As a farmer, I’m supposed to hate vegans and environmental activists, but that’s nonsense. Even when I don’t agree with everything they say, I share their wish to make the world a better place and their concern about the state it’s in today. In an age of increasingly apocalyptic news about the natural world, we are frequently warned that the things we are buying and eating are driving ecological collapse. Sensible and thoughtful people everywhere are asking the same question: what should I eat?
It is a good question and an important one that speaks of a growing public awareness of our footprint on Earth and our wish to do less harm, individually and collectively. But as a farmer I know that that question masks another, far deeper one, that we must all ask ourselves: how should we farm?
Yes, that question is relevant to each of us, even if we don’t work on the land. What we choose to eat isn’t just a personal choice. The things we pick from the shelves as we shop (and how much we pay for them) add up to a world-shaping message that is broadcast across the fields and determines what farmers choose to grow and how they must do it. So let’s ask ourselves, and farmers, to produce food that makes ecological sense. The question “what should I eat?” is looking down the wrong end of the telescope.
So, how should we farm? A sustainable and good farming landscape needs to do many things. It needs to feed us all affordably, to keep soil healthy, to provide micro-habitats such as hedgerows and field trees – and even protect what is left of precious habitats such as peat bogs, rivers, wetlands and woodland. If a farming landscape does all this well already, then it is perhaps enough for us to talk about it being “sustainable”. In practice, however, few places are like this, so we need to be way more ambitious.
We need to ask for “regenerative” agriculture, which means boosting soil health and encouraging biodiversity by working with natural processes as we grow food. More often than not, this means using grazing animals in “mixed” farming systems. Livestock, if well managed, repair soil, trample or eat crop residues and waste, provide fertiliser and control weeds. It means our uplands becoming patchworks of native habitats – meadows and pastures, woodland and bogs – and our lowlands working as rotational mosaics of fields.
We have become profoundly disconnected from the fields that feed us and it can be difficult to know, as we stand in the supermarket aisles, whether our food has been grown sustainably. We often don’t realise that, behind the misleading packaging, a lot of what we eat doesn’t come from our own landscapes, but from far-off places where animal welfare or environmental regulations are almost non-existent.
Responding to this crisis, many people opt for a “plant-based diet”. For sure, there are sensible reasons to eat lots of fruit, nuts and vegetables. But if those plants were produced in landscape-scale monocultures, created by ploughing (which is increasingly understood to be an ecological disaster) and grown using either copious amounts of synthetic fertilisers or with industrial chicken litter and doused in pesticides – well, count me out. Such places would once have been biodiverse forests, mixed wild habitats or, perhaps, less destructive, more nature-friendly mixed farms. Yes, it takes less space, but it is the worst farming on Earth. The ethical reasoning doesn’t go nearly far enough.
Likewise, just choosing to eat “local” food doesn’t cut it if that food is produced in ecologically disastrous ways. Even choosing to eat “organic” doesn’t necessarily meet the challenge, because organic fields are often ploughed and, at vast scale, devastate wildlife and release huge quantities of carbon into the air.
The difficult truth is that there’s no such thing as a one-size-fits-all global sustainable diet that will solve the ecological crisis at one fell swoop. We are all local to somewhere and owning, seeing and taking responsibility for our food and how it is grown is imperative. We need to re-engage with the fields that feed us. We need to learn about and care about farming once more.
As a first step, I would urge everyone to try to grow something of their own to eat, at least once. Of course, not everyone is lucky enough to own a field, or even a garden, but just growing something like a packet of lettuce on a windowsill can help to appreciate the beauty, the challenge and the sheer miracle of growing food. It helps us to start to think about the soil, about the life we’re nurturing, about the elemental processes that sustain us all.
As you do so, you might start to think of the British countryside as your garden. You wouldn’t walk into it and expect to eat something from it that you couldn’t actually grow, or something out of season, or something that trashed your garden. Instead, you would look at what was available in each season and try to eat accordingly.
Beyond this, if you can, get your food direct from a farmer with a sustainable farming system and environmental values (quite a lot of them can be found on social media and, yes, they often home deliver). Or try being a nuisance and ask more questions in shops and restaurants about where the food came from. If it doesn’t have an origin, a story you can understand, don’t buy it. And then be noisy. Demand changes to our laws that raise our standards and encourage progressive change on farms via environmental schemes. Above all, right now we should all raise our voices against the proposed US trade deal that would drive things to be much, much worse.
When we find ways to farm regeneratively and in ways that allow nature to thrive around us, then we will have a range of foodstuffs to choose from. We can then take our pick and eat what we each think is right and good.
o James Rebanks is a farmer based in the Lake District. His latest book is English Pastoral