Farmers can be the heroes of a greener world
We should be avoiding intensive forms of farming livestock and poultry that are polluting many of our waterways, reducing soil health, and decimating biodiversity.
At the heart of farming lies an inherent contradiction. For decades, farmers have been encouraged and lauded for making their farms more productive, for keeping food affordable and for feeding the nation.
At the same time, farmers have witnessed the catastrophic decline in nature and the impacts of climate change on our countryside and been forced to acknowledge their role in these.
The highly successful intensive farming that has fed a nation through, and since, the Second World War has led to huge drops in biodiversity, with many familiar species of bird, plants, and insects seeing massive drops as a result. The farming sector emits 10 per cent of the UK’s emissions, a number that has refused to budge for the last decade, and many farmers are now having to cope with the impacts of the changing climate.
I have seen these changes first hand. My ties to Devon stretch back over seven and a half centuries. I love this county, home to a long farming tradition. Farmers who care for around 70 per cent of our land, are custodians of some of Britain’s best loved landscapes from the wide hedgerows and pastures of Devon, to sheep farming on rolling hills in the Lake District, to the bread basket arable fields of Lincolnshire. For centuries farmers have been connected to the land and its rhythms – but these rhythms are changing.
By embracing a low-carbon and nature-friendly future, farming can also shake off any image of being stuck in the past
Change is challenging, as we saw when Henry Dimbleby recently put forward his blueprint for revolutionising our food system for people and nature. His food strategy set out plans for improving people’s diets, restoring nature, and lowering farming’s impact on the climate. But the reaction was mixed, with some people focussing solely on opposing some elements. I think that we have to be brave and welcome its general thrust as a constructive attempt to address some of the real issues that face us as a nation.
Nevertheless, Dimbleby’s strategy comes at an opportune time, when the government is introducing a new system that aims to reward farmers for producing food differently. He makes some specific proposals: the farm budget should be guaranteed at its historic level (almost £3 billion per year) until 2029. Up to £700 million of this, he says, should go towards restoring habitats to store carbon, with less intensive but higher quality food production. He says this should happen on the least productive land, where livestock are grazed in the uplands and lowlands.
I agree with this, up to a point. We should be avoiding those intensive forms of farming livestock and poultry that are polluting many of our waterways, reducing soil health, and decimating biodiversity. But there are ways of farming sheep and cattle that are sympathetic to nature and that produce high quality meat. This will need to be a carefully negotiated outcome – tweaking centuries of grazing the land in a place like Devon is not easy.
It should not be scrapped, and instead we should help farmers become better custodians of the land. Nowhere should we be forcing them off it. They do need to be profitable however and responsible farming needs support either from government or from the marketplace.
My own experience makes me optimistic that farmers can play a crucial part in the UK’s journey to net zero emissions. By embracing a low-carbon and nature-friendly future, farming can also shake off any image of being stuck in the past. This will attract new entrants to the sector – something that is desperately needed. One thing that farmers will need to do in future is to demonstrate their skills in farming, in business and in the environment, where an organisation like the Institute for Agriculture and Horticulture (TIAH) will have a vital role to play.
If there is one thing that I have learned during all my years in Devon, it is that there is space in the countryside for cutting emissions, caring for nature, and producing good food. We can restore our beautiful landscapes with our traditional Devon hedgerows, encourage wildlife to return and produce the healthy and nutritious food for which we are known.
It is time to act now. Henry Dimbleby has given us a blueprint; it may not be perfect, but we should take it as the starting point for the changes we need to make.
David Fursdon is chair of The Institute for Agriculture and Horticulture.
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