OOn the way back from a gig 15 years ago, I read an article about the environmental impact of food production. It made for sobering reading, ending with the words, “If you don’t like the system, don’t rely on it.” I was inspired to turn our garden in France into a vegetable patch in search of self-sufficiency. This quickly escalated and eventually I sold the rights to my songs with Groove Armada to buy a farm nearby. After 12 years at Hard Knocks Agricultural College, what we learned there is now being applied to a National Trust farm near Swindon for which we were awarded the contract last year.
Back in France during last month’s heat waves, the impact on the landscape was devastating. Plants sown in spring and left hanging after very little rain and unrelenting sun will not be worth harvesting for many. Looking out over the parched valley, shrouded in wildfire smoke billowing from the shore, I made a casual remark to some farmer friends about planting olive trees to cope with increasingly regular episodes of intense, dry heat. One replied that a meeting had indeed taken place that evening on the creation of an olive oil collective in Gascony. The change in weather patterns over the past decade has been incredible. Farmers feel the effects immediately; We garden without a hose.
Post-war agricultural practices played a significant role in bringing us here. Soil is by far the largest store of carbon on earth outside of the oceans – it contains more than all of the world’s plants and forests combined. Since the beginning of agriculture, soil has lost about 8% of its carbon, accounting for up to 20% of human-caused CO2 emissions. Soil carbon is critical to water retention. According to the US Department of Agriculture, this loss of carbon can result in a loss of 800,000 liters per hectare of water storage. This makes the crops vulnerable to drought and increases the devastation from flooding for downstream communities. Biodiversity loss, most visible on our insect-free windshields and documented in endlessly falling graphics of insects, birds and life of all kinds, is a crisis as dramatic as climate change. It is inevitably linked to agriculture as agriculture makes up 71% of the UK’s land.
In another way, agriculture has the potential to store carbon, support diverse wildlife, and provide plentiful, nutritious food. But since the mid-20th century, Western policies have pushed farmers in the opposite direction. Government-funded research, education, and subsidies have been used to push chemical-intensive production into ever-expanding acreage. Short-term returns had their most famous spokesman in Nixon’s Secretary of State for Agriculture, Earl Butz, who ordered farmers to “get big or get out.”
In order to maximize production efficiency, the agricultural landscape has become one of monoculture, with single crops covering entire fields, areas, or even regions. A single plant species over a large area never occurs in nature because it is incompatible with a healthy ecosystem. As such, it requires a constant struggle against nature’s attempts to reintroduce diversity: the incessant removal of what we think of as weeds, and the killing of insects whose job it is to remove unhealthy plant growth, which is what are chemically dependent plants. In 1943 Albert Howard, the godfather of today’s “regenerative” agriculture, wrote that “the appearance of a pest should be taken as a warning from Mother Earth to put our house in order”.
Harvesting our food from the ecosystems that feed us could be likened to harvesting wood from a hillside forest. We have two options. Our current pick is a short-term bumper crop that levels the forest and allows the exposed soil to disappear with the rain. The other option is to preserve the integrity of the forest and manage it for timber over the long term. Not only would this yield much more over time, but it would also preserve the habitat we depend on. Farming within nature’s limits may yield less in a year, but it can do so indefinitely. Returns must be viewed over the long term. With a third of all food being wasted and an epidemic of diet-related diseases raging in the West, yield issues are often used to obscure the real issues of food quality and distribution.
For almost all of the first 10,000 years of agriculture, humans produced food from polycultures, different groups of plants growing together. Modern monocultures are an anomaly. Around the world, innovative farmers are finding ways to bring diversity back to our fields. A diversity of plants means a diversity of habitats that allows wildlife to return. Different plant families growing together support a diversity of soil life. Thriving soil communities nourish and protect plants, which means we don’t have to spray our food with toxic chemicals. Soil covered with a variety of plants is an efficient solar panel, making better use of the sun’s energy to pull CO2 from the atmosphere back into the soil where, stored as carbon, it creates the conditions for ever-increasing growth.
No new technology is required to take advantage of diversity and grow our food using nature’s regenerative biology instead of today’s destructive chemistry. So why doesn’t it happen everywhere?
The relentless pressure put on farmers has left many in deep financial trouble. As a result, there is an understandable aversion to new agricultural ideas that come with perceived risks. Logistically, our storage and distribution infrastructure is designed around monoculture. Culturally, the aesthetic of what a “successful” field looks like is ingrained: perfect rows of one plant species and nothing else.
Given that governments have consented to the story that hunger awaits without chemical monocultures for so long, it is probably unrealistic that the same structures will mediate a new narrative between farmers and citizens at the required speed. So it’s up to us to create networks from field to fork, where citizens, through their food choices, can support farmers who grow in ways that regenerate landscapes. This is what I have focused on for the past 10 years, first on our farm in France and more recently by helping to develop collectives to bring about change at scale.
The price of today’s food does not reflect its true cost. It passes its massive environmental, health and social costs on to future generations. Despite deferring those costs, fossil-fuel agriculture means rising food prices and soil depletion means a decline in abundance. The labor efficiency of a single farmer managing thousands of acres of monoculture belies their tremendous energy inefficiency. The combination of fertilizers, sprays, and machinery means that about 10 to 15 calories of fossil fuel energy are used to produce 1 calorie of food in the US. Affordable, nutritious food must be grown in ways that mimic natural systems, restore soil, and use far fewer inputs.
We feed ourselves thanks to the eternal optimism of the farmer. For this irrepressible spirit to persist in these rapidly changing times, we must do everything we can to redesign our food systems around diversity, nature’s fundamental principle of health and resilience. Rather than despair, let’s use this summer’s dystopian visions to inspire action. We know everything we need to know. There’s no reason to hesitate.