I’ve been getting an update on the UK Government’s plans for a more nature-friendly farming system once we’re out of the EU. It’ll be called Environmental Land Management (ELM) and no doubt it’ll bring much relief to our devastated countryside after the four-decade car crash that was the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy. Unfortunately the new scheme’s going to be far too late and isn’t nearly radical enough. It won’t actually be rolled out until late in 2024 and farmers will choose whatever level of commitment they want to take on.
Frankly that’s pathetic. You’d think there was no such thing as a climate emergency. No wonder young Greta Thunberg has to keep nagging us. ‘Hey guys, didn’t you know? The world’s on fire, right’. It so happens farmers are the best people around to put the fire out, a fact that seems to have escaped Environment Secretary George Eustice. The truth is we need farmers to get on with the job the very day of our EU exit. If there’s to be a real Brexit dividend, what better than demonstrate to the rest of Europe how good farming can solve the climate crisis even if, as seems likely, we fail to meet our emissions targets?
As it happens Britain used to be a world leader in climate-friendly farming. You can get a glimpse of it in Thomas Gainsborough’s picture, Mr And Mrs Andrews, which hangs in London’s National Gallery. Painted in 1750, it shows a classic English landscape of mixed farming, with cereal crops, hedges, orchards and grasslands with grazing cattle and sheep. This was the new Agricultural Revolution which greatly increased the food supply to a nation on the verge of industrialisation.
As well as producing good food, the landscape supported a greater biodiversity than at any time in human history. It also retained massive amounts of carbon in the trees, hedges and, most of all, in the soil. Just as coal-burning was being ramped up to fire the Industrial Revolution, the revolution in the fields was capturing much of it and sequestering it in soil – with the help of grazing animals. Because soils remained fertile and moist, the vegetation they grew – both crops and grassland – helped cool the planet naturally by the regulation of the Earth’s hydrological (water) cycles.
This kind of farming survived until the mid twentieth-century when governments began to disrupt it through the subsidy system. They wanted to replace the sustainable, carbon-rich countryside with an industrial landscape based on continuous crop growing, a system that could only be sustained by chemical fertilisers and pesticides made from oil. While it was UK governments which began the destruction, it was the EU and the notorious Common Agricultural Policy that brought it to completion.
Today much of our wildlife has gone. So have many of the woodlands, orchards, hedges and trees, cleared to make way for the diesel-burning machines of Big Agri. The carbon once-held in these landscape icons has been burned off like the Amazon rain-forest. Worse, the living part of our soils has been largely burned, too, as the vast, carbon-capturing populations of soil fauna and flora have been destroyed by the chemicals. Some estimates put the carbon losses from industrially-farmed croplands at 10 tonnes per hectare annually.
Around the world the UN reckons that no less than 40 percent of soils have been severely degraded, effectively turned into desert or wastelands. It means much of the world’s land surface will no longer carry out its normal function of cooling the planet through the flow of water from soils, through vegetation and into the atmosphere by evapo-transpiration. Climate scientist Walter Jehne argues that by restoring fertility to the world’s soils, and re-hydrating them, we could reinstate the natural Earth cooling systems and restore normal climate patterns. He believes it’s possible to achieve this in a decade using what are known as ‘regenerative farming methods’, techniques that return life and fertility to soils.
Climate normality means stopping the burning of both rain-forests and farmland soils. In Britain we need a new agricultural revolution to bring back the deep, fertile soils of the past. The Government’s ELM scheme won’t achieve this anything like fast enough. So here’s my own scheme – let’s call it RLM, Revolutionary Land Management. The key action must be to end Big Oil’s control of farming through nitrogen fertiliser. The wide-scale use of inorganic nitrates – produced with huge inputs of fossil fuel – has been the main driver of industrial farming in the western world. It has robbed us of wildlife, destroyed soils, and pushed thousands of family farms out of business. In addition, it now appears to be a major driver of climate change.
Back in the 1980s there was a major campaign to tax or ration nitrate fertiliser so as to restrict its use. Tragically the lobbying power of Big Oil and the fertiliser industry put paid to it. Now we know the full extent of the environmental damage wrought by fertiliser nitrogen it’s surely time to complete the job. So here’s my advice to Boris. If you really want to fix the civilisation’s biggest threat, halt or drastically curtail the use of fertiliser nitrogen within five years. This could be done by putting swingeing taxes on its use, or offering farmers irresistible incentives to give it up. In response farmers would quickly adopt the regenerative techniques that can return carbon and normal functioning to our soils.
We’d all enjoy a countryside rich in wildlife, foods filled with nutrients, and weather patterns more like those of old. It’s an ambitious plan but we be confident it’ll work because it follows nature’s own model. If we let them, farmers can fix our society’s biggest threat. Support LandAlive and let’s get the news out there!
2nd March 2020
Gainsborough's 'Old Master'
shows how to beat climate change