when we live in a land perfect for growing apples? Very crudely, under allotment-style management, all of our current fruit and veg consumption could be grown in the UK on just 200,000 ha of land (the equivalent of 40% of the current area of gardens, or just 2% of the current area of farmland).
What is it about allotments and small-scale veggie gardens that enables them to produce abundant food while supporting a healthy environment? There are a number of factors. Small patches of crops are much less susceptible to pests, which find it much harder to locate their preferred food amidst all the other crops. Natural enemies such as ladybirds, ground beetles and hoverflies tend to be much more abundant, and the diversity of vegetation provides plenty of places for them to hide, so even if pests do find a crop they tend not to flourish. As a result, it is easy to grow plentiful fruit and veg without using pesticides. Pollinator populations are high, also benefiting from the diversity of habitats, so crops yields are not limited by a shortage of pollinators. By growing dozens of different crops in close proximity, the allotmenter gets multiple harvests per year, rather than just one. Different crops can be grown between one another, making maximum use of the space. The allotment is never stripped bare (as happens when an arable crop is harvested), so the soil does not erode and organic matter can build up over time. Perennial crops such as fruit bushes, rhubarb and trees also help to hold the soil together.
Farming systems already exist which use these principals. Permaculture, agroforestry, and biodynamic farming are all variants on this theme. They are often regarded as ‘alternative’, left-field, ‘hippy’ approaches to food production, but their basic approaches are ecologically sound and deserve to be more mainstream, with suitable investment in support and research. The only real downside to this type of food production is that it is much more labour intensive. Industrial farming is heavily mechanised and requires very few people (a major driver of the demise of rural communities). To scale up allotmenting or permaculture to provide a significant proportion of our food supply would require getting many more people back on to the land, but would that be such a bad thing? It is predicted that many traditional occupations will disappear in the next few years as advances in technology and Artificial Intelligence make us humans redundant. Perhaps one of the ways we could find gainful employment is by expanding small-scale agriculture.
A vision of the future
I have a fanciful vision, in which our cities are scattered through and ringed by allotments, and by small, productive, labour-intensive market garden/permaculture farms, so that most of the fruit, vegetables, eggs and chicken eaten by city dwellers is grown within a few miles of where they live. In this world, people have reconnected with nature and with the benefits of eating quality, fresh, seasonal, local produce.
This might all seem far-fetched, but it is not impossible. Whatever your view on Brexit, it frees us from the Common Agricultural Policy and provides a golden opportunity to turn farming on its head, to make the radical changes that are urgently needed before most of our wildlife and our soils have gone. The £3.5 billion per year in farm subsidies currently takes taxpayers’ money and uses it to support industrial farming, with the most money going to the biggest landowners. Imagine if instead this money was given to small-scale, truly sustainable farming systems, aimed at producing food for local consumption, so that such small farms become financially viable. We should have government-funded experimental farms doing research into how to optimise this type of agriculture. If a gardener or allotmenteer can get thirty five tons of food from a hectare of land without any training or research and development to back them up, imagine what might be possible if we took a scientific approach to properly evaluating the best practices. Researchers could investigate which combinations of crops grow best together, develop crop varieties best suited to this form of farming, test how to boost populations of useful insects such as ladybirds or earwigs, and work out how best to ensure that the organic matter content of soils slowly grows over time, rather than declining. With this approach to growing food we could have a truly sustainable farming system that helps to combat climate change rather than driving it, and in which wildlife thrives and people have access to plentiful, locally produced and nutritious food. We do not have to continue headlong towards environmental Armageddon. It is not too late to save our planet, but to do so we need to learn to live alongside nature. If you really want to leave your grandchildren a healthy planet to live on, it’s time to get out in the garden or allotment and dig.
About Our Expert
It is genuinely important that we find the way home with a help from experts in the field, so here’s a little about the author of this piece, commissioned especially by Cynefin Hedge Fund to enhance our understanding of the changing world around us.
Dave Goulson is Professor of Biology at University of Sussex, specializing in bee ecology. He has published more than 290 scientific articles on the ecology and conservation of bumblebees and other insects. He is the author of Bumblebees; Their Behaviour, Ecology and Conservation, published in 2010 by Oxford University Press, and of the Sunday Times bestseller A Sting in the Tale, a popular science book about bumble bees, published in 2013 by Jonathan Cape, and now translated into fourteen languages. This was followed by A Buzz in the Meadow in 2014, Bee Quest in 2017, and The Garden Jungle in 2019. Goulson founded the Bumblebee Conservation Trust in 2006, a charity which has grown to 12,000 members. He was the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council’s Social Innovator of the Year in 2010, was given the Zoological Society of London’s Marsh Award for Conservation Biology in 2013, was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh in 2013, and given the British Ecological Society Public Engagement Award in 2014. In 2015 he was named number 8 in BBC Wildlife Magazine’s list of the top 50 most influential people in conservation.
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