Organic farmers have long known that nature has the answer and a massive cornerstone of that is our soil. For longer than I can remember it's felt like the brown, mucky stuff under our feet was not getting enough credit, but now some of the world’s biggest brands are putting it front and centre. While we’re all asking for a green recovery, major brands are showcasing regenerative organic agriculture as a solution for our climate crisis. Extolling the virtues of producing healthy food as nature intended, increased diversity and bio abundance (by not using chemical fertilisers and sprays) and the potential to sequester large amounts of carbon into the soil.
Degraded soils have become a major contributing factor to climate change. Now the likes of Patagonia, General Mills and Danone, have all launched short films and articles extoling the overwhelming benefits of soil health. And this month, Netflix film ‘Kiss the Ground’ will examine the very idea that restoring the Earth’s soils could rapidly stabilise the climate, repair ecosystems and support sustainable food supplies. Is this Autumn the harvest of hope for regenerative organic agriculture? Perhaps not quite, because as major brands, filmmakers and Hollywood stars take on the mantel, it seems our own policy makers do not have their eyes or ears open to looking below their own two feet for the solution.
For me as a farmer, regenerative organic agriculture is about returning organic to its grass roots and the fundamental choice of soil not oil, as a basis of producing food. The foundation of our whole farming operation in Somerset is the soil. With 2,000 acres of land, over 400 British Friesian cows and 800 sheep, we believe that if we get the soil right everything else will follow. Like all things in nature, healthy soil is about balance and we spend a lot of time ensuring our soils have the right balance of nutrients, air and water, just like any living thing. We plant up to 10 different species of grass, clover and herbs in the grazing lays, this helps boost the soil fertility and makes the soil structure more resilient to extreme weather conditions like drought or floods. We keep our fields covered with crops throughout the year to ensure all these elements aren’t then lost. Farming a mix of cows, sheep and crops is essential on our farm as the manure from the animals is what gives the soil such life. It is the catalyst for its health. It also helps make organic soils more effective at storing carbon in the long-term.
Organic farming is a holistic system that works with, rather than against the natural system. The essential incorporation of cattle and sheep in regenerative organic agriculture puts a stop to the notion that we will all have to consume a 100% plant-based diet to save the planet. It’s inevitable that we will consume less meat and dairy per head in the future, but if what we consume is from regenerative organic agriculture, and not intensive oil based farming, then we can do so in the knowledge that we are helping to mitigate climate change. This has the potential to empower hundreds of thousands of farmers across the world who’ve been a conduit for the oil-based chemical and fertiliser industry for a generation, to take back control and work with their land and soil to be part of the solution.
The COVID-19 crisis has demonstrated how fragile our food system is and how vulnerable the increasing biodiversity loss makes us, with report after report offering even more grim reading. It all shows how crucial a well-functioning food system is for our society and how we must get soil health up the agenda.
In Europe, the commitments in the Farm to Fork strategy are encouraging. Targets to transform the EU's food system, including a reduction by 50% of the use and risk of pesticides, a reduction by at least 20% of the use of fertilisers, a reduction by 50% in sales of antimicrobials used for farmed animals and aquaculture, and reaching 25% of agricultural land under organic farming. Ambitions which could be the start to transforming our food systems.
Given the Government's defeat in the House of Lords last week on an amendment to the Agriculture Bill calling for food production to be made more sustainable, perhaps there is hope. Until now, biodiversity and other sustainability metrics have been excluded from the list of conditions for receiving public money, however the recent amendment may offer some encouragement. Putting soil front and centre of Government policy is imperative for the future of our wildlife, the world and its people.
Tim Mead of Yeo Valley
The opinions expressed in this blog are the author's and not necessarily those of the wider Link membership.
Latest Blog Posts