The farming community overwhelmingly voted for Brexit – polls conducted by Farmers’ Weekly, AgriChat and others consistently showed nearly 60% of farmers wanted to leave the EU, giving their main reason as wishing to ‘take back control’[i]. With 55% of total farm income in the UK coming from the EU single farm payment and other agri-environmental support schemes, that majority vote would seem to suggest farmers believe they can survive and thrive, producing goods for sale on the ‘free-market’, without any hand-outs.
Yet post Brexit, the agricultural press has been full of demands from the farming lobby that the UK Government – and so the British taxpayer – must continue to match the £3 billion currently provided annually to UK farmers through the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP). In similar apparent contradiction to the predominant concern raised by those who voted to leave the EU (‘uncontrolled immigration’), farmers’ leaders have also been demanding that the large proportion of migrant workers upon which UK farming is dependent, must continue to be available to them. UK farming’s reliance on EU labour is even greater than its underpinning by EU cash. Whereas UK businesses as a whole rely on 5% migrant labour, for agriculture that rises to 65% (and that’s excluding seasonal workers!) – amounting to over 34,500 non-UK citizens, mainly from EU Eastern European member states, toiling in the fields to fill supermarket shelves with ‘British grown’ strawberries and broccoli – and also as the mainstay of the intensive pig, poultry, dairy and associated abattoir and processing plants.
Many UK farmers seem to have at best an ambivalent, at worst a hypocritical, view when it comes the EU. They want ‘out’ from any constraints on their business and yet ‘in’ on holding onto the freedom to trade within Europe and the wider, world market – whilst still benefiting from cash hand-outs and cheap labour.
A rationale posted on an online farming forum by one producer reveals that for some ‘taking back control’ more accurately meant ‘removing controls’. His post pithily itemised the reasons for wanting to leave Europe:
‘1. Three-crop rule
What he is objecting to, or believes he is objecting to, are requirements or restrictions introduced by the EU on farming practice and on the use of certain agrochemicals. In fact, the ‘three crop rule’ was not something imposed on farmers by the EU, but agreed upon by elected MEPs and which only applies to farms above 30 hectares (c.75 acres and above). To put that in proportion, one of the farms managed by the Countryside Restoration Trust (CRT), which I do some work for, routinely has between nine to eleven different crops in the ground – adding hugely to the diversity of habitat for wildlife, whilst breaking the monotony of mono-cropping for the farmer. The three pesticides listed by the pro-Brexit farmer have been restricted or are proposed to be restricted due to scientific evidence of their negative impacts on the environment or human health. Whilst there are counter-claims (mainly coming from their manufacturers) as to any impacts being influenced by how the products are applied and what other, if any, mitigating measures individual farmers are or are not employing, when it comes to human health or that of the bees and other pollinating insects upon which most food production depends the precautionary principle (people and planet before product) should surely apply?
It is illuminating to see these objections expressed so bluntly, revealing that they, and the apparently contradictory views above, come from a corporate and solely commercial perspective, which regards the farmed landscape as merely another industrial resource from which profitable outputs can be extracted – assuming key inputs of capital, chemicals and cheap labour are applied.
This narrow perspective from UK Agribiz is not one that considers the wider, complex, living, working countryside. One which is farmed with wildlife in mind whilst seeking to produce good food, at a fair price to farmer and consumer without that being at the expense of human or environmental health. I do not believe that corporate perspective is representative of all farmers, certainly not the ones I work with. Brexit should provide an opportunity not for yet another ‘review of UK farming’, which has been conducted on several occasions by various ‘Commissions’ (generally composed of the usual suspects from the establishment farming bodies and almost equally unimaginative, mainstream conservation organisations), but for more thoughtful consideration of how we can develop systems of farming that produce decent sustainable food, jobs and sustain the ecological services that underpin those every bit as much and more than artificial inputs of agrochemicals.
Interestingly, one of the usually more establishment conservation bodies, The National Trust, and the largest landowner in the UK (excluding the Forestry Commission), has stirred things up by calling for an “ending to the system of Single Farm Payments”, whereby farmers and landowners get money simply by dint of owning land – the more you have, the more cash you get (Hence, the outrage at the NT’s proposals from big farmers and estate owners). The current system has clearly not been helping the type of farming and farmer that groups like the CRT seek to support – smaller, ‘family farms’, typically ranging from under 100 acres to a few hundred acres. Over the last decade, over 20,000 such family farms have gone out of business, amalgamated into bigger, ‘more efficient’ units, but which provide fewer livelihoods in a less diverse countryside.
The National Trust correctly notes that despite the £500 – 600 million annually paid to farmers in alleged agri-environment payments, numbers of farmland birds and other species have continued to crash – with a 60% decline in key species recorded over the past 50 years. Yet the NT and the other big conservation bodies (like the big farming bodies), seem to want to hold onto the basic framework of the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy, simply shifting the emphasis so payments are only given in return for delivering public and environmental goods. The Trust’s Six Principles are sound, but there is the same flaw in the proposed as the present system. Farmers, like the one above, who don’t want any controls on the practices or products they use, will simply farm outside any support system that the NT or anyone else comes up with. The result being a two-tier system of farming – corporate ‘hell-for-leather, sod soil or wildlife protection and animal welfare’, practised by agribiz on the most productive land with conservation farming holding on in the margins and only viable through public hand-outs. Exactly the bifurcated system, Sir Derek Barber advocated back in 1990, when he referred derogatorily to such conservation farming as “half-cock farming”, preferring what he termed “high pitched buzz farming”. He held no brief for the integration and balancing of commercial farming with wildlife everywhere, including the prairies of East Anglia, “Why clutter up such landscapes with thin green threads of new hedges? Why not let this type of highly efficient grain country get on with its job of producing a tonne of wheat at the very lowest cost?”[ii]
For all its failings, after decades of driving farming in the wrong direction of over-production, intensification and degradation of soil, water and wildlife, the CAP had been making adjustments to attempt to integrate farming with environmental considerations; finally recognising the role of healthy soils, clean water sources and diverse ecological systems in sustaining food security and human health. The last thing needed now is a return to Barber’s bifurcated vision of a farmed landscape dominated by featureless food prairies and factory farms, with Beatrix Potter theme farms preserved for urban day trippers at the margins.
The National Trust is right to state that farmers should only receive public money for delivering public goods and benefits – increasing wildlife on their farms, using their land to hold flood water, improving the structure of their soil so as to store even greater quantities of carbon etc. But like other big conservation bodies, the Trust seems to be forgetting something rather fundamental about farming – its primary purpose to feed us. The CAP must not morph simply into a ‘BAP’ – a Biodiversity Agricultural Policy – focused wholly on wildlife. We need a farming policy that strives to restore ecological complexity in our farmed landscapes because widespread presence and plethora of biodiversity are understood to be the foundations for building a resilient, sustainable farming system – one capable of feeding our Nation in the face of future shocks and challenges. We may no longer be blockaded by the U-boats as during WWII, but climate change, over-reliance on transporting food vast distances, and increasing numbers of hungry people in countries that currently export foodstuffs to us are real, long-term challenges to our food security.
[ii] Barber, D, Anatomy of a ‘Green’ Agriculture, Massey Ferguson Award, January 1990.
In his riposte to Clive Aslet’s Observer piece, ‘The English Countryside has never had it so good’, Tobias Jones unpicks much of that Panglossian perspective that’s had me grinding my teeth over for the past fortnight. Aslet urges readers to celebrate what he sees as an English countryside in a far better state than that which he perceived in previous decades when working for Country Life, first as a free-ranging journalist and then editor. ‘Sees’ and ‘perceives’ – as his view, whilst lyrically expressed, lacks the concentrated focus to penetrate the surface gloss.
Jones quotes Graham Harvey’s dated, but still definitive, book, ‘The Killing of the Countryside’ which, as well as highlighting those often ploughed over figures about ‘140,000 miles of hedgerow grubbed out’ and ‘95% of herb-rich wildflower meadows’ drained and ‘improved’ since 1945, correctly identified that it was (as it continues to be) short-sighted, narrow perspective policy that drove the destruction. In particular of a form of farming that produced both good food and good countryside sustainably – half a century before that eco-buzz term had been coined:
“At the start of the last war there were almost half a million farms in Britain including part-time holdings. The majority were small, mixed units of less than 50 acres with cattle, sheep, pigs and poultry as well as some arable crops. Before the age of state protection, farmers needed to grow a range of products for financial security. If the price of any one product collapsed, there were others to buffer them against ruin.
Economically this mixed-farm structure was extremely stable. It also happened to produce a vigorous and attractive countryside, rich in wildlife and largely free of pollution… Never had the British countryside looked so good. Never had it supported a richer diversity of habitat and wild species. Yet it cost taxpayers nothing.
If the politicians had truly understood agriculture they would have recognized the mixed-farm structure as a national treasure to be nurtured and prized. Instead they set farming on a calamitous dash for intensification that was to put three-quarters of those farmers out of business.”
The statistic contained in that last sentence gets less attention than those routinely rehearsed losses to wildlife – wherein there has been an equivalent attrition of those who made a living from and on the land. In the 25 years between 1964 (before Aslet joined Country Life) and 1989, the number of farms in the UK fell by over 40%:
- From 445,000 holdings in 1964 to 252,000 by 1989 – i.e.nearly 200,000 gone in just one generation
- A further 40,000 farms have gone out of business or been amalgamated into bigger, more intensive units over the past 20 to 30 years.
Clive Aslet appears to have had an enjoyable working life; looking out through the windows of a first class railway carriage en route to appreciate the architecture of some country house or motoring up the M6 for a week-end at a great estate in Scotland. I do the same on my train journeys, albeit with more modest destinations, speculating as vistas of landscape and countryside whizz by, on what and who lives there – and daydreaming as to what I would do if I had stewardship. But knowing that, outside the bubble of that carriage and daydream, a closer, more considered scrutiny on the ground would reveal stresses and fault-lines in the physical places themselves and those seeking to make a living from them.
To recalibrate his vision, Aslet might take the train from London to Cambridge from whence he began his career as a writer. Travelling out from Kings Cross, once past the suburbia of Potters Bar and the pony paddocks of the wider, more affluent London hinterland, the train enters the bleak, fertiliser-soaked, fluorescent-green ‘fields’ of Cambridgeshire, where a few remnant hedges hang on untended and purposeless in a landscape empty of livestock and people.
A landscape turned over exclusively to pumping out crops for feeding factory-farmed pigs and poultry, for adding to highly-processed goods like margarine, or for extraction as industrial oils.
‘Cheap food’? Possibly. ‘Hurrah’? Probably not.
“A clod of earth seems at first sight to be the embodiment of the stillness of death…”
So Sir John Russell opened his unexpectedly compelling book, ‘The World of Soil’ first published in 1957, a year before my birth. I quoted Russell’s words as part of my summing-up at this year’s Land & Food Forum (17/10/15) held at Avon Wildlife Trust’s Feed Bristol site, to show that despite 2015 being the United Nation’s first ‘International Year of the Soil’, the earth beneath our feet and from which much of our food still derives has been of concern for some decades.
Soil was very much the concern of those attending this year’s Forum, with Feed Bristol sitting on the tip of the ‘Blue Finger’ – which as its name suggest is a pointer of land made up of Grades 1, 2 and 3 (‘best and most versatile’) agricultural soils running from the edge of the city out to the great Medieval tithe barn at Winterbourne. ‘Blue’ because that’s the colour used on the soil classification maps to depict these most productive, valuable ‘clods of earth’.
To finish Sir John’s poetic, scientifically underpinned, quote, ‘…but its apparent quiescence is completely illusory; physical, chemical and biological processes are ceaselessly active, bringing about continuous cycles of change, some upgrading, some downgrading, but buffered and saved from violence by the clay and organic matter. A steady balance is thus maintained…’
Scientifically underpinned, because Russell was director of Rothamsted research station for 30 years, the foremost agricultural research station in the world. His genius was to bring what seemed a dry, desiccated ‘dead’ subject matter to life, translating the science into layperson’s language without condescension so ably that it was re-issued as a ’best-seller’ under the Fontana imprint just three years after first publication.The health and availability of soil has again been hitting the headlines in the context of food security. With the world’s human population burgeoning from 2.8 billion in 1957 to over 7 billion today and predicted to ‘peak’ at 9.6 – 11 billion by 2050, it has been estimated that global food production will need to increase by a staggering 70%. Optimists note that comparably massive increases in productivity have been achieved over the past 60 years, certainly assisted by techniques developed by agronomists at Rothamsted and elsewhere, but mainly through the primary input of oil at every level of food production: fertilisers and pesticides, fuelling machinery for cultivation and harvesting, through to processing, packaging and distribution.
Soil Not Oil!
Oil rather than Soil has been the limiting factor for sustaining and increasing productivity. Oil is incredibly energy dense; just two teaspoonfuls of diesel equate to the daily effort of one of the growers and landworkers attending the Land & Food Forum! The food system’s heavy dependence on oil – it takes around 400 gallons of oil to provide a year’s worth of food for the average US citizen – raised concerns amongst policymakers when during the last decade oil prices soared to $147 dollars a barrel. Geologists and environmentalists warned of impending ‘Peak Oil’, as it seemed remaining reserves were dwindling or beyond technology to exploit. That proved a false alarm: a plethora of further reserves were found, extraction techniques evolved to squeeze out the last drops from all but the most inaccessible sources – and the global economic slow-down reduced oil demand. But the principle holds that we need to move away from such heavy dependence on oil, not because it’s running out, but because if we continue to burn fossil fuels, our planet will no longer be habitable due to climate change. A recent study published in Nature concluded that if we are to achieve the 2 degrees Celsius increase in global temperatures deemed tolerable, then 83% of global coal reserves, 49% of all gas, and 33% of remaining oil reserves must be left in the ground unburnt.
So after 60 years of being seen as little more than a substrate to stand crops up in, the health and capacity of our soils has again become of concern – and not just to the pioneering growers and ‘soil-heads’ to be found at this year’s Land & Food Forum. A Parliamentary Briefing of 2006 devoted to the state of UK soils, unearthed the findings of the late, great Soil Survey of England and Wales (sold off in 1987 by Mrs Thatcher) that 44% of arable soils in England and Wales were at risk of erosion. The 2006 briefing, ‘UK Soil Degradation’, gave an unsettling update – 17% of English arable land is now classified as actually eroded and even more alarmingly, it noted that nearly one-fifth of all organic matter present in our soils in 1980 had been beaten out of existence (along with all its myriad microorganisms) by 1995. Were Sir John Russell still with us to examine those clods of earth he would find that they are now indeed little more than the ‘embodiment of the stillness of death’. With that loss of organic matter the soil’s other key ecosystem service of locking away carbon dioxide is stripped away. Research published last year by Sheffield University scientists, Drs Jill Edmondson and Nigel Dunnett, secured the attention grabbing headlines, ‘Only 100 Harvests Left!’ Their work comparing the organic matter content of rural soils with those found in urban gardens, parks and allotments – showed the latter contained over 30% more organic matter and thus are far more resilient than the farmed fields currently producing most of our food.
As I write, my daughter’s school like many others across the country has been celebrating its Harvest Festival. There is something hugely touching and encouraging in this timeless marking and celebration of the harvest being brought home – just as it was brought into the Tithe Barn at Winterbourne back in the 14th Century. The fruit, vegetables, bread, tins of beans etc. brought into schools and churches to dress the harvest displays, mostly purchased from the nearest supermarket may not even have been grown in our soils – but if they were, the levels of key minerals, trace elements and micronutrients they contain will be much lower than those found in the foodstuffs raised from our soils of 50 – 60 years ago. That apparent cornucopia of produce piled up on supermarket shelves looks cosmetically perfect, but nutritionally may be little better than eating cotton wool – filling our stomachs, but not sustaining optimum health.
The data underpinning such apparently hyperbolic statements has been rigorously compiled over 50 years by two of the under-sung saints of public health, Professor Robert McCance and Dr Elsie Widdowson, who worked together to compile ‘the most detailed and sophisticated historical records of the nutrient values of foods available to any nation worldwide’. Amongst food scientists, nutritionists and agricultural researchers, their life’s work, ‘The Composition of Foods 1940-91’ and its subsequent forms is simply referred to as ‘McCance and Widdowson’. Over five decades they revealed some alarming trends in the state of our soils and consequently the state of our food: key minerals and trace elements that underpin our physical and wellbeing, the absence or imbalance of which are linked to increasingly prevalent conditions such as ADHD, depression, stress, anxiety, mental illness, have been leached out:
• Dairy milk, by 1991, had lost 97% of the copper, 83% of the iron found in 1940
• Vegetables contained 76% less copper, 46% less calcium, 24% less magnesium
• Meat had less than half the copper and iron found in 1940.
A recent, similar study from the US corroborates McCance and Widdowson’s findings and concluded that it is modern intensive farming techniques that are the most likely cause. A summary of that US study was published serendipitously in New Scientist magazine on the day of the Land & Food Forum. Modern intensive farming appears far more efficient than the low-carbon, human-powered horticulture practised at sites like Feed Bristol, but increasingly produces ‘Ersatz’ rather than truly nourishing foods.
With his natural bent for turning a good phrase and creating a memorable image, John Russell talked of ‘a tablespoonful of healthy soil’ containing more living mini-beasts and microorganisms than there were humans on Earth (In 1957 the global population stood at 2.8 billion – perhaps questionable today with 7.3 billion people on Earth) and that a healthy pasture held an equivalent weight of those essential engineers, earthworms, beneath each beast that grazed above them. Healthy soil not only teems with life vital for its fertility, but which nourishes us in other ways. One of those myriad micro-organisms, Mycobacterium vaccae, has been found to have the same effect on our biochemistry as Prozac. Professor Chris Lowry and colleagues at the University identified the process whereby the microbe activated neurons in the brain that contain serotonin, the ‘happy brain chemical’. Under the stressed situation of being put in a tank of water, mice inoculated with M. vaccae continued swimming for 2.5 minutes longer than control mice. Presumably the inoculated mice had a greater sense of optimism that the professors would eventually rescue them! This microbe, available free to all gardeners, allotment holders, and growers, can be breathed in, absorbed via the skin or more readily through cuts and grazes. The old adage about the benefits of ‘getting your hands dirty’ holds more veracity than we suspected.
The healing power of soils, of working in, and being connected to nature and natural processes is an area gaining increasing credence and interest. Several Wildlife Trusts, including Avon Wildlife Trust and Wiltshire Wildlife Trust, run ‘Nature, Health and Wellbeing’ programmes – and a number of GPs and health professionals refer patients to ‘Green Care’ and ‘Ecotherapy’ sessions. But despite a mounting body of evidence, mainstream medicine still prioritises prescribing pharmaceuticals – even though they can cause side-effects identical to those they are supposed to cure . As well as side-effects on patients, pharmaceuticals affect our environment – with 30-90% of active ingredients simply passing through our bodies and escaping into our rivers and streams from sewage treatment works, wildlife is being medicated on a wholesale basis. Anti-inflammatory drugs have been isolated from the fur of otters tested across six English counties. Starlings and other birds that feed on the rich insect life that arises from sewage works’ filter beds have been shown to accumulate antidepressants causing them to lose their appetite and libido – so reducing their breeding rates.
Pioneering individuals and organisations, like those represented at the Land & Food Forum, recognise the need to heal and renew our depleted, battered soils – if we are to heal and renew ourselves. Amongst those pioneers are the Soil Sisters , who brought ritual, celebration and some much needed fun to leaven discussions around the weighty issue of soil degradation – and a serious policy proposal in the form of a ‘Declaration for Soils’ . At the heart of that Declaration lies, ‘the need to reconnect to soil as a fundamental building block of a sustainable resilient city’ and for enabling more people to make that connection and literally get their hands (and hearts) in the soil. In that aim, today’s Soil Sisters share the vision of Soil Association founder, Eve Balfour, who in her seminal work ‘The Living Soil’ published in 1943 wrote,
‘My subject is food which concerns everyone; it is health which concerns everyone; it is soil, which concerns everyone – though they may not realise it.’
The World of Soil, Sir E. John Russell, The New Naturalist Series, 1957
Issued by The Fontana Library, 1961.
UN World Population prospects: the 2010 revision.
Pimental D & Giampetro M, Food, Land, Population and the US Economy, Carrying Capacity Network 1994.
The global soil carbon pool is approximately 3.1 times larger than the atmospheric pool of 800 GT (Oelkers & Cole 2008). Only the ocean has a larger carbon pool, at about 38,400 GT of C, mostly in inorganic forms (Houghton 2007).
Nutrition and Health, 2007, Vol. 19, pp. 21–55 0260–1060/07 THE MINERAL DEPLETION OF FOODS AVAILABLE TO US AS A NATION (1940–2002) – A Review of the 6th Edition of McCance and Widdowson, DAVID THOMAS, Fellow of the Geological Society, founder Member of the Register of Nutritional Therapists.
New Scientist, No 3043, Empty Calories, Modern food is plentiful…but is it still good for us, 17 October 2015.
Lowry CA, et al., Identification of an immune-responsive mesolimbocortical serotonergic system: Potential role in regulation of emotional behaviour, Neuroscience (2007), doi: 10.1016/j.neuroscience.2007.01.067
Wellbeing benefits from natural environments rich in wildlife, A literature review for The Wildlife Trusts, 2015. Dr Rachel Bragg, Dr Carly Wood, Dr Jo Barton and Professor Jules Pretty.
For example, Fluoxetine, a selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor (SSRI) class of antidepressant – brand name, Prozac – causes anxiety in 1 in 100 patients; suicidal tendencies in 1 in 1000. Source: nhs.uk/medicine-guides.
Qualitative detection of the NSAIDs diclofenac and ibuprofen in the hair of Eurasian otters (Lutra lutra) occupying UK waterways with GC–MS. Richards, N.L., Cook, G., Simpson, V., Hall, S., Harrison, N., and Scott, K.S. (2011) Qualitative detection of the NSAIDs diclofenac and ibuprofen in the hair of Eurasian otters (Lutra lutra) occupying UK waterways with GC–MS. European Journal of Wildlife Research, 57(5), pp. 1107-1114.(doi:10.1007/s10344-011-0513-2)
Could Prozac be killing off our starlings? http://www.york.ac.uk/research/themes/prozac-and-starlings/
Arnold et al ,2015, University of York
The Living Soil’, Lady Eve B. Balfour, Faber & Faber, London, 1943. Full text available online via:http://www.soilandhealth.org
This article, first published in the Ecologist, was written in July 2013.
“I don’t give a damn about polar bears! I can live without polar bears,” Professor Hans Rosling exclaimed angrily when I spoke to him following his presentation at the recent G8G20 conference, ‘What place for family planning in the future of development?’ held in Portcullis House, London. His statement seemed intended to emphasise the deep division between those working in development and demography and those in the environment sector: People or polar bears.
I’d already inadvertently provoked Professor Rosling by seeking clarification on the figure of 10 billion he’d asserted in his persuasive presentation1 would be the inevitable total human population by 2050 – whereas I’d understood that the United Nations Population Division gives a range of projections for future total human numbers: Low, 8 billion; medium, 9.3 billion; high, over 10 billion. I’d asked whether it would be possible and – given the analysis by the Global Footprint Network that we humans (or some of us) were already using up one and a half planet’s worth of the Earth’s resources each year – better to achieve the low projection. In what felt like an accusation of implicit misanthropy in my question, Rosling shot back the retort that it would be achievable but, “Only by killing people!”
No wonder the environment and conservation NGOs are so reluctant to enter into any public debate involving the ‘P’ word. Attempting to talk about population from an environmental perspective, as opposed to the predominating focus on sexual health and reproductive rights (SRHR in the jargon), is to tread a path strewn with myriad super sensitive trip-wires – linking back to historic abuses of people’s (women’s predominantly) human rights through coercive birth control measures implemented in India and China during the 1960s and 70s and the even more discredited ‘science’ of eugenics that emerged in the 1930s; taken to its ultimate, appalling manifestation in the Nazis’ Holocaust. Today, dialogue about population is framed almost entirely through the lens of women’s rights – with control of a woman’s fertility and her right to determine when, whether, and how many children to have set or aspired to be set at the level of the individual woman’s choice – a deliberate distancing from any association with ‘population control’ or coercion of people to have fewer children.
That shift in focus is perfectly understandable, the statistics relating to the injuries and injustices suffered by women and young girls through the denial or restriction of their rights are horrendous and confront one with the realities of individual people’ lives and their stories, rather than the more general, indirect impacts brought to bear on biodiversity and ecosystems by simply considering the overall numbers of humans on Earth. According to the UN Family Planning Association, there are over 220 million women in the world who want, but do not have access to safe, affordable family planning. That in turn leads to over 20 million unsafe abortions carried out every year; as a result of those and additional complications in pregnancy and childbirth at least a quarter of million women and girls die through pregnancy and in giving birth every year. The majority of these deaths, which occur in the developing world, are or could be avoidable. A further factor in these horrendous statistics is that, in some countries such as those across the Sahel region of Africa, it is traditional cultural practice for girls as young as 142 to be married and expected (forced) to bear children. At such a young age, complications and ill-effects in pregnancy and childbirth are even greater. Some two million women in sub-Saharan Africa, South Asia and other parts of the Arab world suffer from fistula brought on during pregnancy – this foul medical condition, where a breach occurs between the vagina and the rectum, is almost unknown in the developed world, hence doctors term it ‘a disease of poverty’. Apart from the disfigurement and pain caused, girls with fistula suffer further by being rejected and alienated by their communities. In Niger, one of the poorest countries in the world, women on average are still having over 7 children in their lifetime. For women over 40, the figure is higher with a quarter having borne 10 children or more.3
Faced by such statistics, Professor Rosling’s anger and focus on the human suffering, rather than on the additional environmental consequences of women having more babies at a much younger age than they would, given the choice, is justified. And after that first shock statement, he qualified his apparent indifference to the fate of polar bears, “It is the injustice to women and girls around the world that I care about – and which I think most people care about.”
That emphasis on alleviating human suffering and providing women with fundamental rights is underpinned by a theory, which also helps explain Hans Rosling’s exasperation with my question about the UN’s range of projections for eventual overall human numbers. Demographic Transition Theory (DTT) is based on an analysis of the series of stages that western developed countries went through on their path to modernisation and eventually the stabilisation of their populations – now DTT has been extrapolated as the inevitable sequence that all countries across the world will undergo, assuming they are provided with the means to develop. DTT holds there are four key stages to this transition: Firstly, high fertility/high mortality in infants and a lower life expectancy for adults – lack of access to family planning and modern medical care mean that births and deaths balance each other out and so the population overall is stable. Secondly, health care and immunisation against preventable childhood illnesses leads to a decline in child mortality and so rapid population growth (as decline in fertility is slower to come about). Thirdly, whilst the fertility rate falls overall, numbers of viable births remain high due to the large numbers of young people (‘Youth Bulge’). Fourthly and finally, people are living longer but also having fewer children due to availability of healthcare, with choice over family size enabled by family planning and access to education for women leading them to have children later, so also reducing the numbers of children born per woman.
DTT is a compelling theory and one apparently demonstrated in reality. Across the world fertility rates (i.e. the number of children born per woman) are indeed falling with the global average standing at 2.5 children per woman (Hans Rosling’s slide on this aspect was a particularly brilliant and convincing piece of communication). It is that global trend that leads many people to consider that population is an anachronistic issue and one that will resolve itself – as long as women are enabled to control their own fertility as they choose. As Hans Rosling concluded, “Take care of people and population will solve itself”.
Or will it? The transition that DTT theory purists hold is ‘inevitable’ is that our planet will be home to 10 billion people. That’s another 2.9 billion people by 2050 – at time of writing, the official estimate of the total human population is 7.1 billion. That ‘inevitable’ growth in human numbers occurs because the generation of future parents has already been born. There are more young people on Earth than ever have been, with Africa in particular having a majority of young people of or coming up to child-bearing age – 70% of Africa’s population is between 15 and 30 years of age. However, the United Nations population division, who are the source of the generally accepted data on human population growth, put forward a range of possible projections for 2050 – low, medium, and high – as cited earlier. There are various factors that can influence which of those projections turns out to be the most accurate – and that suggests there are interventions we can all choose to make and which our politicians can enable us to do so.
Faced by the general trend of falling fertility rates and the ‘irrefutable fact’ of Demographic Transition Theory, few, if any people or organisations question the dominant paradigm – especially, when if they do, it is implied that underneath their environmental concern lurks a closet racist, misanthrope, or demented deep-ecologist (see plot of Dan Brown’s latest blockbuster, Inferno) who might indeed consider ‘Killing people’ to solve what is in fact ‘a non-problem’ only existing in their prejudiced ignorance. I have first-hand experience of this reluctance by otherwise outspoken organisations to talk about population and enter into any discussion that might be seen to question the dominant DTT paradigm and the consideration of the issues only through the lens of women’s rights. For the past six months, I have been seeking to persuade the mainstream environmental and conservation groups in the UK (several of them with an international presence) to engage more publicly with population issues. It has been a frustrating process. These are all longstanding campaigning and lobbying bodies, who have the research capacity and experience to respond to government and industry initiatives and craft coherent positions and public policy positions in a matter of hours or at most days as necessary. Yet none of them has been able to furnish me with a clear and coherent public line on population to date. Such deafening silence or at best reluctance to enter into any discourse on the issue and impacts of population growth was not unexpected, indeed there is an academic study of the phenomenon whereby normally fearless campaigners flee the field claiming the issue is, “not within our charitable remit”, “time is desperately tight and immediate challenges are considerable on a number of fronts”, “while the issue of population growth is undoubtedly a very important one, our core area of concern is with … etc. etc.” Just a few of the excuses I have been furnished with.
Taboos surrounding the subject of human population run deep, as Professor Diana Coole analyses in her paper, `Too Many Bodies? The Return and Disavowal of the Population Question’, published in March 20134. Professor Coole identifies ‘Five categories of silencing discourse’, which forestall and dissuade any discussion about population per se. These ‘silencing discourses’ which she titles: Population-Shaming; Population-Scepticism; Population-Declinism; Population-Decomposing and Population-Fatalism are triggered whenever anyone dares voice any concerns about growing human numbers on the planet and their contribution to socio-ecological problems. So well-rehearsed and accepted are these ‘silencing discourses’ that most people considering voicing concerns self-censor before the thought matures into the spoken or written word!
Thankfully, there are a few people who have the courage, experience and the hard-to-challenge heritage necessary to tread that trip-wire strewn path and speak honestly and humanely about population as an issue not just about women’s rights, but also which is indivisibly linked to the environment and the well-being of all species on Earth, not least of all humans.
Dr Eliyah Zulu, the director of the African Institute for Development Policy based in Nairobi, Kenya, is one of those brave souls. A Malawian by birth, he is in no doubt that enabling all women to have the access to safe, affordable family planning that they want is not only an essential human right, but also one that will also bring benefits to the environment – given the majority of those 220 million women without access to family planning live in the poorest countries, with the least resources and resilience to adapt to climate change and other environmental pressures. As Dr Zulu told me, “It is at the grassroots that people most feel the disbenefits of population growth.”
Professor Rosling’s stated indifference to the fate of polar bears appeared designed to emphasise the irrelevance of such species to poor people struggling to survive in sub-Saharan Africa and to characterise concerns about one species as self-indulgent, hand-wringing by wealthy people in the developed world whose consumption patterns and flagrant burning of fossil-fuels are the real reason for the destruction of the polar bear’s Arctic habitat. There’s a good deal of truth in that. Yet Dr Zulu had the admirable capacity to see the connection between the fate of polar bears in Antarctica and poor people in Africa and that both concerns had to be addressed, “We must recognise that the Earth is finite and focus on addressing both population growth in poor countries and high levels of consumption in developed countries.” The projections for Africa’s population growth over the coming decades are sobering – from the present 1.1 billion, the UN forecasts are for 1.9 to 2.5 billion people on the Continent by 2050 and between 2.4 to over 3 billion by 2100. Even more sobering, when population growth is considered at the level of individual countries, rather than the amorphous Africa as a whole – which enables some commentators to shrug their shoulders and say, ‘So what, Africa’s huge, there’s a lot of empty space’. Not in Malawi, Dr Zulu’s birth country – whose 15 million inhabitants today are projected to rise to 50 million by 2050 and possibly 100 million by the turn of the century. “How can the country sustain such a population?” asks Dr Zulu rhetorically. Quickly answering his own question, “It can’t.”
Such high projections for population growth in Africa are driven by the fact that the Continent has one of the highest proportions of young people in the world – 70% of Africans are in the age range of 15 – 30 and so in the peak child-bearing cohort. For economists, this ‘youth bulge’ offers a huge opportunity for Africa, combining a Continent rich in natural resources with a young, vibrant economically active population. Yet over 60% of Africa’s landmass is made up of desert or drylands, making the Continent particularly vulnerable to greater water stress and shortage as is predicted under increasing climate change – and it is the most arid areas of Africa, sub-Saharan Africa, where some of the highest population growth rates are occurring and set to continue, as Dr Zulu observed, “Population growth goes hand in hand with those countries that are least resilient against climate change.”
There is no disputing the gross inequities of current consumption patterns across the world. A child born in the UK will be responsible for carbon emissions over its life 35 times greater than for a contemporary born in Bangladesh and 160 times that of an Ethiopian child. This gross disparity and inequity is apparent across Africa – the average ‘global footprint’ per African in terms of impact upon the environment and share of the world’s resources is many times lower than for Europeans and Americans.5 In fact, the average per person footprint, calculated as global hectares per person, has decreased over the past 40 years. An individual African is taking up – or rather getting an even smaller share – of the Earth’s resources. Yet because of the continent’s rapid population growth, Africa’s overall footprint has tripled over the same period.6
Nevertheless, given that consumption per capita is so high in countries like the UK and America, it seems right that the focus of NGOs in the developed world has almost exclusively been on seeking to get consumption per capita down. Or is it? Such high consumption rates per capita in the developed world suggest that the missing or ignored factor of population must also be addressed – given that each additional consumer in the developed world makes a globally disproportionate impact. There is also the unfortunate fact, which few NGOs care to admit, despite it being over 25 years since the term sustainable development was coined in the Brundtland report of 1987,7 and despite the concerted efforts of the environmental groups consumption figures in the developed countries continue to rise.
In 1997, Friends of the Earth published ‘Tomorrow’s World – Britain’s Share in a Sustainable Future’,8 presenting a stark summary of how far we, in a western developed country had to go if we were to meet the accepted definition of sustainable development as, ‘development which meets the needs of the present, without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs’ – and to do so, whilst re-balancing the inequity between the developed and developing world. Tomorrow’s World concluded that to deliver sustainable, equitable development the UK needed to reduce its consumption of available resources by between 15 and 100%, depending on which resource sector was under consideration. The headline calculation was that, “If people in developing countries used as much fossil fuel as people in the UK currently do, then by 2050 we would need 8 atmospheres, not one, to prevent global warming.”
In its detailed sector by sector consideration of the cuts in consumption necessary, if the UK were to achieve sustainable development, Tomorrow’s World set targets for reducing various environmental negatives and increasing other beneficial activities and practices in the UK by 2010: Road traffic to be reduced by 10%; 15% decrease in water use; 30% cut in energy use; 25% of Britain’s home produced food to be grown organically by 2010 and 100% ‘converted entirely to organic or sustainable agriculture by 2050.’ The sad reality 15 years on is that: UK vehicle use has increased by 14%; Water use per person has continued to increase by 1% year on year since the 1950s. Current per capita household use is 150 litres per day – a ton of water a week. And despite the promotion of energy-saving measures, UK domestic energy use has risen by nearly one-fifth over the past four decades. The area of UK farmland under organic management stands at less than 5%, expanding just 2% since 1997.
In any case, several of the ‘green lifestyle’ choices promoted by environment groups as ‘easy things everyone can do to help save the planet’ have been shown to be less effective at reducing an individual’s impact on the planet than other individual choices. A study by Oregon State University in 2009, compare the impact of an individual adopting six well-known ecological life-style changes to cut their carbon budget over a lifetime, against the single action of having one less child. By adopting the practical and available ‘environmentally-friendly’ actions of driving a more fuel-efficient car; halving annual car mileage; fitting double glazing and low-energy light-bulbs; replacing an older, inefficient refrigerator; recycling all paper, tin and glass – an individual over their lifetime could curb their carbon budget by 486 tonnes. By taking the single, personal decision to have one less child, an American woman and her family would save 9,441 tonnes of carbon over her lifetime. Nearly 20 times the amount saved from all those other positive eco-actions combined.9
At the International Conference on Population and Development held in Cairo in 1994 (known as ‘The Cairo Conference), the focus on population issues shifted away from a numbers game onto individual human lives and rights – especially those of the young women and girls who bore (sic) the brunt of the impacts of lack of access to family planning; suffering enforced childbirth, curtailment of any education, and loss of opportunities to choose a different role than as a constant mother.10 That woman-centred perspective rightly re-oriented the previously dominant population framework, but it is arguable that it has swung too far from one extreme to the other. At the G8G20 Conference the Turkish MP Öznur Çalık, a highly-respected champion of women’s access to family planning and Executive Committee Member of the European Parliamentary Forum on Population and Development (EPF) stated, “Women should have the right to give birth as much as they wish”, adding that in her view, “The world has sufficient resources to feed the growing population.”
Those statements indicate a worrying disconnect with and do not reflect the agenda of the wider women’s rights movement, which has been in the forefront of recognising that respect for human rights goes hand in hand with respect for the environment – and from which, to name but a few, the most effective leaders of the global green movement have emerged: the female forest defenders of the Himalayan Chipko movement; Petra Kelly, founder of the German Green party; Wangari Maathaii, Nobel Peace prize winner, who sowed the seeds of the Greenbelt Movement in Kenya; and Vandana Shiva, fearless champion of traditional knowledge and farming practices against the threat of globalisation and GM-pushing agribiz. What Öznur Çalık seemed to be suggesting is that having children is always and only ‘a self-regarding act’ where personal liberty is paramount, rather than ‘an other regarding act’ whereby the consequences on other people and society more generally should be considered. This is difficult territory, as Professor Coole underlines in her discussion paper, as ‘an other regarding act’ as originally defined by the political economist and social theorist John Stuart Mill is open to personal liberty being curtailed in the interests of the ‘greater good’. It was by such logic that the discredited coercive population control policies of China and India were justified. But that does not mean it is unreasonable for that American woman to consider the impacts of her putative additional child on the global environment, upon poor people in developing countries who are most vulnerable to climate change, or upon future generations’ wellbeing – not least the future wellbeing of her own child and its off-spring.11
That throwaway follow-up comment by the Turkish MP that the world had sufficient resources to sustain a growing human population whatever the eventual numbers, impressed upon me the need for the environmental movement to engage more closely with those working on what has become an exclusive sector focused on population only through the lens of women’s reproductive rights and health. WWF’s latest biennial Living Planet report for 2012 produced in collaboration with the Global Footprint Network, the Zoological Society of London and the European Space Agency provides the most comprehensive data set on the state of our planet, its biodiversity and human impacts upon that. Living Planet 2012 does not make for comforting reading. Overall global biodiversity has declined by 30% since 1970 and by double that (60%) in the tropics. We, humans, or at least some of us are using up one and a half planet’s worth of the natural resources available annually. The authors conclude that a major factor driving this decline and excessive exploitation is human population pressure,
‘Human population dynamics are a major driving force behind environmental degradation. One aspect of this is the overall size of the global population, which has doubled since 1950 – to 7 billion in 2011 and is forecast to reach just over 9.3 billion people by 2050.’
Yet despite having assembled the facts, WWF won’t commit itself to anything but the most policy-wonkish of recommendations regarding population leaving it until the last of 16 recommendations,
‘Explicitly integrate population dynamics (size, growth rate, composition, location and migration) and per capita consumption trends into national planning policies to support a better balance between population and available resources.’
And reasonably enough, affirming the dominant paradigm of the rights-based agenda,
‘Ensure universal access to gender-sensitive reproductive health services and information, reduce child mortality and support the empowerment of women and young girls through greater access to higher education and employment opportunities.
Environment NGOs have self-censored themselves on the issue of population, particularly environment NGOs in the UK which in the main are headed up, as John Sauven CEO of Greenpeace describes himself, by ‘white, old men’ (well, middle-aged anyway – in which doleful profile, I include myself), acutely conscious of the past pitfalls of talking about population and if they do dare to, are fearful of being stereotyped by those ‘silencing discourses’ as ‘human-hating’, ‘neo-colonialist’, ‘misogynists’ and in the UK, where present population growth comes from immigration, finding themselves labelled as fellow-travellers with political groups with dubious agendas outwith any genuine environmental concern.
They should take heart from the fact that a large proportion of the public are concerned about the impacts of population growth in the UK and globally. A YouGov survey carried out in May 2011 of 3,538 adults found that almost four out of five (79%) thought the UK population was too high and over four out of five (84%) thought the world population was too high. Surveys are designed to be representative of society generally. That sample of 3,538 people would not be composed just of ‘white, old men’, but made up of people across age ranges, genders and ethnic origins. The results suggest strongly that a significant proportion of the NGOs own supporters share those views – so surely they have a responsibility to provide them with a view on the issue. By not doing so, that large body of concern has no politically acceptable discourse currently available. And the only sources for information are the very organisations the NGOs are fearful of being associated with.
Voices within the reproductive rights/family planning sector are at last after two decades since Cairo’s narrowing of the focus, calling for a broader, more inclusive agenda. Dr Zulu emphasised the importance of, “not isolating population, consumption and the environment – we need to look at ways to integrate these issues. We shouldn’t box in our policy makers, it’s not just about economics or human rights or environmental benefits – it’s all there.” Sentiments echoed by Diego Palacios of the UNFPA, co-ordinating the UN’s efforts to ensure the Millennium Development Goals up survive beyond 2015 (the year they were meant to have been achieved – but in several cases won’t be), who spoke of, “involving new audiences, those interested in human rights but also economics and the environment – not have them opposed to eachother,” adding, “environmental sustainability is not yet linked into the reproductive rights, family planning agenda sufficiently.” The need for that linkage was one of the main recommendations of the Royal Society’s, People and the planet’ report,
They should not. The challenge and invitation to the environment movement is to become re-engaged with the issue of population and add their expertise, energy and effort to pushing forward truly sustainable development in the interests of people and planet alike.
It should not be a stark choice between polar bears or people, but people and polar bears.
- Professor Rosling, notwithstanding his indifference to polar bears, is a brilliant speaker, communicating complex data in a compelling and highly entertaining series of talks.
- In Niger, 60% of girls aged between 15-19 are married and nearly 30% were married before the age of 15. A UNICEF survey found that two-fifths of girls in Sierra Leone give birth for the first time between the ages of 12 and 14.Progress for Children, A report card on adolescents, Number 10, April 2012
- People and the Planet, Royal Society, 2012
- ‘Too Many Bodies? The Return and Disavowal of the Population Question’, Environmental Politics vol. 22.2 (March 2013), pp. 195-215
- The available global ecological footprint averaged out for everyone on the planet is 1.8 global hectares per person. According to the latest Living Planet report, Africans individually were accessing less than 1.8 global hectares per person, far below the European per capita average at c. 5 global hectares or a US citizen at over 7 global hectares.
- Living Planet report, 2012
- Our Common Future (popularly known as the Brundtland Report, after its chair, Gro Harlem Brundtland), UN World Commission on Environment and Development (WCED), 1987.
- Tomorrow’s World: Britain’s Share in a Sustainable Future by McLaren, Duncan; Bullock, Simon; Yousuf, Nusrat; Friends of the Earth 1997.
- Reproduction and the carbon legacies of individuals, Murtaugh, P; Schlax, M; Department of Statistics, Oregon State University, Global Environmental Change 19 (2009) 14-20.
- In countries where fertility rates and numbers of births per woman remain high, a woman can spend 70% of her life bearing and rearing children; where low fertility rates are the norm, that figure has fallen to 14%. Lee R (2003) The demographic transition: Three centuries of fundamental change. Journal of Economic Perspectives, Vol. 17(4): 167-190
- For an excellent example of an American woman, herself from a large family, making the journey and decision to limit her family to two children, see: the film, Mother
This will not be the first nor last time that Education Secretary, Michael Gove has been compared to the fact-obsessed schoolmaster, Mr Gradgrind of Charles Dickens’ novel, ‘Hard Times’ (with its pertinent parallels to our present economic woes and government austerity programmes)[i]. Gradgrind opens the novel declaiming, “Now, what I want is Facts. Teach these boys and girls nothing but Facts. Facts alone are wanted in life. Plant nothing else and root out everything else. You can only form the minds of reasoning animals upon Facts. Nothing else will ever be of service to them … Stick to Facts, sir!” Gove laid himself open to such a parody in his recent speech at a conference organised by the Spectator magazine[ii], where he stated that English school children were being held back and disadvantaged in comparison to their peers in the Asian ‘Tiger economies’ of China, Hong Kong, Singapore and South Korea due to our shorter school days and longer holidays.