An open letter to The Rt Hon George Eustice, Environment Secretary
Dear Secretary of State,
I was delighted to learn that, as far as the environment is concerned, you intend to 'build back greener' after the Covid crisis. I particularly like your plan to improve biodiversity by restoring and creating wildlife-rich habitats. As you know, the 2019 State of Nature Report highlighted a further decline in wild species. It's nothing short of a wildlife catastrophe that has played out in slow motion for more than 70 years, so it's good to hear you're determined to turn things around. However, I'm disappointed that you plan to set targets, even if they are to be, as you assure us, ambitious. I doubt they'll be ambitious enough to undo the devastation caused by post-war rural policies. If we're to save our wildlife it's not incremental changes we need. It's the total transformation of agriculture.
The reason our countryside and wildlife are in a poor state is that we grow our food by methods that are hostile, not only to wildlife, but to all life on Earth. We in Britain used to be good at farming. Until World War Two farmers relied on a mix of crops and grazing animals to keep soils fertile and productive. No chemicals were needed. Farms produced foods that were rich in nutrients, while the countryside teemed with wildlife. When war came we were able to step up production because soils were fertile and stored large amounts of carbon. If we had to boost production today we'd be hard pressed to do it, our soils are in such a poor state. The destruction of our countryside and wildlife is the direct result of bad policy decisions made by governments of both parties. Post-Covid and post-Brexit you have a unique opportunity to put things right - if you're bold enough.
Perhaps I could take you back to the time of one of your predecessors, Tom Williams, who was Minister of Agriculture in the post-war Labour government. Unlike you, he wasn't a farmer. He'd been a miner before he went into politics. Even so he became known as 'the farmer's friend' because for the first time he introduced farm grants and subsidies. While this was supported by the big players, there were many small farmers who didn't consider it a friendly act at all. They saw it as state interference and a threat to their future. As things turned out they were right to be worried. Your department used the subsidies to promote large-scale, mechanised farming with most public money going to the largest producers.
Tom Williams - Post-war Labour Minister for Agriculture and Fisheries c. 1946
You chose as your partners in this rural revolution, the chemical fertiliser industry, companies like ICI and Fisons. Your Ministry's advisers worked with them to cajole farmers into abandoning their sustainable systems and adopting chemical methods based on nitrate fertiliser. It was a reckless and short-sighted policy based on poor science. Over the decades it has slowly turned farmland into wasteland. It has destroyed much of our wildlife, degraded food, polluted our rivers and oceans and now threatens the future of the planet. The tragedy is there were plenty of experts warning of these outcomes but they were ignored, sometimes even ridiculed. Among them was plant scientist Sir Albert Howard, who spent his early career in India researching the way crops were nourished and kept healthy by soil microbes.
Returning to Britain, he led the opposition to the powerful chemical industry. He argued that carbon-rich organic materials like compost – made from animal and plant wastes – were essential for crops to flourish. Drenching their roots in solutions of inorganic nitrogen compounds – as the fertiliser companies were recommending – would lead to crops being poorly nourished. They would become sick, so ultimately would the people and animals eating those crops. Howard's arguments received wide attention, based as they were on science. However, the scientific establishment of the time opposed him, some accusing him of a superstitious belief in the power of humus, the complex, carbon-rich compounds found in soils. Among his critics were leading scientists at Rothamsted research station, which had long-established links to the fertiliser industry.
During the war years, Howard led a spirited opposition to the chemical take-over of the countryside. He took his campaign to Parliament, where in the Lords the Ministry of Agriculture was forced to deny any connivance with the powerful chemical industry. 'There's no evidence that the balanced use of fertilisers has a harmful affect on soil, crops or man,' said Parliamentary Secretary, the Duke of Norfolk. There was no evidence because the scientists weren't looking for it. At the end of the war, the new Agriculture Minister, Tom Williams, promised the fertiliser industry that government policy would guarantee a demand for 'artificials' (chemical fertilisers). Howard wrote that this move would be seen by history as 'one of the greatest misfortunes to have hit farming and mankind'.
More than 70 years later his gloomy prediction has turned out to have been tragically accurate. In the 1947 Agriculture Act, Williams effectively handed over the countryside to the chemical industry. Their nitrate fertilisers – along with the pesticides that always accompany them – have devastated rural Britain. They've destroyed wildlife, polluted rivers and streams, and damaged soils. Under the chemical assault, the living part of the soil – including the numberless army of microbes that supports all life on earth - are burning up like the rain forests, spewing more carbon into the atmosphere and speeding climate breakdown. In the process tens of thousands of rural jobs have been lost, sustainable farms put out of business and village communities impoverished.
In the 1970s came what was laughingly called 'the Green Revolution', the introduction of high-yield crop varieties to increase grain production. In reality it was a classic piece of 'green-wash'. To produce their bumper harvests the new varieties needed higher chemical inputs. They caused even more environmental damage to produce grain surpluses that had then to be wastefully fed to animals or processed into biofuels. The collapse in this year's harvest was made worse by climate extremes and soil damage, both results of chemical farming. The irony is the whole, destructive system couldn't operate without public subsidies. All governments, including yours, Mr Eustice, have been willing to tax the British people to fund the destruction of their own countryside.
Here's an even bigger irony. Rothamsted Research, the august organisation that's done more than any other to promote chemical farming, now concedes it was a mistake. They're spinning their new finding as a 'breakthrough' in our understanding of how soils work. It follows a detailed, multi-disciplinary study of microbes and their influence on soil structure. They conclude that chemical fertilisers damage soils and impair the growth of crops. They recommend that farmers switch to using materials that are rich in carbon, materials like compost and old-fashioned manure. In other words Sir Albert Howard, the scientist they ridiculed back in the 1940s, was precisely right.
So were the farmers of Britain who knew from long experience that sustainable farming depended on the return of crop and animal 'wastes' to the soil. It was nature's way and it worked. But successive governments have made public science serve the interests of the chemical industry – and ultimately Big Oil. The countryside has been allowed to suffer decades of needless destruction. There's now an obligation on the Government to correct this political failure, perhaps the greatest in modern history. Will you, Secretary of State, have the courage to end Big Oil's occupation of our countryside and put farms back in the service of the British people, as they have been through history? Now that we're free of the European farm policy there'll surely never be a better opportunity.
Here's how to do it. Slap a swingeing tax on chemical fertilisers, particularly nitrates. Double the tax every year so that in five years' time it'll be totally uneconomic to apply the stuff. Use the revenue to support farmers who switch to regenerative methods, the sort that puts atmospheric carbon back in the soil. In no time at all, the countryside will be teeming with wildlife, our rivers will be clean again, flooding will be less of a threat. In the new, chemical-free landscape there'll be jobs and business opportunities galore and – counter-intuitively – food will become tastier and more plentiful as fertility is returned to soils. With the shackles of Big Oil removed, our land will come alive again. And it'll start doing the job of cleaning up the atmosphere and stabilising the climate, as nature intended.
Will you seize the moment? Your government is committed to provide public funds only for public goods. This is fine as far as it goes, but it'll leave those who reject your new environmental payments free to carry on spreading their damaging chemicals across rural Britain. If you are prepared to reward public goods, shouldn't you also penalise public 'bads'? The stuff that's ruining our land and burning our planet. Dare you not take this opportunity, Minister?