The way to a sustainable, people-centred agriculture lies in agroecology – farming based on ecological principles, taking account of the interdependence of all living things.
Global grains surpluses are now so great that half of them are fed wastefully to livestock, with an increasing amount turned into biofuels.
In early January, Colin Tudge and Graham Harvey launched the ‘Manifesto for a new agriculture’ at the Oxford Real Farming Conference 2014.
A key theme was ‘agro-ecology’ – farming that takes its lead from nature. It conceives each farm as a mini-ecosystem, and agriculture as a whole as a key player in the global biosphere.
Physiology is a vital science in agroecology – how plants and animals function – and psychology too in the case of livestock, for farm animals are sentient and to keep them without cruelty we need to understand what keeps them content.
Overall, though, we need ecology – often still seen as a woolly pursuit but in truth the most intricate and the most ‘modern’ of all biological sciences.
‘Conventional’ farming is industrial chemistry
By contrast, what is now anomalously called ‘conventional’ agriculture is, in essence, field-scale industrial chemistry – bench-top chemistry on a grand scale. Bench-top chemistry belongs conceptually to the 19th century.
GMOs are now seen as hyper-modern, and indeed to represent “the future”. But although ‘genetic engineering’ is immensely clever, it too belongs to an earlier conceptual age – a time when scientists assumed that each gene had one specific function and that living creatures could be re-designed to order just by adding and subtracting genes.
But modern genetics recognises that the relationship between the genes and the phenotype – the finished creature – is ‘non-linear’. There is no simple and therefore no entirely predictable relationship between the gene and the outcome.
Ecologists acknowledge that nature as a whole is non-linear and far too complex to be comprehensively understood. We can reasonably hope only to understand enough of nature to find accommodation with it; to live alongside and within it, with luck to our common benefit.
Learning from Nature
For centuries peoples around the globe have found their own ways of doing this. Agroecology pursues these same principles.
In practice, if we are to feed everyone well for all time – without wrecking the planet – we need farming that is productive, sustainable, resilient – and regenerative: able to restore fertility and life to land that seems damaged beyond redemption.
We cannot slavishly follow nature, but we can certainly learn its principal lessons. For nature has been productive without interruption for the past 3.8 billion years, while the continents have spun and migrated over the globe and the climate has veered from pole-to-pole ice to pole-to-pole tropics and back again.
Nature is not maximally productive. Natural selection does not favour maximum production from entire ecosystems. It demands survival of individual lineages, and that is quite different.
But – contrary to the mantra of politicians – we don’t need our agriculture to be maximally productive either.
Our food production could feed 14 billion people
It’s true that today a billion of our present 7 billion are undernourished (according to the UN) and world numbers are on course to reach 9.5 billion by 2050. People worldwide are eating more meat, which by present methods uses a lot of resources.
With such stats in mind Sir John Beddington in his ‘Foresight’ report on The Future of Food and Farming in 2011  said that we would need to produce 50% more food by 2050.
Politicians and industrialists have since have taken this as gospel. Industrial agriculture above all is geared more and more to maximum production.
There is also competition from biofuel (and indeed from cities and golf-courses) so we need to produce more from less land. And so, we’re told, we need “sustainable intensification”, which, it’s assumed, means more high tech.
But other authorities, including Professor Hans Herren of the Millennium Institute, Washington (co-chair of the IAASTD), point out that the world already produces enough macro-nutrient (energy and protein) to support 14 billion people – twice the present population.
Production is not the issue
The UN demographers say that while human numbers continue to rise, the percentage rate of increase is reducing and will be down to zero by 2050. The population will stabilise, then start to fall. So 9.5 billion is as many as we will ever have to provide for.
We already produce 50% more food than will be needed. People go hungry because the wrong foods are grown in the wrong places by the wrong methods. And about half of what is produced is subsequently wasted.
Production is not the issue. The powers-that-be are demanding more because it’ll generate profits, mostly for large corporations. Global grains surpluses are now so great that half of them are fed wastefully to livestock, with an increasing amount turned into biofuels.
Not more, but better
We recognise that farms in general need to be more fertile than most wild land in order to raise output – at least of the things we like to eat. But the plea for 50% more is pure hype, commercial and political.
The real task is to grow as much as we do now (or perhaps less) but to a higher standard, more humanely, and with less damage to the wider environment. We need farming that is more sustainable and resilient, and here nature clearly has much to teach us.
Article from the Ecologist: http://www.theecologist.org/
The health of our soils is more important now than ever, says the Soil Association’s Helen Browning – especially with the challenges that climate change will bring …
We are destroying soils worldwide ten times faster than nature can restore them.
As a farmer, my foremost responsibility is to protect and enhance the soil in my care. It can take more than 500 years to generate an inch of soil, yet our farming activity can erode or degrade it in a decade or two if we are not careful.
Even as an organic farmer, where the system is designed to protect and build soils, I’m aware that the move to bigger machinery, the need to cultivate and plough to control weeds, and our seemingly ever more volatile weather can put soils at risk.
At agricultural college, we were taught much more about the chemistry and physics of soils than we were about the biology, and given scientists have recently admitted that they know about maybe only around 20% of the soil’s microbial population, that’s probably still true today.
But soil always fascinated me, and as a research student on the first Government funded project on organic farming in 1984, it quickly became clear to me that the yield and health of plants was determined by soil biological factors as much or more than by theoretical nutrient availability.
I remember one field, same soil type, rotation and variety of wheat, where there was a distinct line across the field, one side of which the crop was thriving and yields were much higher than the other.
The only difference was that at the time of conversion to organic, a number of years earlier, a light dose of composted manure had been applied to the higher yielding side. In my view, that ‘inoculation’ of beneficial microorganisms must have kick started soil activity that was allowing plants to be better fed and possibly protected from disease years later.
As I converted my own farm, I always ensured that as a field started its move from chemical dependency to a biological, organic life, we helped it recover its vitality with some well-rotted manure. A few small applications are often better than one big one, as a ‘dead’ soil cannot digest manure and organic matter easily.
For me, one of the signs that our soils are in good heart are that cow pats, or applied manures, vanish quickly, as the earthworms, beetles and microbes gobble it up, incorporating it rapidly into the body of the soil. Just like a well-functioning human or animal digestive system, which, like the soil, and equally often ignored, is primarily a vat of micro-organisms upon which we and our health depends.
The first president of the Soil Association, Lady Eve Balfour first stated that: “The health of soil, plant, animal and man is one and indivisible.” The founders of the Soil Association recognised the potential and actual problems facing soil over sixty years ago. Their response was to develop what was then, and still is now, a radical, yet practical and workable method of farming which protects and nurtures the soil and the life within it by putting it at the centre of the farming system.
The need for us farmers and growers to understand and protect our soils has never been greater. We are destroying soils worldwide ten times faster than nature can restore them, and in the last 40 years, human activity has degraded 2 billion hectares of soil -over 15% of our land.
Given that only 15% of land globally is suitable for growing food, which must be most of it. Even in the UK, where our temperate climate reduces erosion risk, it’s estimated that we lose 2 million tonnes of soil a year, valued at £150 to £250 million. And across Europe, we lose 250ha / day to development.
How we put a value on this is not clear to me; our soils are invaluable. They store 10 times more carbon than the forests do; they are the fundamental resource on which human life depends. If we want to have more healthy people on the planet, then we need more healthy soil to sustain them.
So, as farmers, what should we do? Here are some personal thoughts on the kind of things we need to get moving on, here and worldwide …
- Trees are incredibly important when it comes to protecting soil, which means that we need to stop clear felling old growth forest. Instead, develop more agroforestry systems (mixtures of productive trees or shrubs and crops), so we have the yield, biodiversity and soil protection benefits of many more trees in our landscape.
- Learn from one another’s experiences when it comes to building up organic matter – and act on it – quickly! A project in Sekem, Egypt, has shown how even desert can be turned into productive farmland, and ‘mob stocking’ (where a large herd of livestock is confined to an area to intensively graze it) has also been shown to build organic matter very fast.
- More research needs to go into how different chemicals and fertilisers affect soil biology. All farmers need to know whether and how severely their inputs are hampering soil health, so they can choose less damaging ones.
- We need to stop doing certain things, like using big tractors over vast areas of land, building houses on precious grade 1 and 2 agricultural land, sending our straw away for power generation, and farming maize to such a huge extent as it can leave soil at risk of erosion.
- We also need to start doing more of other things, such as experimenting with growing perennial crops and trees, and recycling sewage sludge safely back to soils. We are not allowed to do this as organic farmers due to EU regulations, but we should be as long as it is uncontaminated, and in some parts of the country that may mean separating industrial from household waste systems. The phosphate in sewage is invaluable – another precious resource the world is running out of too.
- Think long term solutions: we might put most of our land into restorative grassland for the next 20 years, and get our soils into the best possible condition to face the challenges ahead and in doing so, sequester a whole load of carbon in the meantime. (If that seems too extreme for some, at least encourage mixed and organic farming!)
‘Peak soil’ may be upon us, yet we know enough to start reversing the damage. With the right research and the further development of ecological farming systems, we could rebuild our soils, lock up carbon, protect our water courses, and improve our resilience to drought and flood.
In the process we would create a more beautiful and biodiverse countryside, with more jobs, improved access for people to walk and play, more trees and more grazing animals.
As they say: what’s not to like?
Seymour is a bull who was born on 13th December 2012. He is Tilly’s son and it virtually all black apart from a little white tuft on his head and on his underbelly. He is very shy, but also very handsome.
Once Seymour had been weaned off milk at about 3 months, he went through a difficult period when he got ringworm. Dermatophytosis or ringworm is a clinical condition caused by fungal infection of the skin, leaving lesions all over the body. The term “ringworm” is a misnomer, since the condition is caused by fungi of several different species and not by parasitic worms.
After several months of infection, he recovered and in July 2013, he went from the Commonwork farm - where he was born - to Spitalfields City Farm in East London.
Seymour – Life at Spitalfields
Home to sheep, goats, donkeys, pigs, poultry and small animals, Spitalfields City Farm is one of two London city farms that have adopted a non-slaughter policy and aspires to be an educational resource which can teach respect for animal life and explain where food comes from without breeding animals for consumption.
In March 2013 “CowFest” was launched, a fundraising event to help raise funds to bring cows back to Spitalfields. It was here that Spitalfields farm formed a partnership with the Ahimsa Dairy Foundation and a collaboration began.
After 7 bovine-less years, Spitalfields Farm welcomed cows back to Shoreditch by fostering Seymour, the 7-month old, dairy male calf.
Seymour was an instant hit with visitors, schools and corporate groups alike and has enabled the farm to raise awareness of the welfare concerns within the dairy industry as well as helping to promote Ahimsa as an ethical milk choice
“I had no idea mega-dairies existed, cows should see grass and sunshine not be kept in factory farms!” SCF Volunteer
For many children a cow is the first animal they expect to see at a farm and with Seymour’s arrival the farm immediately feels more complete.
School groups enjoy the opportunity to closely observe Seymour and comment on his shiny coat, the way he likes to stand in the shade and how he uses his tail to flick off flies.
For teachers bringing their pupils to the farm, Seymour is a valuable asset to support learning in all areas of the curriculum from literacy, to art, to science topics. Having a cow at the farm invites discussions with children about where food comes from and helps children make the connection between the food they eat and the world around them.
Seymour is curious boy and adores company from any species; people pass by to say a quick hello but often end up for quite a time giving him a chin scratch!
Many visitors have commented on how well Seymour looks. Farmyard co-ordinator, Jenny Bettenson, admits “he is quite spoilt here; we try to achieve organic animal welfare standards so it has been an interesting experience for staff and volunteers to learn about cattle care.” Flies are a nuisance for many cattle and can cause health problems if not kept under control – Seymour has had the luxury of garlic granules in his feed, Neem oil rubbed on target areas and mint chandeliers hung in his stable to help deter the flies and keep him as comfortable as possible.
One of the lovely aspects of this partnership is telling people of Seymour’s journey to come. Male calves in conventional dairy farms are often killed or raised for meat but the Ahimsa Dairy Foundation are exploring innovative ways of working with bulls and it is hoped that when he is fully grown Seymour can be trained as a working oxen. Part of this training has already begun at Spitalfields as Seymour is walked on a head-collar and lead from the stable to his exercise paddock each day. “We have used positive-reward based training to build a bond with Seymour.” says Jenny, “He’s such a character – a slow thinker so you need to give him time to process a situation but he loves his food so this has helped us teach him to target objects and overcome fears of cattle handling equipment.”
Seymour will be missed when he returns to the Ahimsa’s cow sanctuary but we look forward to following his lifelong progress and continuing to welcome more foster cows in the future.
As a by-product of the conventional dairy industry more than 100,000 male calves are killed in Britain every year soon after birth. Others are eaten as veal or fattened up to end up on the dinner plate as artery-thickening sirloin steak.
What a breath-taking waste and insult to the bounty of Mother Nature. Oxen have played a key role in agriculture since humans first became sedentary farmers, some 10,000 years ago.
Whilst cows gave milk, which Neolithic people turned into cheese, giving them an abundant source of protein without the need for slaughter, the bull was used to work the land.
Great civilisations have flourished on the labour of the ox, a castrated bull. Oxen pulling ploughs are shown on the walls of many tombs in ancient Egypt and early agriculture owed everything to their toils.
They were used in Britain from at least Roman times, if not earlier, until the mid- C19 when heavy horses and then the tractor took over. However, they had many advantages over the horse, needing a less expensive diet and able to pull enormous loads.
So much of the English language reflects the rich heritage of the ox. The word furlong derives from the Anglo-Saxon word for the long furrow of land within an acre. It was the distance a team of oxen could go without resting. An acre was the amount one man behind one ox could till in a day. There are also expressions such as ‘strong as an ox’ and flower names like the ox-eyed daisy.
Today oxen are still used in many parts of the world. They do not compress the soil like tractors and leave a light footprint on the earth. Fed a natural diet the ox produces little methane and their use does not require petrol or other agents of climate change. Oxen work with nature rather than against her.
In England one of the few places that still drives oxen is Bhaktivedanta Manor, the Hare Krishna Hindu temple near Watford. There pairs of magnificent one-ton animals harrow and plough the fields, ridge potatoes, shift manure and mill barley and field beans under the supervision of a human driver.
Human and ox made a good partnership and wherever there is a working ox there are jobs for people.
At present the Ahimsa Dairy has six young bulls and we are learning the skills of ox-driving from our friends at the Manor. An ox is not fully grown until he is seven, but they are ready to work at three. Work stops them from getting bored and we plan for our youngsters to be productively involved in our agricultural endeavours on our land in Leicester.
At the moment they are being trained to obey simple commands with the use of a halter and lead. Eventually they will be yoked together in pairs and to work they will go.
One can’t help but think that the depression experienced by many British farmers today arises out of the loneliness brought about by working with the tractor and the loss of the relationship with the ox.
Although cow dung has been used for thousands of years to create fertile soils, it also has another use as a fuel. In many countries from China to Kenya, Guatemala to India, cow dung is often dried and burnt as fuel for cooking. Now in India, small scale farmers are separating methane to be used for cooking appliances and the remaining dung is used as a rich fertiliser.
As technology has advanced in the West, bio-digesters are utilising dung more efficiently to produce biogas. This gas is rich in methane and provides a renewable and stable source of electricity.
The following cases show the direction of travel:
Denmark: Biomass has become an increasingly important energy source in Denmark over the last 25 years. Being a carbon neutral energy source, it has already helped make a significant contribution to the reduction of Danish carbon emissions. The conversion of more biomass at power stations will help Denmark reach its target of 30% renewable energy by 2020. Yet the potential of using biogas has so far been unexploited, especially in the form of livestock manure in the agriculture system. Denmark is well known for its farming industry; approximately 65% of the land is used for agriculture, emitting 18% of all greenhouse gases here, through methane and nitrogen. So farming has an important part to play in the transition to a fossil fuel free society. The Danish government now wants up to 50% of livestock manure to be made into this green energy supply.
USA: Fair Oaks Farm, in Indiana is at the front end of some interesting innovation. The farm harnesses the power of cow dung to run its barns, offices, cheese factory and gift shop. What takes this farm one step ahead of the others is its ability to power its 42 tractor trailers that deliver milk to nearby states with renewable gas that also comes from animal waste. “We’re self-sufficient and we’re lowering our carbon footprint” says Gary Corbett, Fair Oaks Farm CEO.
“We take the manure from the cows and put it into sealed digester vessels, the manure is heated to 100 degrees at which the bacteria produces methane and CO2, which is called biogas. The Biogas is cleaned to remove the CO2, using water and pressure to create biomethane, which is then odorized to create renewable natural gas” explains Mark Stoermann of AMP Americas, an energy company partnering with Fair Oaks Farm to create the fuel.
The cow power concept is also saving the farm millions of dollars a year.
“We were running all these diesel trucks and we began to look at the potential of replacing all that diesel with natural gas. Then we figured out how to create our own natural gas instead of buying the diesel, so it saves us a lot of money, lowers emissions and helps clean up air quality in the cities where the trucks deliver.
“In 2013, we will take personally 2-million gallons of diesel off the road that we used in 2011 to deliver our milk.” He adds: “ the biofuel burns cleanly so it’s better for the environment.
It’s a fuel source not only for the farms but for nearby towns as well. “One cow can power a home,” says Erin Fitzgerald, from The Innovation Center for US Dairy. And since the excess gas can be sold back to the grid “It’s a new source of revenue for dairy farmers” who have been struggling in recent years”, she says.
“Turning farm waste into fuel has amazing potential” says energy technology consultant Brian Dolrein. “I can imagine a time in the near future when homes and factories will be powered by it and our cars will be running on it. It could reduce our dependence on fossil fuels and oil”.
Although the above case studies are unlikely to demonstrate the highest level of animal welfare in practice, they do indicate a possible path of reducing our addiction to fossil fuels if both high welfare and technology were suitably integrated.
The Ahimsa Dairy knows only too well the anxiety of waiting for results after our cattle have been tested for Bovine TB. Last year we were biting our finger nails to the bone after the vet came to our Welsh sanctuary to test the herd. The outcome would have been unthinkable had any of them tested positive. We are committed to a no slaughter policy and all of our animals are allowed to live out the whole of their lives until they pass away naturally. We would have been simply distraught.
Thankfully, everyone was clear, but we are still faced with further testing down the line. In short we think the Government’s present policy on Bovine TB is flawed. It’s just all about culling – either cows or poor old badgers and we don’t think the it works. We believe alternatives must be sought.
Even Defra has described the diagnostic test as ‘imperfect’ (Dealing with Bovine TB in your herd, May 2008,p13) and we think it condemns large numbers of healthy animals to death. To some extent we support vaccination, but our solution for cattle is also to identify, isolate and treat individual animals.
The RSPCA point out that after 10 years work the Independent Scientific Group concluded in 2007 that ‘badger culling can make no meaningful contribution to cattle TB control in Britain.’ So what is to be achieved by destroying what are likely to be perfectly healthy animals when alternatives have not been properly explored?
The current policy is just seeking a quick fix for what is undoubtedly a very distressing situation, but scapegoating badgers is unlikely to take us any further towards solving the problem. And that might start with the Bovine TB tests themselves.