December update

Nature’s Dark Matter, Soil, Wildlife, Carbon Capture and Red Meat – the vital role of soil biology and problems with modern, specialised crop production for soils. Does eating red meat help or harm the environment? It depends on where it comes from and how it is produced.

Eating more British, pasture fed meat is vital to recarbonise our soils after 60 years where our arable land has become increasingly depleted in organic matter. This was a key message from Patrick Holden, of the Sustainable Food Trust, at Bath University’s debate, on 19th November, on the Future of UK Farming and Food Production. This is consistent with the recommendations in the IDDRI Report (2019), which brings together climate, nature and health. Joanna Lewes, Head of Policy at the Soil Association, highlighted the importance of this study (in a year of many reports), which shows that a transition to agroecological farming (using natural systems first, chemicals last) in Europe can feed the projected 2050 population, without imported animal proteins, and reducing food imports. Grassland, mixed farming and mosaic landscapes are identified as crucial: in order to keep land healthy, feed us sustainably, support wildlife and capture carbon. Entirely pertinent to this, was a presentation on Nature’s Dark Matter by Dr Matthew Shepherd, Soil Biology Specialist, Natural England; one of a fascinating series of talks on Vanishing Insects, on 2nd November, at Somerset Wildlife Trust’s AGM. The weight of soil organisms under our arable soils is now 5 tonnes per hectare, whereas under grazed pasture it is 50 tonnes per hectare. Soil organisms constitute the majority of organisms in the world and the ecosystem would not work without them. They are central to the process of carbon sequestration in the soil and at the base of the food web for wildlife. However, living soils are now seriously threatened by modern industrial agriculture with use of agrichemicals and inadequate returns of organic matter to soils: leading to soil erosion and loss of resilience to drought and flooding, particularly in croplands. Specialised farming and Intensive agriculture has caused arable soils to lose about 40 to 60% of their organic carbon.

See The state of the environment: soilJune 2019 – Natural England.   So, at this conference, also, references were made by researchers and wildlife organisations alike to the importance of grassland and mixed farming for sustainable food systems, wildlife and carbon capture.

It was emphasised that the blame does not lie with farmers, but with a range of factors, including government policies and the British culture of cheap food. Choosing sustainably produced food reaps multiple benefits for human and environmental health and enables farmers to transition to nature friendly farming systems.

Grass-fed beef, lamb and dairy are all available locally to Bradford on Avon, produced without imported proteins. Patrick Holden talked about how British grassland farmers are in crisis, partly owing to the reduced demand for red meat; and across Wales, planning applications are being put in for intensive poultry units.

Contrary to what we are led to believe, he indicated that beef consumption has actually fallen by 50% in this country since the 1980s and dropped a further 15% in the last year. [Detailed statistics from the British Heart Foundation and the University of Oxford between 1961 and 2008 show a steady fall in consumption per person per week of: beef and veal from 258g to 111g; mutton and lamb from 191g to 45g; pork, bacon and ham from 230g to 163g; sausages from 102g to 62g. Only poultry consumption has risen from 69g to 250g.]

It is worth noting that most grain and soy in this country is fed to poultry and pigs, rather than beef; also, dairy cattle consume more than beef cattle, which are mainly grass-fed.   See Neil Powell’s blog and read A Bit of Beef: local, grass fed and environmentally sustainable? and other articles which give an insight into traditional British beef production: so different from horrors of some of the meat production in the US and South America, which was graphically portrayed in a recent BBC programme.

British producers feel that they are world leaders in the sustainability of their grass-fed production methods and are outraged by the public image of beef production from abroad. Farming organisations have reacted angrily to comments from Professor Boyd, a former chief scientific adviser to Defra, that the UK’s farming system is “very inefficient and in need of very significant transformation”. He recommended that intensive high-tech cattle and sheep rearing systems were more carbon-efficient than traditional, extensive pasture-based ones. Four veterinary academics, in a letter to the Farmers Weekly (15 Nov 2019), strongly disagree with Prof Boyd and say that “a letter has just arrived at the European Parliament, representing the views of 2,500 scientists and calling for the de-intensification of agriculture as an urgent priority to mitigate environmental damage.” Phil Stocker, chief executive of the National Sheep Association said “Professor Boyd may be an eminent scientist, but he still doesn’t understand the difference between a natural carbon cycle involving grazing animals, and a carbon cycle based on releasing carbon from fossil fuels.” (Farmers Weekly, 8 Nov 2019). The National Beef Association spokesman says “Two-thirds of UK farmland is grass and a huge percentage of that isn’t able to be cultivated. Using grass to feed livestock when it can’t be used for anything else makes more sense than importing beef (or soya) from where rainforests once stood.”

It is becoming increasingly clear that the carbon footprint of food is a poor guide to environmentally friendly food choices and can also mislead public policies, including acting as a driver for intensive systems over agro=ecological approaches to food production. The metrics keep changing and it is being increasingly recognised that they are incomplete measures, which do not take soil carbon, whole healthy food production cycles and many other factors into account in the complex biosphere in which our food is produced. See the exploration of these, and other, issues which confound discussions on sustainable food choices   This document draws on the earlier Climate Friendly Bradford on Avon document Sustainable Food and Drink Looking after the Earth

At the Bath University conference, Mr Holden, a pioneering farmer in using organic methods in Wales since the 1970s, observed that the well-intentioned advice of some recent academic reports, as well as of some politicians, has been notably out-of-touch with farmers’ own understanding of soil biology and what the land can best produce to reduce dependence on imported food. Patrick Holden was CEO of the Soil Association for ten years and was involved in drawing up the standards for organic food production. In light of the climate emergency, he is now working on a sustainability framework for food and farming which can have application not just nationally, but globally.

Patrick Holden’s views were endorsed by a down-to earth talk by Jo Edwards, Castle Farm Organics, Bath, who produces fruit, veg and beef and says feed the soil not the plant, and eat food which is good today (ie. seasonal) and of the area. (More feedback regarding fruit and veg in next month’s newsletter.)

So, it is important to think where and how our meat, dairy products and eggs are produced and equally important to think where and how the grains, fruit, veg, nuts, plant-based oils and pulses we choose are produced. At present we are being told that arable soils may only have 100 harvests left; Michael Gove has said that some UK croplands, including horticultural land, may only have 30 harvests left.

Whatever your dietary choice, give more thought to choosing sustainably produced food and drink. See our 1-page guide

Have a Happy Christmas and enjoy delicious, well-produced food.

Ros Edwards Dec 2019