On the way back from a gig 15 years ago, I read an article on the environmental consequences of food production. It made for sobering reading, and ended by saying: “If you don’t like the system, don’t depend on it.” I was inspired to transform our garden in France into a vegetable patch in a quest for self-sufficiency. This quickly escalated, and I ended up selling the rights to my songs with Groove Armada to buy a farm nearby. After 12 years in the agricultural school of hard knocks, what we learned there is now being applied on a National Trust farm near Swindon for which we were awarded the tenancy last year.
Back in France during last month’s heatwaves, the effect on the landscape was devastating. Spring-sown crops, hanging on after very little rainfall and unrelenting sun, will, for many, not be worth harvesting. Looking over the parched valley, veiled in wildfire smoke drifting up from the coast, I made a throwaway remark to some farming friends about planting olive trees to cope with increasingly regular episodes of intense, dry heat. One replied that there was in fact a meeting that evening about the creation of a Gascon olive oil collective. The shift in weather patterns over the past decade has been incredible. Farmers feel the effects immediately; we are gardening without a hosepipe.
Postwar farming practices have played a significant role in getting us here. Soil is by far the Earth’s biggest carbon store outside the oceans – it holds more than all the world’s plants and forests combined. Since the beginning of agriculture, soil has lost about 8% of its carbon, creating up to 20% of human-made CO2 emissions. Soil carbon is crucial for the retention of water. According to the US Department of Agriculture, this loss in carbon can translate to a loss of 800,000 litres per hectare of water storage. This makes crops prone to drought and increases devastation from flooding for communities downstream. Biodiversity loss, most visible on our bug-free windscreens and documented in endless falling graphs of insects, birds and life of all kinds, is a crisis as dramatic as the changing climate. It is inevitably linked to agriculture because farming covers 71% of UK land.
Done differently, farming has the potential to store carbon, house diverse wildlife and provide ample, nutritious food. Yet since the mid-20th century, western policy has pushed farmers in the opposite direction. Government-funded research, education and subsidies have been used to drive chemically intensive production over ever-larger acreages. Short-term yields had their most famous spokesperson in Nixon’s secretary of state for agriculture, Earl Butz, who ordered farmers to “get big or get out”.
To maximise efficiency of production, the farming landscape has become one of monocultures, with single crops across whole fields, areas or even regions. A single species of plant across a large area is something that never exists in nature because it’s incompatible with a healthy ecosystem. As such, it requires a constant battle against nature’s attempts to reintroduce diversity: the ceaseless removal of what we see as weeds, and the killing of insects whose job is to remove unhealthy plant growth, which is what chemically reliant crops are. In 1943, Albert Howard, the godfather of what is now called “regenerative” farming, wrote that “the appearance of a pest should be regarded as a warning from Mother Earth to put our house in order”.
Harvesting our food from the ecosystems that sustain us could be compared to extracting timber from a hillside forest. We have two choices. Our current choice is a short-term bumper harvest, levelling the forest and leaving the exposed soil to disappear with the rain. The other option is to preserve the forest’s integrity and manage it for timber over the long term. This would not only yield much more in time but would also maintain the habitat on…