Ten years to a farming future

| 17th October 2019
Uplands
We need to join the dots between the climate crisis, the nature crisis and the dietary crisis if we are to avoid disaster, and food and farming lies at the heart of the solution.

The future of farming and land use lies at the heart of these three crises with a huge opportunity to tackle climate change, restore nature and soil health and normalise healthy diets, but we must act now. The next ten years are crucial.

We can feed the world a healthy diet using nature-friendly farming, and there is no alternative if we are not to erode the ecological foundations of farming and of life itself.

That’s what we heard this week at the inaugural Peter Melchett Memorial Lecture, held in memory of the much-loved and much-missed environmental activist and organic farming champion, who was policy director at the Soil Association for 17 years.

Food and farming is under the spotlight on climate change as never before. There are calls for so-called ‘sustainable intensification’ of food production to free up land for bioenergy and afforestation at the same time as doubling yields to ‘feed the world’.

Interconnected crises

But what would this mean for nature? And is doubling yields of livestock feed and commodity crops like maize really the priority for feeding the world a healthy diet?

Currently across Europe, 58 percent of cereals and 68 percent of oilseed crops are grown to feed intensive livestock – we need to bring things back in balance.

The UN Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) published a devastating Global Assessment of Biodiversity earlier this year and called for governments worldwide to wake up to the biodiversity crash and land degradation crisis, and to give them equal weighting with climate change in farming and land use policy.

But despite these warnings, governments are failing to join the dots between the interconnected climate crisis, the nature crisis and the dietary health crisis. By not doing so we risk making things worse not better.

The future of farming and land use lies at the heart of these three crises with a huge opportunity to tackle climate change, restore nature and soil health and normalise healthy diets, but we must act now. The next ten years are crucial.

Solution

Keynote speaker and ‘bee man’ Professor Dave Goulson, Professor of Biology at Sussex University, painted a worrying picture that confirmed global insect decline.

A million species are at risk of extinction and abundance of all wildlife, from pollinating insects to farmland birds and mammals is in decline. Scientists attribute this decline to rising pesticide use and habitat loss associated with intensive farming.

“We need to find a way to grow food and promote biodiversity at the same time, pivoting from a crisis to a workable solution,” said Professor Goulson.

As our focus on climate deepens and we move towards COP26, we need to keep the other crises in view. Half our soils worldwide are degraded and the 2018 Global Nutrition Report found 88% of countries have overlapping burdens of obesity and under-nutrition due to poor quality diets.

But there is a solution. Keynote speaker Sébastien Treyer, Executive Director of IDDRi, an independent French policy research institute, shared thought-provoking – and alarming – insights into these crises of our time, backed up by a solution.  

Beef

We need profound ecological transformation of food and farming– and the IDDRI model shows it’s possible. The Ten Years Transition to Agroecology in Europe report models a future where farming in Europe can respond to climate change, phase out pesticides and maintain vital biodiversity, whilst providing a sufficient and healthy diet for a growing population.

There is now strong interest in a UK-specific IDDRI model to show the pathway to agroecology, and the role that the best of British farming can play.

A groundswell of farmers are looking for ways to cut their reliance on agri-chemicals and nurture the soil and biodiversity of their farms. They urgently need government support to do so from redirected farm subsidies. They also urgently need a source of advice that is independent from the agri-chemical companies.

It isn’t just farmers and policy makers who need to make changes. Any sustainable future means making some changes to our diets and lifestyles.

Cutting down on intensively produced beef, chicken and pork fed on soya linked to deforestation is the priority when we join the dots between the climate crisis, the nature crisis and the health crisis.

Passionately

Intensive livestock farming is also a major driver of the antimicriobial resistance crisis, as the outgoing chief medical officer, Dame Sally Davies, has done so much to highlight.

The IDDRI model highlights that grass-fed beef, lamb and dairy can be part of the solution, however, in helping sequester carbon in grassland soils and reduce our reliance on artificial fertilisers, which in turn drive up pesticide use.  

This research brings hope, as does the RSA Commission on the Future of Food, Farming, with its recommendations for a Ten-Year Transition to Agroecology and for world-leading procurement to make healthy and sustainable diets normal.

There’s a huge opportunity, if funders and thinkers and do-ers across climate, nature and health come together, to unlock a ten-year transition for food and farming that reverses the climate crisis, restores nature and soil health and normalises a healthier diet. Nothing less will suffice.

The Ten years to a farming future that works for climate, nature and health lecture was the first in a series of annual lectures that will stimulate fresh thinking on the causes Peter Melchett cared about so passionately.

This author 

Joanna Lewis is policy and strategy director at the Soil Association and chair of the Food Ethics Council. She can be found tweeting at @JoLewisSA.

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