YET BREXIT IS BEST FOR BRITAIN BECAUSE THE EU COMMON AGRICULTURAL POLICY WAS NOT COMMON AND THE SINGLE MARKET/ CUSTOMS UNION MEANS FREE ACCESS NOT ONLY OF PEOPLE BUT FOOD (DUMPING)FROM THE EU
Farmers account for just 1.5% of the British population, but the size of their domain – 71% of the country’s surface area is classified as farmland – has given them power over the public imagination, reinforced by children’s books depicting resourceful hens and humorous porkers. Over time, this image of Britain – green, giving and blossomy, an Eden to which city-dwellers joyfully flee in moments of leisure – came to inform the country’s view of itself.
Memories of resilience in adversity were inevitably a factor in the growth of intensive farming. When the country was blockaded during the second world war and the nation’s farmers were told to convert scrub and pasture to sown fields, arable land doubled. In peacetime, the patriotic drive for self-sufficiency continued, as the population soared and farmers cleared more land in order to produce more food. Between 1946 and 1963, an average of 3,000 miles of hedgerows were stripped out each year.
After Britain joined the European Community in 1973, its farmers received subsidies that rewarded production and – when that led to wasteful surpluses – simply for holding farmland. In 2017, some £2.73bn was disbursed in this way. For decades, farmers justified their subsidies by citing the continuing need for British self-sufficiency in food production, despite the fact that in many cases they were only solvent thanks to European subsidies. During that time, there was still only minimal awareness that the relentless drive for higher yields through intensive methods might be bad for the environment. The few farmers who questioned the prevailing wisdom faced ostracism by their peers.
So Charles Burrell discovered in 2000, when he declared defeat after a decade and a half of intensive farming at Knepp, his 1,400-hectare estate in the south of England. Burrell had invested in automatic feeding systems, state-of-the-art combine harvesters and gallons of fertilisers and pesticides in order to coax more milk from his cows and higher yields from the stodgy Sussex clay. But for 13 of his 15 years in charge, Burrell sank more money into the farm than he received in revenues, and the estate was £1.5m overdrawn. In February 2000, he told his employees that he was coming out of farming.
“The farm workers … left the office grimly shaking their heads,” his wife, Isabella Tree, recalled in Wilding, the book she wrote about the couple’s experiences. But if liquidation was shocking, Burrell’s decision to seek public money to turn his farm into a “biodiverse wilderness”, and his aim to turn a profit through tourism and organic meat, seemed downright perverse.
Longhorn cattle at Knepp in West Sussex. Photograph: Picasa/PR
In 2001, starting with a small section of the estate and gradually expanding as funding became available, Burrell stopped ploughing the land and spraying it with chemicals. Removing internal fences allowed the wild Exmoor ponies and Tamworth pigs he introduced to browse and rootle over large distances, their disruptions creating habitats for other animals and plants. Dung beetles dived into delicious organic cowpats left by longhorn cattle that hadn’t been fed wormers and parasiticides; voles colonised the roots of a dead oak that under the previous regime would have been felled in the interests of tidiness. The summer of 2002 revealed wildflowers with delightful names such as bird’s-foot trefoil and lady’s bedstraw that hadn’t been seen in such numbers for a generation, along with a profusion of insects, which produced a continuous thrum – “something”, in Tree’s words, “we hadn’t even known we’d been missing”.
Much bigger and more ambitious rewilding schemes than Knepp are currently underway across Europe. But whatever the challenges that face international conservationists who are restoring the largely abandoned Coa Valley of northern Portugal, or those at work in Swedish Lapland (population: 1,000), mass hostility from the locals isn’t one of them. Rewilding in the densely populated Sussex Weald was a tougher sell.
In August 2003, Burrell invited local farmers to Knepp with the aim of converting them to the project. As he laid out his vision of fields and hedges devolving into scrub and wetland, his audience erupted with anger. “It wasn’t simply that our neighbours (including some other members of the family) thought this wasn’t right for them,” Tree wrote. “It was more visceral … an affront to the efforts of every self-respecting farmer, an immoral waste of land, an assault on Britishness itself.”
By 2008, Knepp was suffused by weeds such as ragwort, whose vivid yellow flowers are great for pollinators but can kill livestock in the rare event that they are eaten in large amounts. In a letter to the West Sussex County Times, a critic resorted to doggerel to denounce Knepp’s “ragwort shame, spread like the plague, and who’s to blame?”
When I visited Knepp after heavy rain last autumn, what had been arable fields were a sodden mishmash of young trees, billowing hedges and fleabane stalks, naturally occurring growths that have enhanced Knepp’s capacity for carbon capture. In 2011, Burrell had deliberately collapsed the banks of the River Adur where it runs through his property in order to create the kind of accommodating plain that floods harmlessly after heavy rain.
Burrell’s flood-plain and the ramblers’ paths that criss-cross the estate constitute what the government defines as “public goods”: services provided to society without material profit. They have helped quiet much of the local opposition to Knepp’s rewilding. Meanwhile, wildlife tourism has turned Knepp into a successful business that employs more people than it did when it was a farm. Springtime overnighters snuggling down in a luxury treehouse after a soak in the open-air, wood-fired Swedish Hikki bathtub may hear nightingales serenading their consorts; they can take home organic Knepp chops to remember the free-running Tamworths by. Tree’s book Wilding has sold so well that its author recently appeared on the BBC’s Desert Island Discs, an indication of impending national treasure status.
Burrell is nowadays asked about his methods by farmers from around the country. But Knepp is not easy to emulate; its success lies partly in its rarity and its aristocratic charm – Burrell is a baronet who lives in a rinky-dink castle. Nor are the farmers who consult him necessarily converts to rewilding. As Burrell himself says: “These guys may not like it, but they don’t know what the future holds and are being forced to engage.”
At present, in addition to the EU subsidy they receive for holding agricultural land, farmers who provide public goods, such as fostering wildflowers and mitigating flood risk, can claim EU environmental subsidies. But take-up has been patchy; between 2014 and 2017, environmental disbursals fell from £489m to £399m, a reflection of what farmers call the government’s overly prescriptive approach.
The brutal fact is that government policy is about to get a lot more prescriptive. With Britain’s withdrawal from the EU, the government is scrapping the subsidy system which has kept British farming in stasis for years – and on which the livelihoods of many thousands depend. Under the agriculture bill currently before parliament, subsidies will be redirected at public goods alone. If a farmer does not provide such services, they will have to live off sales of their produce. This may not be a problem for the UK’s bigger farming companies, but impossible for many of the smaller family-owned enterprises whose annual subsidy is currently all that keeps them from insolvency.
Hence the queue of worried farmers outside Burrell’s door. Knepp may hold the secret to rehabilitating the tarnished name of British farming. The more candid of the country’s farmers admit that they have suffered a calamitous fall in public esteem. From being the devoted fillers of the nation’s larders and the custodians of rural heritage, farmers, as one lamented to me, are increasingly seen as people who “take public money while raping the land”.
Intensive arable farming is designed to raise yields and eliminate pests and disease. The more fertilisers, pesticides, herbicides and fungicides are used, the bigger the harvests. Back in the chemical-free, weed-infested 1940s, Charles Burrell’s great-grandfather was lucky if he got two tonnes of wheat per hectare. Nowadays, farmers using high-yielding varieties would expect to harvest 10 tonnes of wheat per hectare, usually after applying pesticides, ammonium nitrate fertiliser, and a sprinkling of Roundup – a weedkiller found to have caused non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma among farmers. Overlooking their carcinogenic properties, the right chemicals – and the right weather – bring amazing results. In 2015, a farmer from Northumberland posted a yield of 16.52 tonnes per hectare, winning him a place in the Guinness Book of Records.
For all the role that chemicals have played in improving yields, creating a loyal customer base among many of Britain’s 17,000-odd farms, there is a growing appreciation of the long-term environmental damage they cause. With repeated application over several years, chemicals kill the tiny mycorrhizal fungi that supply roots with water and nutrients, as well as earthworms that provide aeration and improve drainage.
Overuse of these chemicals, along with the mania for stripping out hedgerows and scrub that provide food and shelter for many animals, has led to a calamitous loss of wildlife. More than 40% of species in Britain have been declining since 1970, while one in every seven of its wildlife species faces extinction, a much worse record than the world average.
Then there is the contribution that farming makes to climate change. British agriculture is responsible for 10% of the country’s greenhouse gas emissions, mainly through methane from cows and sheep, nitrous oxides that are produced by fertilisers, and CO2 that comes off the land when carbon-rich organic matter in the soil oxidises during ploughing.
Sheep graze at Weston Park Farms in Hertfordshire. Photograph: David Levene/The Guardian
Guided by Dieter Helm, an Oxford economist who advises the government on farming policy, the political establishment has become decidedly sceptical of the old benign image of British farming. Last year, Helm called for the “full scale of the disaster of British agriculture” to be recognised, adding that “no other economic activity combines such a perverse set of incentives, or produces so little value for its true costs”.
Even sheep-farming, celebrated by William Wordsworth as a symbol of rural plenitude, is nowadays described as an ecological disaster by writers and activists such as George Monbiot, who argues that the only hope for Britain’s “sheep-wrecked” hills is to reforest them and get rid of ruminants altogether.
Converts to the new scepticism include Michael Gove, who, as environment secretary in Theresa May’s government, had a big hand in drafting the agriculture bill currently being scrutinised by MPs. Even the National Farmers Union has committed its members to going carbon-neutral by 2040 – though that goal may only be attainable through as yet undeveloped carbon capture technologies.
The agriculture bill sits snugly alongside the government’s environment bill, another Gove baby, which had its first parliamentary reading in January and will enshrine the so-called “polluter pays” principle, according to which dirty industries are penalised at source. No longer can farmers who use chemicals that run into rivers expect water companies and the fishing industry to pick up the bill. Instead, the use of chemicals will be priced according to the greenhouse gases that are emitted while making them and the cost of clearing up the mess they cause – though the vexed question of exactly how the costs will be spread has yet to be resolved.
The change that is coming over farming can be summarised in simple economic terms. Intensive agriculture prioritises a bumper harvest – the annual dividend – while the new approach emphasises the preservation of the initial capital – the land itself. For a glimpse of how this new investment priority will affect British farming, it suffices to visit those progressives who have already, to varying degrees, made it their own.
One afternoon last September, John and Paul Cherry invited me on to their Hertfordshire farm to show how to regenerate damaged soil. Until 10 years ago, each autumn the brothers would laboriously turn over lifeless slabs of clay, which needed to be pulverised with a power harrow before sowing could begin. Then they would douse the land with chemicals to coax forth an unwilling wheat crop. “It was as if we were in a battle with nature,” Paul said.
In the 1990s, following innovators in the US midwest, a handful of British farmers went organic or stopped ploughing the soil to make a seed bed (so-called “no-tillers”). In 2010, the Cherrys followed suit, planting cover crops such as clover to reduce soil erosion and lock in carbon over the winter, and cutting their use of chemicals. “That brought us much closer to what nature would have us do,” said John as he poured some crumbling, friable soil reverentially into my hand, pausing to point out some “lovely” wormholes. “It’s a miniature rainforest,” he went on, “with more living things in it than there are people on the planet, full of bacteria and protozoa that are feasting off each other and interacting with the roots of the plant.”
After hearing about soil health from the Cherrys, I travelled north to the Fens, about 400,000 hectares of low-lying coastal plain in the east of England, which produces more than 7% of the country’s agricultural produce on less than 4% of its agricultural land. This flat, largely treeless landscape, much of which was reclaimed from the sea in the 18th and 19th centuries and is now protected by a stupendous system of dykes, cuts, drains and washes, is home to a farmer named Tom Clarke.
A combine harvester in a field of barley near Salisbury, Wiltshire. Photograph: Scott Barbour/Getty
Standing on black, peaty ground in the shadow of Ely Cathedral, Clarke pointed out his neighbour’s field, which had been ploughed and was bare up to the dyke that divides the two properties. Clarke’s side, by contrast, featured a 10-metre margin of fodder radishes and wildflowers, a combination that provides pollen for bees and seeds for the grey partridges and corn buntings whose food sources have been depleted by intensive farming. When Clarke was a child, his father farmed the same land using intensive methods. Back then, almost the only wildlife to be seen was “thousands of rabbits.”
From Ely, I drove south-east to a farm in Suffolk where Brian and Patrick Barker showed me how they are preparing for the introduction of the “polluter pays” laws. One of the cousins’ fields had been split into two strips, the first left bare after harvest, the second planted with phacelia, rye and radish. Over the winter, these “catch-crops” are left in the ground, where they capture the residual potash and nitrates from last year’s crop in their roots and stop them polluting nearby streams. At the end of the trial period, a comparison will be done between run-off from the two strips, and the catch-crops’ efficacy will be measured. Under the government’s new subsidy regime, environmentalism and economics will – in theory – perfectly align.
The Barkers have started bringing livestock on to their fields to provide natural fertiliser – a nod to the old practice of “mixed” farming, whereby farmers grew crops and kept livestock, which went out with intensive methods. Brian told me that he had listened to Isabella Tree’s book Wilding twice while he was manoeuvring his combine harvester around the fields. He found it interesting, “but if everywhere was Knepp we’d have a lot of wildlife and not a lot else”.
Every British farmer I spoke to while researching this article has an opinion on what the Burrells have done at Knepp, even if it is to damn the enterprise as tokenistic and unproductive. Environmentally friendly regeneration still has formidable opponents, among them old-school intensive farmers and the agribusinesses that make seeds and chemicals, as well as some plant scientists. In their view, a single unpalatable truth trumps any number of bees and buntings – and that is the looming global dearth of food.
In 2009, the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation warned that the global population would increase by 34% by 2050, to 9.1 billion. It added that “in order to feed this larger, more urban and richer population, food production … must increase by 70%”. In the light of the UN’s predictions, advocates of business-as-usual argue that the redirection of farmland towards public goods will lead to a massive shortfall in production, and that the solution is to grow more food.
For Bill Clark, the technical director of the National Institute of Plant Botany (Niab), a research institute funded by some of Britain’s biggest farming enterprises, this means increasing yields. Clark regards the dispute over whether soil should be productive or healthy as a distraction from the basic choice between being able to feed people or not. “If yields don’t rise,” he told me at Niab’s headquarters in Cambridge, “people in north Africa” – a major export market for European farmers – “won’t simply be unable to afford the wheat they need in order to live: there will be no wheat.”
To Clark’s dismay, precisely at the point when Britain and the rest of Europe need a productivity spurt in order to export more to the world, yields have plateaued, thanks to what Clark called the “irrational dogma which says that technology is bad”.
Clark is a believer in the power of science to improve the human lot. In his view we have become so blase about technological advance that we overlook the fact that science has saved countless people from starvation. He spoke with reverence of the revolution that highly fertile Japanese wheat wrought when it was crossed with European varieties in the 50s: “The plant halved in size but yields doubled.” Visit one of Niab’s walk-in growth chambers and you’ll see the newest miracle: wheat developed by using a gene from oats that confers immunity to the root disease known as take-all. The new strain can be sown in successive years on the same field without falling foul of the disease (conventional practice dictates that the way to avoid take-all is to plant wheat in rotation with different crops, which naturally lowers aggregate wheat production).
But Niab’s yield-enhancer cannot be marketed because of the EU’s hostility to genetically modified (GM) crops – a hostility that extends to an increasing number of chemicals including neonicitonoid insecticides. As a result of an EU ban of neonicitonoids, rapeseed yields crashed . “And if you were to take fungicides out of the equation,” Clark told me, “as campaigners are demanding, wheat yields would probably drop by 20-30%. Is that what people really want?”
John Cherry of Weston Park Farms inspects and smells the soil in one of his fields. Photograph: David Levene/The Guardian
It is possible that there is one particular sector of farmers who will not be overly affected by the new agriculture bill. Where economies of size combine with naturally fertile soil that hasn’t yet been destroyed by chemicals, intensive farming continues to be remunerative.
Michael Sly’s family has been farming around the village of Thorney, near Peterborough, since the civil war, buying and selling land until Park Farm – as the Sly establishment is called – reached its present size of 1,600 hectares. Whether it is the annual service of thanksgiving he organises at harvest festival, the thousands who visit Park Farm on “open farm” weekend in June, or his chairmanship of the local history society, Sly enjoys the status of – his words – “a big commercial arable farmer”. And while he is proud of the margins he has set aside for bees and birds, Sly’s mission isn’t environmental services. It’s growing food.
Sly’s professional vision is defined by his huge fields of sugar beet that stretch towards the horizon, his state-of-the-art tractors, seed drills and combine harvesters, each of which is worth “multiple tens of thousands of pounds”, and his contracts to supply premium grade wheat for national brands such as Weetabix and Mini-Cheddars. He regards wilding as relevant only to “a certain percentage of affluent society”, and his shiny new 2,000-tonne store – which bulged with grains when I visited – is a hymn to the mass market.
Sly refuses to commit to techniques such as cover cropping or no-tillage that might reduce yields, and whose commercial viability is unproven. (For all the worms wriggling in their soils, the Cherry brothers’ farming operation is loss-making, and will probably remain so until subsidy reforms kick in.) Sly’s worry is that once Britain has left the EU, the government will remove tariffs on imported produce grown using neonicotinoids or GM, undercutting British farmers. (Britain already imports half its food. When UK oilseed rape yields plummeted following the neonicotinoid insecticide ban, the shortfall was made up by importing Canadian rapeseed oil that had been produced using the same insecticides.)
Increased imports would endorse Sly’s deeper apprehension that the government is preparing to surrender entirely to the current “evangelism” for public goods that don’t fill bellies. With the country in the process of exiting the EU, which currently supplies 30% of the country’s agricultural needs, Sly does not hide his exasperation at the scant attention being paid to food security, the proud and – at present – impossible idea of the country feeding itself if there is a global shortage of food. “If Britain wants to carry on producing certain foods,” he said, “the system that is being proposed won’t be compatible with that goal. You have to ask yourself whether you want low-input, low-output farmers or high-input, high-output farmers. There’s no in-between.”
The obvious way to mitigate the shortages of food that the UN anticipates is to throw less away. After decades of plenty in some parts of the world, about one-third of the food that is produced each year, or about 1.3bn tonnes, goes to waste. The proportion of the budget of the average British household that goes on food has come down from more than 30% in the 60s to below 10% today. (After Singapore and the US, Britain has the cheapest food “basket” of any country.) It is little wonder that a commodity that people buy so casually, and with such little regard for the natural resources and human ingenuity that have gone into its production, should be discarded in such quantities.
If there is no discernible panic among your fellow shoppers in the supermarket, this is because the prospect of shortages seems so remote from today’s glut. Isabella Tree contrasts the calls of “retailers, agribusiness and farmers’ unions” for the production of more food with “the experiences of farmers like ourselves, driven out of business by … low commodity prices resulting from subsidies and over-production”. Governments of neither left or right dare contemplate measures, such as imposing VAT on food, that would encourage thrift.
While the debate continues over the use of advanced genetic and chemical crop-enhancers, technology is opening a whole new direction for food production, which will take farming away from the farm. Robotics and drones are reducing the need for humans to be on the land, while vertical farming, in which vegetables can be grown in sunless warehouses using LED lighting, gene editing and metagenics – the engineering of specific enzymes or proteins – are coming up with new definitions of food. According to a recent report by the thinktank RethinkX, within 15 years the rise of cell-based meat, which is made of animal cells grown in a bioreactor, will bankrupt the US’s huge beef industry, at the same time removing the need to grow soya and maize for feed. By 2035, the report predicts, an area a quarter of the size of the continental US “will be freed for other uses”.
Discarded vegetables in Burscough, Lancashire. Photograph: EnVogue_Photo/Alamy
Although South American countries such as Brazil and Paraguay are expected to add 11m hectares to the global agricultural inventory between 2018 and 2027, in part by destroying the rainforests, agriculture’s footprint in the developed world is already decreasing, with “more land now being abandoned from agriculture than converted to it”, according to a recent study by the University of Minnesota. Already, as parliament has heard, a lot of British hill farmers are not being replaced when they retire. As a child in London, I heard my mother’s stories of growing up as the daughter of farmers on the Canadian Prairies. There was no Roundup weedkiller, though I’m sure my mother and her siblings, bent double to pick weeds from a field of mustard, would have appreciated it. For my own children, urbanites to their bones, their grandmother’s upbringing must be hard to conceive. Farming is retreating even from the imaginative capacity of most Britons.
That many farmers confess to being confused and worried about their future is hardly surprising. The new measures will have a seven-year phasing-in period, at the end of which some of the small farmers who have been unable to adapt will go bust. What is to stop their land being swallowed up by big intensive farmers who don’t rely on subsidies? Others, rather than manoeuvre themselves through the hoops erected by public goods, may decide to turn their land over to enterprises less favourable to dormice and goldfinches: go-karting, motorbike scrambling or parcel distribution.
A sentiment I heard repeatedly runs like this: farmers will do whatever society wants them to do, but the sums (ie, the subsidies, or market forces) have to be right.
Even if the claims contained in the RethinkX report are overblown, a transformation of the kind it outlines seems not only possible but desirable. When I met him last autumn in a converted warehouse, now a restaurant, in London’s Kings Cross, Tony Juniper, the government’s chief adviser on the natural environment and a former head of Friends of the Earth, described a future in which the cost of LED bulbs is more significant to farmers than a late frost, and Londoners think nothing of weekending among lynxes and beavers in a rewilded green belt.
Britain’s farming community is a tiny minority whose public influence is in terminal decline, and is destined to shrink further as technology requires fewer and fewer people to muddy themselves for a living. “The killer irony” of the revolution in farming, said Juniper, in a building that used to receive sack upon sack of golden English wheat, “is that farmers may not be around to see it.”
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