It was great to see an extended piece on Channel 4 news tonight about biodiversity and farming and biodiversity. They even showed a UK farmer using regenerative agriculture techniques seeding directly into the ground without ploughing up the last crop. The farmer was very enthusiastic about the quality of his soil saying it was like crumbly fruit cake.
Then there was the Derbyshire Farm that has been trialling wildflower strips and a short piece with Rosemary Furness who wants to make linked wildlife corridors.
It was all good but what irked me was some of the commentary at the beginning that implied that farmers grubbed out hedges to make higher profits. Let us get this straight, they were encouraged to ‘modernise’ to increase output by government as part of the never-ending quest for the cheapest possible food.
Farmers are not like other businesses producing items to sell on the open market for the best possible price. Instead they are contracted to supermarkets to supply a certain quantity of produce when the retailers demand it. If demand drops or the retailer finds a cheaper source, wants a loss leader or to have a 2 for 1 offer, the farmer pays. If they fail to do what the supermarket requires, they lose the contract.
The blame for biodiversity loss should not be shouldered by farmers alone as successive governments have been more than happy to divest control of the food supply to the nine supermarkets that supply 90% of food in the UK. The idea that the overriding criteria for ‘good’ food is price and price alone drives biodiversity loss.
What needs to change is the whole food supply chain from the way food is grown to the way it is sold to what we eat. If we want more biodiversity and a more stable eco system then we, as consumers need to take responsibility for the food choices we make. We need to change the way we eat, see food as more than just pit stops to fill the tank and realise that our health is directly linked to the health of the planet that sustains us.
The new book by James Rebanks could not have come at a better time. Consumerism is killing us and destroying the land that feeds us. The never ending supply of cheap food available at any time of the day is taken for granted. We have become blind to the realities of food production and care little for those that feed us.
Growing up in a farming community meant we knew a lot about where food comes from. The secondary school in the village had a large garden which was used for horticulture lessons and to supply the school kitchen. That is now a new and novel idea but it was part of our life.
My father was a farmer before war took him away from the land. He was full of rural knowledge and in the 1950s and 1960s he grew food for the family and for sale at the gate. He kept a pig, raised hens from incubated eggs and had some vicious geese. From an early age we had an intimate knowledge of where food came from.
We also knew about the realities of farming, it was hard work and often cold and dirty. When I went to work in the big city a colleague asked me where I was from. When I told him his retort was “you’re a clod, why have you come here taking our jobs, you should be working on a farm.” Now 50 years later I agree, he was right.
In his new book James Rebanks says that consumerism dictates the way we farm. It is clear that the majority see only a rural idyll in all its fictional glory. Land is now about recreation, day trips to breath fresh air and picnic in the fields with a portable barbecue and ready meals.
A review “English Pastoral: An inheritance” in The Guardian sums up what has happened:
“By becoming slaves to consumerism and “strangers to the fields that feed us”, we’re part of the problem. He bangs out statistics to prove the point. Half of our milk is now produced from cows that live permanently indoors. Half of our hedgerows have disappeared since the second world war. And we’re so addicted to cheap food, however dubiously produced, that we spend only a third as much on it as people did in the 1950s. ”
When the never-ending supply of cheap, environmentally destructive food stops things will change. Let’s hope it is not too late.