THElast week I went to the funeral of an old farmer named Brian. Until his death, Brian managed his farm, with its traditional orchards, hedges and meadows, as an ecosystem. I could see at the time of the farmers who came to pay homage that this way of cultivating was disappearing and being replaced by an agricultural system which is one of the biggest contributors to the climate and natural crisis in which we are facing. However, there is hope. My husband and I, like the many new emerging farmers, learned our approach from these former farmers, who have gone through drastic changes in the agricultural industry, but have managed to maintain their know-how.
Our family farm in Dorset produces meat, cheese, vegetables and apple juice, using many of these same agroecological farming methods. Agroecological farming means that we cultivate the soil, insects, grasslands, plants, animals and trees on our land to provide healthy and affordable food to our local community. For us, farming isn’t just a business, and it’s not just about feeding humans – it’s about feeding all living things on the planet.
Over the past 40 years, many food-producing farms have industrialized and integrated into the globalized food system. To produce the higher yields and consistent harvests demanded by supermarkets, many farms converted and expanded, purchasing energy-hungry tractors and carbon-intensive nitrogen fertilizers. Farmers have started using pesticides that kill bees and earthworms. Instead of raising animals on locally grown food and pasture, they started using soybeans grown on land reclaimed from forests.
We are today in a situation where industrial agriculture is a major contributor to the climate crisis, responsible for 30% of the total greenhouse gas emissions. The industry must convert to an agroecological farming system where we feed ourselves without destroying the earth for future generations, while protecting and improving the livelihoods of millions of food producers around the world.
To be part of the solution, I work for a union called the Landworkers Alliance representing small and family farmers across the UK. We are part of The Via Campesina, a union representing 200 million farmers around the world. I am pushing for a policy to help our industry make the massive transition to nature-friendly agriculture that will restore biodiversity while mitigating the effects of climate change.
The UK government should reform the farm subsidy system so that it pays farmers to restore our soils, plant trees and provide sustainable jobs, instead of just paying them to step up production. At the same time, it must protect farmers from the costs of cheap imports. Global trade means supermarkets can source from anywhere, including, unfortunately, places where workers are exploited or less stringent animal welfare and environmental regulations. It also goes directly against our climate commitment to reduce transport emissions.
Local councils, especially those declaring climate emergencies, should encourage local food webs to thrive. They should develop food markets, delivery box systems, farm shops, community gardens, home gardens and farms on the outskirts of cities (known as peri-urban agriculture). Plans should be strategic considering how food can be produced using less transportation, packaging and processing.
We also need to think about fewer and better livestock. As a farmer, I produce meat and cheese from cows and sheep that graze under the apple trees of my orchard on diversified meadows and sequestering carbon. Livestock plays an important role in traditional land management, but there is no doubt that we need to produce less intensively and completely stop eating factory-farmed meat if we are to stop the destruction of Earth’s ecosystems.
Reducing the intensity of agricultural production is also important for the well-being of workers. Mega-dairies, indoor pigsties and huge chicken coops are not pleasant places to work. The huge fields of fruit and vegetables are also not sprayed with herbicides and pesticides. If we move to smaller mixed farms, we can create green jobs that provide exercise, fresh air and creativity. My farm now employs five people who grow vegetables and many more thanks to the food processing companies there.
In the food and agriculture sector, we can aim for ‘green growth’, creating both dignified livelihoods and incredible shopping experiences for consumers in bountiful markets teeming with unique cheeses, preserves, fruits and vegetables. fresh vegetables, artisan breads, restaurants, breweries and food kiosks.
Many new to agriculture want to stand alongside traditional farmers and indigenous peoples to feed and heal the planet. But bogus solutions, such as GMOs and global trade, promoted by agribusiness companies, stand in the way. Businesses dominate discussions about our food system at forums, including the United Nations Food Systems Summit, and will certainly dominate discussions on agriculture at Cop26.
We have to see through the claims of these large multinational food companies, because their “solutions” have driven millions of small farmers from the earth and put us in the precarious position we find ourselves in today.
Small farmers should be the heroes of any new green transition. We can absolutely feed the world, while restoring it – we just need the power to carry on this momentous task and this political space to share our message of regeneration and hope.