7th January 2020
Rescue remedy for an ailing planet
Until the 1950s Britain’s countryside played a key role in helping to cool the planet and stabilise weather patterns. Farming landscapes were intricate mosaics of small fields, hedges, woodlands, rough grasslands and wetlands, all of which stored carbon. Huge amounts of carbon were also stored in the soils that grew our crops. It was a truly sustainable farming system producing healthy, nutrient-rich foods and supporting massive wildlife populations.
But this didn’t suit the post-war policy-makers. On zero evidence they decided a landscape of mostly small, independent farms was somehow ‘inefficient’. Farm subsidies were intended to de-stabilise the farming structure that had fed Britain through the war. It was a policy driven largely by the fertiliser companies – which use massive amounts of fossil energy. The aim was to create an industrial landscape of factory farms reliant on chemicals.
Chalk and soil erosion: the legacy of industrial farming in the UK
Hedges and woodlands were bulldozed out. Wetlands and ponds were drained. Much of the countryside was turned into the featureless, prairie-style landscape we’re familiar with today. Animals and poultry that once roamed pasture were shut up in factory-like sheds. It was a process of rural industrialisation that’s been disastrous for wildlife as it has been for rural communities. In my 1997 book, The Killing of the Countryside, I spelled out in detail how fossil fuel-dependent, high-input agriculture was destroying wildlife and habitats. The book got a lot of media attention at the time, but sadly nothing actually changed.
The latest State of Nature report shows our wildlife is still in decline – and this in a country already described as one of the most nature-deprived nations on the planet! What I didn’t realise when I wrote the book was that industrial agriculture – as well as harming wildlife and rural communities – was also wrecking Earth’s bio-systems. Much of the carbon that, until a few decades ago, was safely stored in soils, hedges, wetlands and woodlands, has now been oxidised, adding to the Earth’s greenhouse gases. As soils lose carbon they become drier, which means they grow less vegetation through the year. As a result the planet-cooling effect of evapo-transpiration (water cycling through plants) is reduced. Agriculture, which once helped stabilise our weather patterns, has become a major threat.
Australian Bush fires 2020. Some of the most destructive in recorded history (Photo: D.Blumenberg)
Fortunately nature has given us a get-out-of-jail card. The whole process can be reversed. A change to farming would not only be the best way to save our wildlife – it’s also our most effective means of countering climate disruption. No new technologies are needed. The mechanisms have been tried and tested by evolution over millions of years. We need to restore the countryside features which once provided valuable habitats – hedges, woodlands, wetlands and herb-rich grasslands, the former icons of the British countryside. By putting them back we’d capture atmospheric CO2 and lock up the carbon safely in the landscape – in trees and shrubs, in wildlife and, most importantly, in soil.
Microbiologist Walter Jehne, of Healthy Soils Australia, believes this to be our only realistic chance of stabilising the world’s climate. Soil creation is naturally controlled by plants, which secrete carbon-rich compounds (exudates) through their roots. Soil microbes are able to convert these compounds – along with decaying plant wastes - into stable forms of carbon. The carbon-enriched soil acts as a sponge holding enough water to support lush vegetation through the year. The cooling effect of vegetation and its hydrological cycles works efficiently. However, our current, fossil fuel-driven farming methods have weakened the process by degrading soils on a vast scale. Around 40 percent of the world’s soils have now been severely degraded.
Microbiologist Walter Jehne (Photo: uwaterloo.ca)
In response innovative farmers have developed new techniques that harness the natural processes and put carbon back in the soil, in effect reversing half a century of industrial agriculture. They’ve been so successful it’s even possible to assign carbon-capture values to each regenerative technique. For example, well-managed herbal leys (herb-filled pastures) capture up to 8 tonnes of carbon per hectare annually, equivalent to 30 tonnes of CO2. Small woodlands planted within pasture capture more than 5 tonnes of carbon annually; restored wetlands, more than 8 tonnes; and the regeneration of cropland – through cover crops or temporary grasslands – more than 6 tonnes of carbon per hectare annually.
Our future depends on how quickly these regenerative methods can be spread across the world’s farmlands. Walter Jehne believes farmers can capture enough carbon, not only to offset our present emissions, but also the legacy emissions from an earlier industrial period. In other words changes to the way we use farmland could restore atmospheric CO2 levels to their pre-industrial normal in a decade. It’s an astonishing claim, but it’s being proven by farmers in the real world. Regenerative agriculture (regen-ag) could solve the challenge of climate change, while bringing wildlife back to our countryside. Plus we’d enjoy better, more nutrient-rich foods.
If you’ve never heard of regen agriculture, you’re in good company. Last autumn I shared a speaking platform with one of the country’s leading environmental writers and campaigners. He hadn’t heard of it either. The oil industry and the biotech corporations, who have most to lose from a switch to planet-friendly farming, spend a lot of money making sure the true facts stay out of the media. They cloud the issue with claims that less ‘intensive’ farming methods would mean more of the world’s precious wildlands being converted to food production.
This is dishonest. Regenerative farming makes soils deeper and more fertile so they produce more food, not less. Even with more of the countryside taken up with hedges and woodlands, we’ll produce just as much food as we do today. And it’ll be better food. Studies at the University of California show that climate-friendly landscapes, with their mosaics of carbon-storing features, can produce more food per hectare than industrial methods. In reality the biggest threat to the world’s food supply is the rate at which farm chemicals are ruining soil. At the last count it was 10 billion hectares worldwide and rising.
It’s this battering of the Earth’s natural cooling systems that threatens our wildlands. If we continue with our chemical warfare on nature we’ll have no option but to bring wildlands under cultivation – including the inspirational re-wilded estate at Knepp Castle. Regen-ag will ensure that wild areas like Knepp are surrounded by biodiverse farmland, giving them a far better chance to flourish. It’ll also bring wildlife back to our every-day, working countryside – the countryside we all eat from and which we help shape through the food choices we make. If switched to regenerative agriculture, we’d eat a lot better. The highly-fertile soils it created would put more nutrients into crops and animals.
The supremecy of biotech and the oil industry: fertilisers and weed killers
Clearly a rural revolution on this scale would be an unprecedented challenge for farmers. We’d be asking them to take on a far bigger job even than the one they tackled in World War Two. In addition to feeding the nation, they’d be asked to enhance biodiversity and heal the planet. To take it on they would need guarantees of sustained support from government. As consumers we could play our part by seeking out the foods that came from regenerated farmland. In nutrient terms they’d be well worth a premium. Whatever the cost of reshaping our countryside, it would be trivial compared with the cost of ever increasing climate disruption – or even of the massive changes we’d otherwise have to make to our lifestyles to meet emission targets that look ever more distant.
I’ve been campaigning for a more humane, wildlife friendly system of farming since I worked as a freelance journalist in the 1980s. We now have a historic opportunity to create a countryside that works both for people and wildlife. It’s shameful that the new farming methods are not high on the agendas of politicians and environmental campaigners. We’re rightly excited by the prospect of more trees in the landscape. But we have to eat too. Regen-ag would allow us to eat better while protecting the Earth, our home, along with all its creatures. This is why I’ve launched LandAlive. It’s to promote greater awareness of the wonderful future we could create for our land and wildlife.
In September Glasgow is to host the next major UN climate change summit, COP26. We plan to spend the intervening months getting the facts of the new farming techniques to the widest possible audience. We’ll do it through video, podcasts, film and social media, where possible using young environmentalists as reporters. Plus I’ll be giving talks and hosting roadshows around the country. Our aim is to ensure regen-ag is high on the agenda at Glasgow. Equally it’s to win the hearts and minds of the many in our nation who are determined to see more action on climate change. We think we have the answer, not because we’re particularly smart. But this is Nature’s way to heal the planet, that’s why we know it’ll work.