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.
“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