Wouldn’t it be great if we had a farming system that, instead of being a driver of wildlife decline, actually started to put things back? That started to regenerate the soil naturally? That started to bring back birds, bees and butterflies? That made wonderful environments for farm animals and for our wildlife too? What if we had regenerative farming that combined food production with nature protection?
Well, the good news is that Brexit and the forthcoming Agriculture Bill presents us with a once in a generation opportunity for a fundamental redesign of the way we farm in the UK.
The Government has recognised that there is a need to move away from direct payments, based on the size of the land a particular farm covers, and in favour of ‘public goods’. This is a welcome first step. Now we must all work together and campaign for a reformulation of food and farming policy so that its core objective is to provide nutritious food produced to high environmental and animal welfare standards.
Farming for wildlife
Farming can take place in harmony with nature. I’ve visited farmers, who are doing just that. Farmers like John and Guy Turner in Lincolnshire, who rear cattle to the standards of the Pasture Fed Livestock Association (PFLA). Their cows have the pick of the farm’s plantlife and move round the farm in rotation with the Turners’ crops. “By having grass and grazing animals on the farm, we’re putting fertility back into the soil”, John explains.
And the farm is home to wildlife too, “There’s been a massive increase in the amount of wildlife: butterflies, day moths, bees …kites, buzzards, kestrels, barn owls … in order for these to thrive and to stay on the farm, you’ve got to have the foodweb beneath them. You’ve got to have the small mammals, and for the small mammals to thrive, you’ve got to have the insects and worms and that sort of thing,” says John.
The Turners are part of a growing movement of farmers worldwide moving away from industrial farming in favour of a more compassionate, regenerative way of producing food.
Research by the PFLA in 2016 showed that pasture-fed livestock farmers like the Turners are able to make as much profit if not more than anyone else in the country. The reasons for this include the lower cost of feeding grass to animals when compared to grain. Costs are reduced still further by the effect of keeping animals in their natural environment: they tend to be healthier, so vets’ bills are lower.
A sustainable food future
When you close your eyes and imagine where the very best food comes from, what does it look like? In my experience people imagine fields, wildlife, swaying crops, the buzzing of bees, bird song. They think of diverse landscapes, the kind of place you’d like to visit: beautiful countryside.
Farming that combines protection of the environment and wildlife with food production means moving away from monocultures, creating space for nature, safeguarding landscapes and water supplies, reducing use of chemical fertilisers and pesticides, introducing rotations to restore and maintain soil quality, looking after hedgerows and trees.
Transforming our farming and food systems will also mean redefining the role of livestock, so that they are primarily seen as converters of inedible materials into meat and milk. The UK could become a world leader in pasture-fed livestock and the skilful and sustainable management of such systems.
Time for urgent action
In my lifetime, Britain has lost 44 million birds; that’s one breeding pair gone every minute. Birds including turtle doves, grey partridges, corn buntings and tree sparrows have declined by 90 per cent or more over the last forty years.
I look forward to working with WWF and others to secure a strong Agriculture Bill that sets the right direction for our food, farming and our health. Changes for some farmers may be radical and support may well be needed. However, as WWF’s recent polling reveals, 91% of the UK public want the government to pay farmers to protect nature.