To see the need for change and head towards it, you have to ask the obvious, simple questions.
That’s what was done at the Oxford Real Farming Conference, when the campaigning group Feedback asked colleagues from the Soil Association, Friends of the Earth, Biovale and the Committee on Climate Change, “what is land for?”
It was clear from the discussion was that much of Britain’s land-use is far from optimal, a result of historical circumstances rather than any sort of rational choices for today.
A farmer in the audience pointed out that a significant proportion of what’s now termed farmland only came into that use during the Second World War, when the nation was battling to beat the U-boats by feeding itself.
As another contributor noted, financial incentives meant drainage of deeply unsuitable wetlands, the last of the last left, continued until the early 1980s. When the funding stopped, so did the drainage, like a stone dropped into one of the few remaining ponds.
That left us with only a tiny proportion of the wetland – the land vital for birds and other wildlife, for flood control, for carbon storage – of even decades before. The conference session didn’t even get started on house building on the greenbelt.
Even some of the best agricultural land being used for farming is being put to far from ideal purposes. A case study – and boy is it a disaster story – is that of sugar beet.
This is an immensely destructive crop, responsible for 10 percent of the total loss of soil in England from agricultural lands. Being a root crop, harvested in autumn in generally wet conditions, large amounts of the surrounding soil is picked up with the beet. So much, in fact, that British Sugar has a steady little earner sideline in selling the soil collected during processing.
So some of the richest, best agricultural soil in the land is being stripped away, to end up on golf courses or landscaping in new office blocks. And this for a crop producing empty, damaging calories.
Improving our diets
The average British child by age 10 has consumed as much sugar as they should by age 18, as emerged with considerable fanfare last week. We don’t need more of it, and yet British Sugar is hoping to increase production by 50 percent.
Put the land used for sugar beet – even half of it – to growing vegetables biointensively, on the model of Bec Hellouin or Bio-Gemusehof, and it could make a huge impact on our huge deficit of fruit and vegetable supply for even our utterly inadequate consumption levels. It would create the opportunity for huge numbers of extra small businesses, and jobs, at the same time restoring rural communities hollowed out by consolidation of farms into larger and larger blocks.
The misuse problem isn’t just of land of course. A lot of the food is going into feeding animals, to produce a far smaller quantity of meat. Stopping that and eating the grain instead would produce far more calories, but of course calories aren’t what we need.
We need modest amounts of protein – considerably less than we consume now – which means growing more pulses and beans: Hodmedods is showing the way in that, recovering once-common crops that had been almost forgotten and improving the British diet at the same time.
What we also need is wildlife, and that means identifying the most appropriate land for rewilding, mostly with trees. Sometimes that will be the marginal land, sometimes parts adjoining existing woodland or corridors linking it, broadening the areas accessible to our wildlife. Of course that will also, essentially, store carbon to help to meet our legally binding emissions targets.
Some land – including those new woodlands – can be used (very carefully) for sustainable, local, small-scale biofuel.
One of the first things we need is research, understanding, and measures of the environmental impact, not just in soil damage and climate emissions, but also contributions to eutrophication and air pollution, to flooding and wildlife.
We also need to be able to consider the nutritional benefits of a crop – beetroot far better than sugar beet, protein-rich lentils far better than standard wheat for Chorleywood process bread.
The answer has to lie in the fact that growing the wrong crop on the wrong soil in the wrong place has real costs. Some of those costs are borne by the farmer - but lots of them are carried by the rest of us in climate change and pollution impacts from the production and use of nitrogen fertiliser, in lost soil that won’t be replaced for millennia, in flooding, in obesity, ill-health and NHS costs.
A system that makes the profiter pay - that rewards farmers for producing nutritionally rich healthy food while ensure they don’t load costs on the rest of us - is clearly what’s needed.
In the sketched outline of the Agriculture Bill, there’s just a hint of the beginning of a scheme that could head the rich way. We must apply appropriate taxes to the production of surplus food and food that is produced in damaging ways (say for unsustainably produced meat, as Green MP Caroline Lucas was suggesting), and cut taxes and costs for those products that we do need.
This isn’t easy and it isn’t simple. But given climate change, given our acute levels of nutritional dysfunction and the degradation of land, soils, air and water - there really isn’t any alternative.
Natalie Bennett is a member of Sheffield Green Party and former Green Party leader.