In recent years, the food we eat, and how it is produced, has been a hot topic of debate between farmers, environmentalists, and health activists. New ideas are gaining traction in Britain and elsewhere that could help fix our broken food system
Feeling tired? Are you fed up of the endless doomscrolling about the future of our farms, food and countryside?
You would not be alone. You’re not alone if you’re a farmer who’s been left behind by changing government policies, an environmentist angry at the effects of modern agriculture on soils, wildlife, and climate, or even a health campaigner who’s frustrated by the way our food system makes us sick.
It’s tempting not to try. Conversations with some of the system’s most ardent critics this summer, as well as a visit to have given me a glimpse of the silver linings in the fields.
Guy Singh-Watson is the founder of Riverford Organic Farms, a pioneering organic farm in Devon. He says that sustainable agricultural practices can feed 10 billion people using carbon sequestration and biodiversity. To do that, however, we need to embrace complexity and move away from the “100-acre monocrop field” approach.
Singh-Watson’s farm, as well as the other farms in Riverford, are living examples of this complexity. They have a variety of crops, and plenty of space for wildlife. He’s now exploring silvopasture which will allow him to graze his cattle under walnut and hazelnut tree. He says that techniques like this can “quadrupling protein yield while sequestering CO2 and increasing biodiversity”.
Henry Dimbleby agrees with this. His book , which is essential reading for those who wonder how we got into such a mess when it comes to food (and whose National Food Strategy has been largely ignored by government that commissioned the book), shows us that we can make things much better. It is important to make a wholesale shift in our eating habits away from ultra-processed food and an over-reliance on dairy and meat. There are signs that progress has been made: the UK’s meat consumption dropped by 17% between 2009 and 2018. Climate groups warn that it needs to be reduced even more.
The technology can help reduce the impact of farming. For example, remote monitoring, which can spot crop problems and analyse soil productivity on a small scale, or robotic weed control, which removes individual weeds when they appear and avoids the use of herbicides.
Dimbleby explains that this monitoring allows farmers to “look at the productivity of their field on a foot by foot basis”. Now they realize, for example that the metre or so alongside the hedgerows does not make money, so it’s no use putting chemicals on that area.
Dimbleby cites farms like the Lockerley Estate in Hampshire that are embracing a ‘traditional’ seven year crop rotation, including cover crops and reducing tillage. Both of these help conserve soils, and boost fertility, naturally.
The rise of regenerative agriculture is the main theme of this year’s Groundswell Festival. This agricultural show was founded by a Hertfordshire family who wanted to do things differently. As I walked around the stalls, promoting everything from soil analysis to chunky tractors, it struck me how many farm and estate management seemed to have gotten the memo. One told me, “Regenerative is the way to go.” We have to take care of the soil, boost biodiversity and make a profit. It may mean lower yields, but it will save us money on inputs. We’ll also get paid to store carbon and make more profit.”
Novel crops, like chickpeas or lentils, could also play a role – at least for Britain – as they were waving in a breeze on the demonstration plots of the National Institute for Agricultural Botany. They are well suited to crop-rotation systems, require little fertiliser, and could thrive in the type of intercropping system which is becoming increasingly popular on regenerative farm. They also offer the tantalising prospect that they can produce their own dal and hummus.
Regenerative is the way to go – we have to take care of the soil and boost biodiversity
Dimbleby says that more radical changes are likely to be in the works. He cites as well as precision fermentation, which could become the food of the future. According to RethinkX, they could revolutionise food systems and reduce the demand for dairy and beef by 70% by the end decade. He cautions that the jury is still out on their long-term impact on health.
He also sees a more subtle shift taking place. “I’ve spent lots of time with farmers,” says he, and most are aware that the wind is shifting. “I was on a Cumbria sheep farm the other day talking to a father of 90 years and his daughter of 53 years, who is taking over and trying take it in a new direction [away the intensive grazing that has caused so much damage to land]. The older man was skeptical: ‘You cannot eat butterflies’, he said. She was determined. She was moving in, and moving on.”
Image: Emiel Molenaar