Lately, much has been made of the food produced to sustain human life on this planet, and rightly so. Because beneath every hotly debated cloven-hoof and shaft of grain is a body bigger than all the people, plants and animals put together — and it’s dying.
The soil as an ecosystem
The soil seems fairly rudimentary. An unremarkable mass that we manipulate to make way for fields, cities, and roads. But in truth, the earth beneath us is a thrumming mega-organism comprised of an incomprehensible number of micro-organisms and minute animals. There is, in fact, more life in a teaspoon of soil than there are people on the planet. And what we’re only just beginning to understand is how important and fragile this life below the surface really is.
The lack of ‘good’ land
It seems we have an inexhaustible cache of dirt at our disposal. And, yes, there is a lot of it. But of this vast terra firma, less than 10% is cultivable land. We currently use around 50% of all habitable land for food production but there are some estimates which show that, if the world continues down the path of the typical western diet — particularly that of the US, Australia and New Zealand — we’re going to need about 40% more land than we have.
So we can begin to see that the earth is at odds with the number of people it has to support. If we were all to adopt the diets of low-land-impact countries such as Liberia or Mozambique, we could release a little of the earth back to nature but we would suffer from malnutrition. So there needs to be a compromise. Monoculture food systems, designed to produce high-yield food crops and fulfil the increasing demand for meat in the west, have effectively instigated a process of planetary sterilisation — because of the removal of diversity on our farmlands.
The importance of crop diversity
What lives above ground profoundly influences soil chemistry, balance and nutrient level below. Whether that be what grows in our fields or what lands on the soil surface, all leached down through rainfall to provide the food source for the micro-organisms beneath. The soil ‘biota’.
Like us, the biota can’t be sustained by a single food source alone. With a few rare exceptions, life on earth has complex nutritional needs and chemical fertilizers and monoculture farming practice have stripped away the nutrient level. This is not a surprise. But what might surprise is that recent lean toward ‘getting rid of’ large grazing mammals — i.e. cattle and sheep farming — could be just as problematic.
A return to grazing the land
There is a compelling argument for vegetarianism and veganism. The sustainability problem of a largely meat-based diet is impossible to shirk. But removing cattle and sheep from the food system altogether is unlikely to be the answer.
Before modern farming practices, large herds of farmed — if not wild — ruminants grazed the land and ‘deposited’ back onto it. An important act of fertilisation which can only happen this way. Now, we have industrial cattle sheds and very few wild herds left to perform this key element of land management. And, perhaps a controversial point but an important one nonetheless: if the earth goes vegan, there will be little incentive for those farmers keeping grass-fed livestock to keep doing what they do. Ultimately, this means that grazing herds will be consigned to history. So it’s a question of finding equilibrium again. Something that the forefathers of farming seemed to understand.
There are those who seek to return to a more traditional way of farming. One which considers the holistic picture of the land and its cooperative inhabitants, rather than just the cash crop in question. Diverse planting, pastured livestock farming on a much smaller-scale and growing to sell ‘local’. The problem is that the food market isn’t set up to adopt the ‘old way’, as it stands. That will require a drastic change in how we eat and shop. So who is pushing ahead anyway?
The holistic pioneers
From humble beginnings as a one-man-farming-band, Riverford founder Guy Watson has established an organic farming business which now delivers almost 50,000 boxes of home-grown vegetables, nationwide, weekly. Anything that cannot be produced on the Riverford farm in Devon, is grown by a trusted network of small-scale, organically certified, growers and producers — meaning that every food item is completely traceable. They offer 100% organic, free-range, meat which is reared — not ‘produced’ — to the highest standards of animal welfare; thus promoting healthier land and animals. Importantly, only growers and producers who adhere to a holistic approach to land management make it into a Riverford box. So every box of organic fruit and veg sold contributes to a better way of farming.
This 60-acre organic farm, in the Forest of Dean, Gloucestershire, uses the regenerative practices of permaculture and organic production to give life back to their land. They produce diverse crops of apples in their orchards, plant home-grown willow banks to inject CO2 back into the soil and experiment with biofertilisers and niche planting. The farm also runs courses in sustainability, to teach the new generation of land custodians how to build their farming practice in ways which will benefit, rather than rob, the land.
Spurred by a vision to produce ‘good food, naturally’, farm owner Christine Page rears grass-fed livestock for meat and dairy, on her 70-acre Shropshire farm. The ambition is to regenerate the soils through ‘natural’ grazing cycles, conserve local wildlife and plant diversity and — almost as a by-product — rear contented animals in conditions that mimic nature as closely as possible. Ultimately producing nutrient-rich, organic, food. As host to guests and farm volunteers, Christine also grows small-scale fruit and vegetables in perennial forest lands and seasonal beds. The farm offers courses throughout the year, including: Mob-grazing and pasture management and Starting and running a micro-dairy.
In the Welsh Aeron valley, Blaencamel is a 45-acre, completely carbon-neutral, organic farm which dedicates just 16.5 acres to food production. The rest is woodland, river and natural habitat for countryside flora and fauna. They grow both seasonal and non-seasonal fruits and vegetables — through the combination of fields and an acre of polytunnels and greenhouses — shipping their produce no further than South Wales. The very definition of local food production. Blaencamel is answering the question of whether it’s possible, in their small slice of UK countryside, to produce a ‘reasonable menu of vegetables and salad, right throughout the year’. They provide local schools with educational visits and encourage visitors to use their network of public footpaths to enjoy the land.
This 300-acre mixed farm is returning depleted ecosystems, above and below the surface, to a natural balance — through cyclical grazing of their herds. Mimicking predator-prey relationships, the farm moves its herd once a day; benefiting both the animals and the earth. The action of trampling the grass protects the roots, feeds the micro-organisms in the soil, increases biodiversity and makes the farm effective at sequestering carbon dioxide. The result is a happier, healthier cow which goes on to become nutrient-dense meat.
There has always been a struggle with the acceptance of diversity, in its many forms. Humanity seeks to find order in things. But unless we can agree that everything exists in necessary cooperation, there’s doubt as to how we will be able to make future food production work.