How we can have nature – and eat it

Patrick Holden

28 May 2010

Historically, habitats of the greatest value for wildlife were largely the by-product of farming decisions. It is a recent phenomenon that farming has been able to eliminate wildlife and use land as a feedstock for an industrial process. As a result, nature conservation has adopted protectionist measures to conserve bits and pieces of habitat, and has thus become separated from farming. Patrick Holden argues that this separation is unhealthy, and what is needed is a sustainable approach to farming which can deliver both food and nature. 


Back in 2005 when David Miliband was still Secretary of State for Defra – and well before he became elevated to foreign secretary – he famously referred to eating organic food as a ‘lifestyle choice’. In doing so, he unwittingly drew attention to a major misunderstanding about the benefits of organic farming, particularly in relation to the environment. If there is one simple point that I want to make in this article, it is that the best way to promote wildlife is to change the way you farm.

I should know because I first started farming organically back in 1973, long before there was any structured market for organic food or even standards – at least for livestock. When we arrived at Bwlchwernen Fawr, near Lampeter in west Wales, the motive behind the decision made by me and my six fellow communards was environmental sustainability.

The influences behind this were connected to my childhood and adolescent holidays in wilderness places: the Cornish coast, Dartmoor and the Scottish Highlands and Islands. These early strong impressions of nature, plus a holiday on the farm of a cousin in Essex when I was around 12, persuaded me intuitively that nature conservation and food production should not be separated, although of course I could not have articulated that idea when I first went into farming.

In 1971, my father took a sabbatical as a visiting professor in California where I was further influenced by the ideas of that period, particularly Charles Reich who wrote The Greening of America. I returned to England determined to put my environmental principles into practice in a rural agricultural setting. I answered an advertisement in the Hampshire Chronicle and worked on an intensive dairy farm near Bishops Waltham for a year, where the nitrogen fertilizer was applied like snow and no clover or wild flowers could possibly coexist with the aggressive perennial rye grasses. I then studied biodynamic agriculture at Emerson College for a year before migrating to west Wales.

From the beginning, our objective was to farm organically – in other words sustainably and avoid the use of chemical fertilisers and pesticides. During the last 36 years we have stuck to these principles at Bwlchwernen. Because we were ‘early adopters’ there was no incentive Government grant or other public purse inducements to farm less intensively. As a result, we were having to compete against neighbouring producers who were pouring on the fertiliser and producing commodity milk selling to the Milk Marketing Board at guaranteed prices. But it soon became apparent with our 30 relatively low yielding Ayrshire cows that, financially speaking, we were handicapped and that we would need to increase our returns from the market place if we were going to survive.
And so it came to pass that around 100 of this new generation of organic farmers and growers got together and decided to build the market for organic food. Our idea was that if we wrote down a prescription of sustainable farming practice – more or less on the back of an envelope – and took our story to the consumer they would support us for the environmental benefits in the marketplace. Because there were no dairy standards, I was one of a small group of producers who wrote the early drafts of the organic livestock standards, which have now found their way into the UK, EU and international standards framework.

The rest, as they say, is history. Everyone is now aware of the success story of the organic market, although the recent recession has challenged the depth of consumers’ willingness to supporting organic farming in the marketplace. The rise in the demand for organic food has changed the landscape for food producers, opening up opportunities to experiment and to sell direct to the public. It has released a wave of enterprise within the farming community, and built a powerful bridge between producer and consumer. It is a step on the road to restoring the historic link between nature and farming.

The underlying problem is that the industrialisation of agriculture has led to a separation of food production from environmental protection. Once it became apparent that these practices – based on large applications of nitrogen fertilisers to stimulate plant growth and the suppression of weeds, pest and diseases with a range of pesticides – had a devastating effect on wildlife diversity it became necessary to invent the concept of stewardship payments. A whole raft of nature conservation schemes under the EU umbrella of agri-environmental programmes and currently available in Wales through the Tir Gofal and Tyr Cynal schemes (to be swept up in the new Glastir scheme) offer farmers inducements either to farm less intensively or to physically isolate specific areas for nature conservation programmes.

These nature stewardship schemes have been conceived, designed, promoted and assiduously monitored by all the major conservation organisations. CCW, RSPB and the Wildlife Trusts have led the public advocacy for these programmes, but the great unfolding tragedy is that collectively all they have managed to do over more than 40 years is to mitigate the damage done by the majority of conventional farming practice on the land area which still lies outside these areas of protected land.

Even in programmes like Tir Gofal, where a more integrated approach is applied, there is still a separation between the fields where there are more draconian restrictions on agricultural practice and those where fertilisers, silage making and normal unrestricted farming operations are permitted. The result has been a totally artificial separation of ‘food factory’ areas of the farm and the nature conservation areas. And if you talk to farmers whose holdings are included in these schemes they will privately admit that they are frustrated by the restrictions that have been imposed on them in the conservation areas.
Take my own farm: we are in a Tir Gofal scheme and are receiving extra payments for the management of the boggy silty fields which include restrictions on drainage, mole ploughing and mowing before 15 July and grazing intensively. The result is that I am fighting a losing battle to stop these fields reverting to boggy conditions dominated by soft rush, where liver fluke can thrive and the nutritional benefit derived from the pastures by my dairy cows is marginalised.

If nitrogen fertiliser-based farming continues to be the predominant approach it will remain essential to have protected areas which escape the environmental consequences of these practices. But I want to argue for a completely different approach. For over 20 of the 36 years I have farmed at Bwlchwernen we received no public support whatsoever for our environmentally sustainable practice, so all the nature conservation outcomes were achieved by default. That was because we started farming organically before the conversion and maintenance payments were introduced and we were not organised enough to fill in the application form for the early habitat scheme… Although more recently we have been taking the King’s shilling, both for Tir Gofal and organic payments, a key point is that both before and after our venture into the nature stewardship payment era, the environmental outcome has been brilliant.

Take a walk round our farm and it is immediately obvious (to me at least) that food production and nature conservation are working together in harmony. The bird song is amazing – even at times deafening! We have incredible diversity and volume of avian, insect, amphibious, wildflower and mammal populations including bats and these have increased progressively during the 36 years that we have been farming in the way that we do.

The consequences of the intensification of agriculture have not only been to dramatically reduce wildlife populations but also to promote a deeply unhealthy schism between food producers and the nature conservation movement. The birth and development of stewardship schemes has, to an extent, been a reconciling factor but in my view we have to go much further – we have to return once again to farming with the grain of nature. We must also have school education programmes so when children go on the farm they learn about nature conservation with true farming, not separate from it. If we go down this route I am not suggesting this removes any necessity for habitat protection or stewardship schemes but I am saying that the cost of such programmes will reduce dramatically; and that there will be a corresponding gain for the respect in which the public hold the farming community and their willingness for some of their taxes to go towards habitat protection.

Patick Holden was director of Soil Association when this article was first published. He is now director of his own Sustainable Food Trust. He is also a practising organic dairy farmer in West Wales. This article first appeared in Natur Cymru – Nature of Wales (telephone 01248 387373) and is kindly reproduced here.


Join to help us stop the use of neonicotinoids and save our living landscapes

Donate to help us create healthy farmland and countryside without pesticides