Two compelling, if deeply depressing, reports on the state of our natural world here in the UK and globally have been published over the last month: the UK State of Nature 2016 compiled from data on 8,000 UK wild fauna and flora provided by 50 UK nature conservation and research bodies; and the latest Living Planet Report, produced by WWF in collaboration with the Zoological Society of London (ZSL) and the Global Footprint Network, which as its introduction states ‘synthesises the mountain of evidence showing the Earth system is under increasing threat’.
Both follow on from earlier versions, the State of Nature 2013 and previous Living Planet reports produced biannually since 1998. The current State of Nature report confirms its predecessor’s statistic of a c. 60% overall decline in UK native species over the past 40 years – but adds the new measure of ‘Biodiversity Intactness Index’ (BII). This indicates whether a country’s biodiversity has fallen below a ‘planetary boundary’ (defined as the threshold beneath which ‘ecosystems may no longer reliably meet society’s needs’). Out of the 218 countries across the world using this measure, the UK’s BII ranks at the 29th lowest – or as the authors put it with rare, uncharacteristic, bluntness,
‘we (the UK) are among the most nature-depleted countries in the world’.
The Great Acceleration
Similarly, the latest Living Planet report records a 58% decline in 3,706 vertebrate species monitored from some 14,000 separate populations across the globe over six decades. A decline it attributes to, ‘the exponential increase in human pressure over the last 60 years – the so-called ‘Great Acceleration’. By which the authors are referring to the alarming acceleration in the rate of extinction of or near threat of extinction of large swathes of the other creatures and biomass with which we ‘share’ this planet. A rate calculated to be running at 100-1000 extinctions over a period of 100 years currently, much higher than the ‘natural’ background level for our planet.
The opening introduction by Johan Rockstrom of the Stockholm Resilience Centre, describes the defining concept for this latest report being that our planet has entered (some would say is well along the path of) a new ‘Anthropocene Era’. One in which, rather than the previous Eras marked by geological influences over millennia, the presence and activities of a single species, Homo sapiens, is changing the Earth’s environment and capacity to sustain life on a global level and within a generation. The defining feature of that defining concept, sharing the dishonour of wiping out millions of unique life-forms along with asteroid strikes, super-volcano eruptions or ice-ages is that human ‘activity’, ‘pressure’ and ‘enterprise’ is driving a ‘6th mass extinction’ of our planet’s biodiversity.
Don’t mention the ‘P’ word – at least when talking about us!
Note the use of the qualifying descriptors. Throughout both the State of Nature and Living Planet the word ‘population’ is used extensively – when attached to consideration of every species other than our own. Monitoring the population levels of all those species diligently recorded over decades for the UK and globally is obviously central to establishing their general decline – or in a handful of cases, moderate increases (generally iconic species brought back from the brink of extinction through the expenditure of vast amounts of money and conservation effort): Red Kite; Cranes; European Lynx; possibly the Tiger). But when it comes to considering the impacts that our own species has on other species populations, the lens becomes opaque. Neither report mentions human population as an issue per se – instead using those distancing phrases ‘human activity’, ‘human consumption’, ‘human footprint’, ‘human pressure’, ‘human enterprise’- as if none of those are caused or amplified by the sheer number of our species upon the planet. Five categories of ‘Threats’ to the number and range of wild species are listed: ‘Habitat loss and degradation’, ‘Species overexploitation’, ‘Pollution’, ‘Invasive species and disease’, ‘Climate change’. Again none of these are framed directly as resulting from greater numbers of people demanding more from our planet.
The State of Nature Report uses the words population and populations about 100 times, but only in 5 instances linked to the human species. For the Living Planet report there are around 170 instances of the ‘p’ words, but only on 4 occasions associated with humans. To be fair, the Living Planet authors do posit, although almost as an aside, the obvious conclusion that, ‘If current trends continue, unsustainable consumption and production will likely expand along with human population and economic growth.’ It would be hard to find a more hesitant citation of the equation: ‘I=PxAxT’, first formulated by ecologists Paul Ehrlich and John Holdren in the 1970s, which combines the key factors determining the impacts of modern human beings upon our habitat. Where ‘I’, being the Impact on our planet and its ecosystems, is influenced by the interaction of Population numbers (P), Affluence (A), and effects of Technology (T) – both positive and negative.
More Feet, Heavier Footprint
It is absolutely correct and equitable to consider the relative consumption levels of different countries in the world as does the Global Footprint Network. The available global footprint for everyone on Earth, if resources were distributed evenly has been calculated at being 1.7 global hectares (gha) per person – but resources are not fairly allocated, instead following or being appropriated by those with most money and power. So no surprises that the US, Australia, parts of Europe, Scandinavia and the Gulf States consume up to six times their fair share, at 5-7 gha per citizen; whereas the majority of people in Africa and Asia have access to less than that 1.7 gha ‘fair share’. Clearly the most affluent countries need to curb the rampant consumerism upon which their dominant model of economic development is based and reduce the disproportionate global resource grab of their citizens, but that should not preclude any mention or assessment of the impact of the growing numbers of feet. Each US or European newborn will suck harder on the Earth’s teats than their counterparts in Asia or Africa – a child in the UK will be responsible for 35 times the carbon emissions of a baby born in Bangladesh and over 160 times more than one born in Ethiopia. Yet despite the average per person global footprint in Africa decreasing over recent decades, because of the continent’s rapid population growth Africa’s overall global footprint has actually tripled since the 1960s.
A headline figure given in The Living Planet Report’s is that of a 56% decline in populations of monitored vertebrate species, confirming earlier estimates that the ‘total number of wild animals with backbones’ has fallen by more than half within one human generation. Yet one backboned animal has more than doubled in numbers over just 40 years, Homo sapiens. Along with our domesticated animals, chosen for their utility to us, humans have appropriated nearly 40% of the world’s total terrestrial productivity and are ‘heavily affecting’ the remaining 60%(See Vaclav Smil, Harvesting the Biosphere).
Population – the ‘Silencing Discourses’
Conservationists, especially white, middle-aged, male conservationists from developed countries (David Attenborough being a notable exception) have been and still are very reluctant to use or place the words ‘human’ and ‘population’ in any close proximity – with some justification, given horrific human rights abuses linked to some historic ‘family planning programmes’ and for fear of any rational discussion being misconstrued as racist or contaminated by lingering colonial attitudes. This reluctance to mention the ‘P’ word has been well-described by Professor Diana Coole in her paper, `Too Many Bodies? The Return and Disavowal of the Population Question‘ in which she identifies ‘Five categories of silencing discourse’ that forestall and dissuade any serious discussion about population per se. These ‘silencing discourses’: 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 conservationists self-censor before the reasonable notion that considering human population growth in parallel with excessive resource consumption by human society solidifies into the spoken or written word!
Unfortunately, such self-censorship appears to have been applied to the otherwise excellent State of Nature and Living Planet reports.
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.
Just a few days after Britain initiated divorce proceedings against Europe, I got married and my wife & I then headed off on honeymoon to… Europe! Italy specifically, and to be more precise, Tuscany, to relax and recuperate following both events (Brexit and wedding) on an organic vineyard and olive farm.
It could not have been a more beautiful and calming place. Nor more apposite for contemplating the breaking off of relations with our European neighbours. For the farmhouse Locanda set high above the Arno valley hosted a microcosm of the European Community; with fellow guests coming from Denmark, Germany, Holland, and Italy – along with one other refugee family from the UK fleeing the pitiful post-Brexit internecine back stabbing occurring across all political parties.
The notable, predominant tone to all the inevitable Brexit conversations we had within our community was people’s sadness at our leaving. Not anger, nor resentment or even a hint of them turning their backs on a country that should now be left to lie in the messed-up post-marital bed it had unmade for itself. How different to the angry, divisive exchanges that were traded by our posturing politicians gambling the next generation’s wellbeing for their short-term political ambitions. The calm concern we were offered, made me even more ashamed of the coarse and vindictive vitriol Nigel Farage fog-horned out in the European Parliament the week after the vote. Ashamed that Farage, in his faux country gent’s loud tweed checks and covert coat, might be considered by our continental cousins as representative of the manners and mores of a typical English gentleman.
Fortunately, the Italians – and Tuscans in particular – have had longer familiarity with more genteel and cultured English gentlemen and women over the decades. Such as, the aesthete, poet and historian, Sir Harold Acton, born into an Anglo-Italian family, who spent much of his life at his beloved Villa La Pietra, near Florence – and which became a stopping off point for many an aspiring writer and art critic on their ‘Grand Tour’ of European cultural centres. But as well as being the crucible of the Italian Renaissance, promoted during the ascendancy of the Medici family and their transformation of Florence through the patronage of Michelangelo and a myriad, lesser known painters, sculptors and architects, the Tuscan countryside beyond the medieval walled cities has and continues to resonate with the English.
Chianti-shire, a commercial, as well as romantic, concept
Not so much the arriviste ‘Chianti-shire Socialists’ politicking at Blair’s court and Tuscan Villa in recent times during the UK Parliamentary summer recess, but English travellers over decades seeing in the patchwork of vineyards and olive groves interspersed between arable fields and grassland and set beneath the rolling, blue-green wooded hills beyond, something reminiscent of the English countryside. At least that idealised English countryside as depicted by the great landscape artists of the 18th and 19th centuries, John Constable, Samuel Palmer and Francis Towne (the latter travelling and painting in Italy, which much influenced his style). Reminiscent because for much of the English countryside, that patchwork quilt has long been grubbed up, shredded through, and homogenised by the mega-machines of industrial agriculture. Whereas as we cycled through the Tuscan countryside in 2016, hay was being teddered by kit of the size I remember as a child used on the small tenant farm next door to our home on the Cheshire border – and pulled by, what I’m pretty sure was, a Ford Series 10 tractor from the 1970s (tiny compared to today’s computer-controlled behemoths bludgeoning British fields and soils into submission).
Italy has around 1.6 million farm holdings, averaging in size at just under 8 hectares, with only 5% above 30 hectares. In total these employ around 4% of the entire Italian workforce. England has ten times fewer farm holdings, on average six times larger than their Italian counterparts, with 30% of farms above 50 hectares, and worked overall by well under 1% of the country’s total workforce. Some might suggest this shows the greater efficiency of modern English agriculture compared to the ‘old-fashioned’ farming appealing to the eyes of rural romanticists such as myself?
But far from being backward looking or economically unviable, the Tuscan way of farming sustains that landscape beloved of painters over the centuries and drives an agri-tourism business contributing around 8% to the total Tuscan tourism sector – a significant percentage, given the huge concentration of tourists visiting the urban sites of Florence, Pisa and Siena. The vineyards, olive groves and farmed landscape of Tuscany have been estimated to contribute Euros 177 million annually in terms of monetary value to the tourist trade – and that’s not including, the economic value of the 180 million bottles of the regionally distinctive and denominated Chianti and other Tuscan wines those vineyards produce each season.
Our Countryside existing only in pictures…?
EU farm support, rural development programmes, agritourism and environmental schemes have been critical to protecting and sustaining this distinctive region. Of all EU member states, Italy represents one of the largest storehouses of biodiversity and wildlife habitats in Europe. And within Italy, Tuscany is the repository of the country’s richest, most diverse range of wildlife – hence having over 2,500 sites designated under the EU Habitats Directive. Having willfully turned our backs on Europe and so access to those support programmes and schemes, the very real worry is whether our remnant landscapes and countryside, which still do (just) hold on outside romantic reminiscence, will continue to exist in any form other than in the paintings of Constable, Palmer and Towne.
Rural Tourism Driving Regional Development in Tuscany. The Renaissance of the Countryside. (2011) Randelli, F.; Romei, P.; Tortora, M.; Mossello, M.T. Dipartimento di Scienze Economiche, Università degli Studi di Firenze, Working Paper No. 11/2011.
Natura 2000 habitats in Tuscany (central Italy): synthesis of main conservation features based on a comprehensive database. Daniele Viciani , Lorenzo Lastrucci, Lorella Dell’Olmo, Giulio Ferretti, Bruno Foggi. Biodiversity and Conservation, June 2014, Volume 23, Issue 6, pp 1551-1576
The economic and ecological role of the cypress in Tuscany: a case study Gianni Della Rocca, Paolo Raddi, Institute of Plant Protection, CNR Italy; Leonardo Casini, Carlo Daniele; DEISTAF, Florence University, Italy.
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.
Towards the end of 2015, I spoke at an event organised as part of Bristol’s Festival of the Future City, as one of several people offering ‘provocations’ intended to stimulate debate around the challenges and opportunities for making Bristol a more ‘resilient’ city, socially, economically and environmentally. Each provocation was meant to be confined to just five minutes, but of course, everyone overran, including me!
The title I’d been given, ‘What needs to be done in the city to rebalance our relationship with Nature?’ was hardly snappy; so I subvertised it, a little crudely, to ‘Who ya gonna call? Police, Fire, Ambulance, Nature..?’ The aim being to highlight the critical services Nature provides and which sustain human society – at least, when such ‘ecosystem services’ are understood, recognised and protected.
Natural Health Service
With the delegate list showing a preponderance of town planners, civil engineers and ‘urban futurologists’ and the conference format being highly (and unreliably) dependent on web-based SMS polling and voting, it felt a daunting if not futile task as I stepped up to the mic in that air-conditioned, hermetically-sealed room to make the case for nature as an integral part of, rather than merely an adjunct to, the city’s infrastructure.
I cited the familiar, but still compelling statistics, from peer-reviewed studies, evidencing the benefits to people’s physical and mental wellbeing from access to and interaction with nature:
- patients healing quicker after surgery if they have a view of trees or vegetation
- Japanese research showing immune boosting T-cells rising after just 5 mins of Shinrin-yoku (literal translation, ‘forest bathing’) in a woodland setting
- crime rates reduced by more than 50% in housing estates where trees, vegetation, greenery present.
And the ’killer’ fact, that would surely provoke moral outrage and most powerfully make my case that a high quality and quantity of nature should be accessible to everyone in every neighbourhood, that …
…people who live in ‘biodiverse poor’, nature-deprived postcodes die 7 years earlier and succumb to debilitating diseases 17 years sooner than those with homes in leafier, greener areas. Not just because they’re better off financially, but because they are richer in wildlife.
Delegates who weren’t reading messages, texting back or working out how to use the SMS polling system applauded with modest, automatic politeness at the end of my polemic. But not even that last shocking statistic, taken from Sir Michael Marmot’s seminal report, ‘Fairer Society, Healthier Lives’, stirred or shook them. It was clear that despite the organisers having the vision and understanding to put nature on the agenda and give me the opportunity to provide a provocation, for the audience it was no more than that – an opportunity to hear a rather shouty man, the type with a placard and a collecting tin you’d seek to side-step in the street, make a few interesting, occasionally amusing observations but not ones central to the context of the event.
Nature still suffers from the ‘N’ word – nice to have, nice to look at; especially when being talked about by the ‘Nation’s Greatest Naturalist and Nicest Man’, Sir David Attenborough (although he’s getting a bit edgier in his old age, viz highlighting human population pressure for pushing ever more species to the brink of extinction). Nature is seen as nice, but not necessary and certainly not essential for the good of civic society. It lies low on most policymakers’ list of priorities, as per George Osborne’s statement at the 2011 Conservative Party conference,‘We’re not going to save the planet by putting our country out of business’.
Beyond my brief, politely ignored provocation, nature and its value to us humans, never mind its intrinsic value, barely got a mention. The slightly too warm controlled atmosphere of the conference room hung heavy with ‘C’ words – civic society, civil engineering, community, commerce.The consensus defaulted to a moderately adapted version of business as usual: smarter construction and engineering solutions – still primarily the pouring of concrete, rather than any radical rethinking of a future city in which nature was viewed as a critical partner for creating long-term resilience and sustaining the wellbeing of its citizens. George Osborne would have been grinning like the Cheshire Cat in a hard-hat.
I left the event despondent that I’d failed to characterise and communicate Nature as that vital ‘5th Emergency Service’, underpinning all the others – filtering out pollutants from our air, locking away carbon dioxide, slowing the flow of rivers to reduce flooding, storing groundwater for our drinking water, providing tranquil space and respite for our minds and bodies etc. And failed in a city, more blessed than most with a plethora of green and blue space in walking distance of its citizens. Where, despite of, rather than because of, town planners, wildlife weaves its way across, through and over the city-scape: foxes and badgers finding refuge from persecution in the countryside; eels migrating into the heart of the metropolis via the Avon thousands of miles from the Sargasso Sea; otters, hard and hungry on their tails, taking up residence within yards of Temple Meads station; peregrines stooping from their tower-block and cathedral eyries onto unsuspecting pigeons whilst shoppers below go about their business oblivious to the aerial combat above their heads.
Musings on a Monopoly Board…
So why this blanking of nature, this polite indifference, this relegation to it as ‘something nice’ to be turned to only when more core considerations have been dealt with? A clue came to me this Christmas in an unexpected form … via the Monopoly Board. I was looking through the drawer holding all our old family games in search of something to play with my daughter – when I chanced upon the Monopoly box, containing, as I knew only too well, the means to wreck the carefully cultivated community spirit of any family suffused with a little too much sugar and alcohol post the Festive meal. Its capitalist creed spelt out in the games’ rules in CAPITALS lest anyone think there was any other more altruistic purpose, ‘ THE IDEA OF THE GAME is to BUY and RENT or SELL properties so profitably that one becomes the wealthiest player and eventual MONOPOLIST.’ In fact, originally called ‘The Landlords’ Game’, Monopoly was created by a socialist feminist to teach American families how to manage their money in the face of rapacious landlords! In a fine irony, the game was plagiarised, adjusted into an unashamedly capitalist form and then claimed as his own invention by Charles Darrow.
It was only when out of curiousity that I unfolded the game board that the connection came to me: nowhere on the Monopoly Board past or present is any space allocated to nature. The closest it comes to identifying some form of ecosystem service or natural capital is via the ‘Water Works’ – even then under the infra dig description of a ‘utility’, rather than a proper property. With the majority of the audience at the Future City event professionals in their 30s, 40s and 50s; for many of them, the Monopoly Board may well have been the first urban ‘map’ they were exposed to – subliminally (as intended) imprinting its characterisation of cities as places of concrete, bricks and mortar, where the main human activity is consumption, commerce and capitalism.
Certainly, we’re overdue reframing those mental Monopoly Boards. As some conservationists have sought to to do, by coining the planner-friendly descriptor ‘Green Infrastructure’ for championing nature in urban areas – although still a utilitarian term stripping the life and soul out of nature, reducing it to something that can be loaded up from a council depot and deployed like traffic bollards or street lights.
Providing Nature in daily, bite-sized servings
A more compelling and vibrant case for the presence and proximity of nature in cities has been made by Professor Tim Beatley and his team at the University of Virginia through The Biophilic Cities Project. As in the Marmot report, Beatley makes the correlation between the greater presence of biodiversity in a neighbourhood and its lower incidence of mental anxiety and poor health. In a neat characterisation, that I wish I’d found ahead of the Future Cities event, Beatley talks of our need for regular ‘recommended calorific intakes of nature’ – adapting that now commonly understood dietary concept. A minimum daily requirement of nature recommended for every citizen would be, ‘a bite-sized serving of walking to work under a street forest canopy’ . Weekly nature nourishment to maintain a healthy, happy body, mind and soul amounts to a slightly bigger portion as found in urban parks or nature reserves within or on edge of the city; with these extended to monthly deeper immersions out in the wider countryside. The pinnacle experience, as Beatley describes it an ‘annual banquet’, should be spent feeding and replenishing the senses on nature breaks in awe-inspiring places such as National Parks, mountain ranges, coastal areas – those remnant areas of near wilderness, where nature can be seen and absorbed on the grand-scale.
It is no accident that when the early industrialists and bankers – and their modern day equivalent, hedge-fund managers and rock-stars – had enough money, they sought to escape the city’s ‘pavements grey’ where they’d toiled for their fortunes and make their homes in country houses set in carefully landscaped estates – such as those created by the great 18th century landscapers, Capability Brown and Humphrey Repton. Landscapes which closely resembled that of the East African savannah where our species spent 99% of its development – a landscape of grassland, watering holes, pockets of woodland and scrub, with low rolling hills, supporting a vast diversity of wildlife. East African landscapes that neither the plutocrats or their landscapers were likely to have seen directly – yet were lodged in their ‘mind’s eye’. As world renowned biologist E.O. Wilson set out in his book Biophilia – revisited by Dr William Bird in a UK context (Natural Thinking) – human beings are hard-wired over several million years mentally, physically and innately (call it our soul if you wish) to be close to nature – and that has not been entirely eroded over the mere 10,000 years since settled farming started or the few thousand years later when the first ‘cities’ of Mesopotamia appeared.
It’s clearly not possible for city planners to create country estates for every citizen – although it’s noteworthy that two of the most popular places to visit at the week-end around Bristol are the Ashton Court and Blaise Castle estates; now owned and managed by Bristol Council and both landscaped by Humphrey Repton. Those parklands, formerly for the privileged few, satisfy many people’s need for weekly greater nature nourishment as per Beatley’s categorisation. Further afield, Westonbirt arboretum offers the opportunity for monthly ‘Shinrin-Yoku’ sessions and the Wildfowl and Wetland Trust’s Slimbridge centre set alongside the Severn with its vestiges of semi-wilderness provides connection with a significant diversity and sheer numbers of species other than our own – as I experienced on a recent visit , my eyes and soul hungrily soaking up the visual feast of wheeling flocks of golden plover, lapwing and teal hundreds strong.
Nature in every city’s blood supply
What is in shorter supply are those everyday ‘bite-sized servings’ of nature available readily to every citizen throughout the city. Trees and green spaces should not be seen as just another bit of street furniture or ‘lollipop’ design feature to break up an architect’s drawing, but as a key network of ‘nourishment’ points infusing nature across and through the city like our body’s circulatory system – supplying that innate human need for contact with nature and the benefits it brings to our mental and physical health and wellbeing.
“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