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11 May 2020
The science delusion
Politicians tell us that when there are difficult issues like climate change to deal with they follow the science. We’re meant to find this reassuring but what it shows is how little they understand the complexity of the real world. For all the millions spent on research our knowledge of the natural world is still scanty. Which is why our countryside is currently in a mess, with soils collapsing, biodiversity in free fall and everyday foods robbed of nutrients and contaminated with pesticides.
What set me thinking this way was reading a report by one of the latest batch of Nuffield scholars, a young Scottish farmer called Alex Brewster. In case you haven’t come across Nuffield, it’s an organisation that gives bright, young farmers the chance to travel to far-flung places in search of new ideas and techniques that will improve their own businesses and help the nation in general. Alex is a beef and sheep farmer in Perthshire in the Scottish highlands. With its harsh climate and rough terrain, it’s a tough place to earn a living.
Since the family’s income is entirely based on pasture and grazing, Alex wanted to find out how the process could be made more efficient. Could pasture alone produce meat that not only had the ‘wow’ factor for taste, but was also healthy and rich in nutrients? And could meat like this be produced in ways that didn’t harm the environment? His findings are extraordinary and challenge many current assumptions about grazing animals.
Not only do pastures – even those in the highlands – have the potential to produce healthy meat and good farm profits, they can also combat climate change by taking carbon from the atmosphere and locking it up safely in the soil, the process known as sequestration. Far from damaging the planet as we’ve been led to believe, livestock and properly managed grazing are probably our best means of returning our climate to something like its pre-industrial normal.
According to Alex’s report, the key that will unlock these benefits is botanical diversity – pastures containing a range of plant species which feed carbon-rich compounds through their roots to billions of microbes in the soil. The microbes in their turn feed nutrients back to the plants, so they become healthier and more nutrient-rich. Finally the animals that graze the pasture thrive on the diverse, nutrient-dense vegetation, producing meat with the ‘wow’ factor and ensuring better incomes for farming families.
As if this weren’t enough, the steady build up of carbon in the soil, which makes it possible, also helps to reverse climate change. The whole, life-enhancing process is out there, ready and waiting for farmers smart enough to seize the opportunity offered by this amazing grassland ecosystem. Here’s how Alex put it in his report:
‘Farmers manage a food chain and it starts beneath their feet: in essence an energy cycle. Building this biomass increases soil’s organic matter and this is what powers pasture…‘Our herbivores are an energy transfer system, biologically linked to the pasturelands and soils. To understand the relevance of red meat in the 21st century, there is a need for a deeper understanding of these biological processes at work. We need to build pasture management systems that allow grasses to be themselves: the controllers of the ecosystem’.
‘Our herbivores are an energy transfer system, biologically linked to the pasturelands and soils. To understand the relevance of red meat in the 21st century, there is a need for a deeper understanding of these biological processes at work. We need to build pasture management systems that allow grasses to be themselves: the controllers of the ecosystem’.
To me what’s most telling about Alex’s fascinating conclusions is that they didn’t come from scientists. It’s true he began his study tour by visiting some of the UK’s top research establishments, and was clearly impressed by what he saw. But it wasn’t until he went out into the fields on three continents and saw farmers getting great results in the real world that he began to understand the full potential of grasslands. The best operators, he says, are those who have understood the limits of the environment they work in, then tweak the local ecosystems to their advantage. In other words they work with nature rather than waging chemical warfare on her.
I was delighted to read Alex’s report, not least because the conclusions he’d come were those I myself had arrived at. Over the years, I’ve done a good deal of reading around what often gets called ‘sustainable agriculture’. To me it’s simply ‘proper’ farming of the sort that farmers have practised for centuries. Although I never went on a study tour, I’ve read about some of the new pioneers Alex met. They’re abandoning the current industrial model and switching to methods that are better for us and for the planet.
On the shelves of my own ‘lockdown library’ I’ve got a book by another Scottish farmer, Robert Elliot, who had an estate in Roxburghshire on the edge of the Cheviot Hills. He, too, found that botanically-diverse pastures containing deep-rooting herbs as well as grasses, were the best way to build soil fertility. Plant roots, wrote Elliot, were ‘far and away the best tillers, drainers and warmers of the soil’. They were nature’s own fertilisers. To survive in a competitive world, he warned, Britain would need to make better use of her most valuable resource, her herb-rich grasslands and their ability to produce strong livestock and health-giving foods.
What’s interesting to me is that Elliot’s book – The Clifton Park System of Farming - was first published more than a century ago, in 1898. So what’s happened in the century and more between Elliot’s book and Alex Brewster’s new report? ‘Scientific agriculture’, that’s what. We all bought into the idea that chemicals made from fossil fuels would do a better job of feeding us than the biological cycles that have sustained all life for millions of years. We’re now discovering the unforeseen consequences of our crazy experiment in food production - the destruction of wildlife and the steady degradation of farmland into desert.
Scientists are now trying to find solutions to the problems they and the agribusiness corporations have created. Fortunately we don’t have to wait for them. A growing number of farmers, working in the real world, have already come up with the answer. The fancy name for it is ‘regenerative agriculture’. What it essentially means is employing nature’s tried and tested methods for taking carbon from the atmosphere and putting it back into the soil, effectively returning Planet Earth to its default settings before industrial agriculture.
When it comes to solving the Earth’s most intractable problems, farmers are way ahead of the scientists. They’re showing how we can fix climate change, provide nutrient-dense food for the world’s population and make more space for wildlife. Climate experts say we have just one decade to do it. We can’t wait around while science catches up. We don’t have that luxury. It’s time we gave the world’s farmers the tools they need and set them to work.