From farm to fork in the road

From farm to fork in the road

Covid-19 brings us to a fork in the road, with extinction on one side and farming with nature on the other, says our associate director David Michie, writing in Scotland on Sunday...

David Attenborough is no longer pulling any punches. In his recent documentary Extinction: The Facts and his new series, he spells it out for us. One million of the Earth’s species face extinction, and their rapid decline threatens our own existence. Scientists think our deteriorating relationship with nature has even led to the emergence of Covid-19. We have a short window to put things right before irreversible climate destruction and mass extinction become inevitable.

Paradoxically, during recent lockdown times Scots have come to value nature more and more. A recent ScotPulse poll found that 76% of us have become more aware of nature in our everyday lives. The 2019 Scottish household survey showed 68% of Scots think climate change is an immediate and urgent issue, and three-quarters of us want the Scottish Government to prioritise a green recovery from Covid-19.

So what should we do? How can we prioritise nature and ‘build back better’?

One answer lies in our food system. Covid-19 has us standing at a fork in the road. Pesticides, fertilisers, monocultures, depleted soil and polluted water are on one side, and farming in harmony with nature, to restore a safe climate, is on the other.

Agroecology brings nature back to the farm

The second route sounds idealistic, but it’s a fully-fledged farming system that already exists, called agroecology. As the name suggests, it’s a combination of agriculture and ecology and, put simply, it means farming with nature. Instead of using artificial pesticides and fertilisers, you grow a diversity of crops and cultivate soil health to bring nature back onto the farm. You plant trees for animal shelter and nutrition, providing a home for wildlife and sucking carbon out of the atmosphere. You feed animals on grass (and Scotland can grow a lot of grass) as well as leftovers, leaving the best land to grow vegetables and pulses for healthy diets.

But how can we know the food we buy is agroecological, and how can farmers be supported to produce food in an agroecological way? The only currently recognised and certifiable agroecological system we have is organic farming, and we know that organic farming is good for nature.

Picture: There are 50% more bees, butterflies and other pollinators on organic farms

Nature is 50% more abundant on organic farms

If pesticides were substituted for more sustainable farming practices (like organic), this could slow or reverse the decline in insects. Organic farms have a more diverse range of microbes living in the soil - this helps the crops to grow without artificial fertilisers. Organic farms are more ecologically diverse and are havens for wildlife. They provide homes for bees, birds and butterflies. On average, plant, insect and bird life is 50% more abundant on organic farms.

In Europe, organic is increasingly being recognised as a viable policy choice that can help governments meet the nature and climate targets that will ensure our own survival. The EU has set a target of 25% of land being farmed organically by 2030 – an increase from 7.5% from 2018. In the UK we’re at around 3%, and in Scotland it’s closer to 2%.

Farmers need support to transition to agroecology

Farmers need support to make the transition to organic, however. ‘Resetting’ farms to produce food using nature takes time. Land needs to be weaned off chemical inputs to let soil biology take over. Changing cropping systems means planting fertility-building plant mixtures and growing fewer crops for the first couple of years. Time means money for farm businesses and changing the way they operate also needs a bit of investment. We can’t expect farmers to take the financial hit for doing the right thing for the rest of us.

Government money is tight, and the recession is biting, but the payback could be huge. At the moment, we pay for the cheap food we get from industrial farming in other ways. We pay millions to water companies to clean fertilisers and pesticides out of our water, and we are just getting started on paying for the effects of floods and fires related to climate change. The cost of ecosystem collapse is incalculable.

Take it from David Attenborough – we need to take action now to restore nature, climate and our health. Food production that doesn’t protect the environment is no longer secure. But we can choose to support a food system that nurtures people and the environment. Let’s leave 2020 well behind us, and travel together towards a greener and healthier future. 

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