Which makes the question of what we do with the land we do have available to us all the more important. In particular it matters enormously what we do with agricultural land. All too often in recent times the approach has been to try and produce as much food as possible as cheaply as possible in a single season, regardless of the long term consequences.
In large parts of the UK it is now possible to walk through open countryside and look out over mile after mile of huge fields of wheat or rape seed oil. Hedgerows have been removed as an inconvenience so that expensive machinery can drive uninterrupted for long distances and the same crop is grown year after year on the same land. The only way of doing this without slowly watching crop yields fall is to fertilize the soil with nitrates and the only way of fending off pests and disease is to treat the crop with pesticides and fungicides.
Not surprisingly this has resulted in a serious collapse in British wildlife and serious problems with the soil. Insect numbers have plummeted and once common farmland birds have become rare. We have lost 85% of our fertile topsoil since 1850 and are still losing 1-3cm every year. (See Fiona Reynolds book The Fight for Beauty, p155-7)
To their credit the government has had a target to deal with the collapse of wildlife. It has been to halt the biodiversity loss by 2020. To their discredit that means that their best hope has been that things wouldn’t get any worse. To date their actions have not been remotely strong enough to succeed in achieving even that pathetically weak objective.
Now Gove has started announcing that things are going to be very different. He has been talking a very interesting game. He is the first DeFRA Minister to speak out against the self interest of large wealthy farmers and openly state that it is wrong to subsidise them for simply owning land. He has declared that he only wants to use agricultural subsidies as payments for public goods. He appears to genuinely believe that landowners must only be paid for looking after the countryside in our collective interests and not given taxpayers’ money to squeeze out every last drop of product in the short term.
Which raises some extremely interesting questions about what we do want to do with land, how we do want to see it farmed or otherwise used and what is realistically possible. It would be nice to think that we could transform British agriculture and go over to completely organic production without any use of pesticides and fertilizers in short order. That is simply unachievable even in the medium term without a drastic decline of food production. It took decades for us to get into this mess and it will take time to get out of it.
What is achievable, and rapidly, is a radical change in approach which supports farmers to steadily improve their practices and helps them to deliver better quality food at better prices without putting food security at risk or forcing consumers to pay significantly higher prices. I believe that it is perfectly possible to re-direct subsidies and better control the market in such a way that farmers benefit from going green and the environment can both prosper and produce healthy yields of healthy crops.
For example, those huge fields of wheat are no longer technologically necessary. Modern computer guided tractors are perfectly capable of sewing a variety of crops on one field and varying them year by year. Much of England had an open field system of agriculture before the enclosure movement. What was done then was to rotate the crop year after year and to grow it in thin strips so that there was never a risk of a single pest or disease wiping out all crops or of a single weed like black grass invading monoculture fields. A modern version of the same approach would be a significant improvement on the current situation. Different things can be sewn and harvested by machinery on long thin strips of land across large open fields. Any increase in the variety of crops sewn or the rotation of crops would significantly cut the use of fertilizers and radically cut the use of pesticides. I therefore believe that subsidies and incentives should be targeted at encouraging a greater variety of crops to be sewn and discouraging monoculture in lowland farms.
In the uplands subsidies should be switched to encourage greater tree cover and reduce both the number of sheep and the amount of land used for farmed grouse shooting. There are areas of the Dales where there are still remnants of old woodland and where cattle are turned loose amidst short stubby trees like hazel and oak. These areas provide a wonderfully rich and diverse variety of wildlife and are highly attractive to tourists who bring income in to many of the surrounding farms via bed and breakfast or farm shop purchases. By contrast upland areas dominated by sheep are remarkably poor in wildlife and things aren’t much better on burned grouse moors. It would be perfectly possible to replant much of the uplands with a wide variety of nut and fruit trees and graze animals beneath them and by doing so produce much more food than is currently possible both for wildlife and for people. What is not possible is to do this and make a profit in the years during which the trees need to be protected and aren’t producing a crop. Hill farmers are going to need heavy subsidies to support them to make changes but much of the cost of that could be offset by reducing downstream flood defence expenditure once the tree cover is increased.
The third area that I would target for government intervention is the marketing and sale of food. Where markets are dominated by a few supermarkets competing sharply against each other on price there is a real risk of market distortion and of driving farmers to the brink of bankruptcy. Just ask a milk producer what life has been like in a world where a plastic bottle of water is more expensive than a glass bottle of milk. If sugar, flavourings and marketing is put into the bottle of water then supermarkets sell the liquid for 4 times the price of milk and yet many children drink less milk than sugary water. We therefore need to create marketing boards for a number of agricultural products and to use the power of government to intervene between strong monopoly purchasers and weaker farm producers. Along with that we need to support farmers financially to supply more products locally and to move beyond the world where a farmers’ market sells designer over priced food and subsidise measures such as door to door bottled milk delivery accompanied by locally grown food.
I am not trying to pretend that every idea I’m putting forward here is perfect and fully practical. What I am trying to argue for here is that we can do a lot better than we currently do and that an alliance between green activists and farmers is both possible and desireable.
Brexit creates horrible risks for farmers via cheap imports of food produced by the most intensive of methods pushes them out of business or forces them to lower their production standards even further. I don’t think most farmers want that. Nor do I think most of them want to see their farms completely mothballed and used as recreational land whilst the supermarkets fill up with imported chlorinated chicken and bread made with pesticide-soaked grain. It is important for the UK that it retains locally grown food both for its food security and for its overall food health. It is not safe for a country to rely on importing too much of its food only to discover that just in time delivery services can be very vulnerable to any international crisis. It is also not safe for a country to see its food produced by other countries in ways that it cannot control and to eat food that cannot be traced to source.
Greens therefore need to be working closely with farmers to identify practical measures which will enable them to stay in business and prosper whilst rapidly improving the diversity of wildlife that prospers on their land.
It is more than likely that many farmers and many environmentalists will disagree with the practicality or desirability of what I have suggested above as a way forward. I doubt, however, that many will disagree with the thrust of the idea that we can do things better. Farmers need to be supported to make decent livings whilst looking after the long term health of the countryside instead of being incentivised to produce by methods that turn their land into a desert of wildlife.
It is a poor lookout if green campaigners can’t form a strong alliance with people who make their living off the land.