Ohen returning from a concert 15 years ago, I read an article about the environmental consequences of food production. It was a sobering read and ended by saying, “If you don’t like the system, don’t depend on it. I was inspired to turn our garden in France into a vegetable garden in a quest for self-sufficiency. This quickly escalated and I ended up selling the rights to my songs with Groove Armada to buy a farm nearby. After 12 years at hard knocks agricultural school, what we learned there is now being applied on a National Trust farm near Swindon which we secured the tenancy for last year.
Back in France during the heat waves last month, the effect on the landscape was devastating. Crops sown in the spring, hung after very little rain and incessant sunshine, will not be worth harvesting for many. Looking out over the parched valley, veiled in smoke from wildfires drifting off the coast, I made a throwaway remark to fellow farmers about planting olive trees to cope with increasingly regular bouts of intense heat. and dry. One of them replied that there was indeed a meeting that evening around the creation of a Gascon olive oil collective. The evolution of weather patterns over the past decade has been incredible. Farmers feel the effects immediately; we garden without a garden hose.
Post-war agricultural practices played an important role in our arrival here. Soil is by far the largest store of carbon on Earth outside of the oceans – it contains more than all the plants and forests of the world combined. Since agriculture began, the soil has lost about 8% of its carbon, creating up to 20% of man-made CO2 emissions. Soil carbon is crucial for water retention. According to the United States Department of Agriculture, this loss of carbon can translate into a loss of 800,000 liters per hectare of water storage. This makes crops prone to drought and increases flood damage to downstream communities. Biodiversity loss, most visible on our bugless windshields and documented in endless graphics of insects, birds and life of all kinds, is a crisis as dramatic as climate change. It is inevitably tied to agriculture as agriculture covers 71% of UK land.
Done differently, agriculture has the potential to store carbon, support diverse wildlife and provide abundant, nutritious food. Yet since the mid-twentieth century, Western policy has pushed farmers in the opposite direction. Research, education, and government-funded subsidies have been used to stimulate chemically intensive production on ever larger areas. Short-term yields had their most famous spokesperson in Nixon’s Secretary of Agriculture, Earl Butz, who ordered farmers to “get big or get out.”
To maximize production efficiency, the agricultural landscape has become one of monocultures, with single crops grown over entire fields, areas or even regions. A single species of plant over a large area is something that never exists in nature because it is incompatible with a healthy ecosystem. As such, it requires a constant battle against nature’s attempts to reintroduce diversity: the relentless weeding out of what we think of as weeds and the killing of insects whose job it is to suppress plant growth. unhealthy, which are chemically dependent crops. In 1943, Albert Howard, the godfather of what is now called “regenerative” agriculture, wrote that “the appearance of a pest should be taken as a warning from Mother Earth to bring order in our house”.
Harvesting our food from the ecosystems that sustain us could be compared to extracting wood from a hillside forest. We have two choices. Our current choice is a short-term bumper crop, leveling the forest and letting the exposed soil disappear with the rain. The other option is to preserve the integrity of the forest and manage it for timber over the long term. This would not only pay off much more over time, but would also maintain the habitat we depend on. Farming within nature’s limits may produce less in a year, but it can do so indefinitely. Returns must be considered over the long term. With a third of all food wasted and an epidemic of diet-related disease in the West, questions of yield are often used to mask the real questions about food quality and distribution.
For the first 10,000 years of agriculture, humans produced food from polycultures, with various groups of plants growing together, for most of that time. Modern monocultures are an anomaly. Around the world, innovative farmers are finding ways to bring diversity back to our fields. A diversity of plants means a diversity of habitats, allowing wildlife to return. Different families of plants growing together support a diversity of life in the soil. Thriving soil communities nurture and protect plants, which means there’s no need to spray our food with toxic chemicals. A soil covered with a diversity of plants is an efficient solar panel, better able to use the sun’s energy to bring CO2 from the atmosphere back to the ground, where, stored as carbon, it will create the conditions ever more vigorous growth.
No new technology is needed to harness the benefits of diversity, to grow our food using nature’s regenerative biology rather than today’s destructive chemistry. So why isn’t it happening everywhere?
The relentless pressure on farmers has led many of them to enormous financial difficulties. As a result, there is an understandable aversion to new agricultural ideas that come with perceived risk. Logistically, our storage and distribution infrastructure has been designed around monoculture. Culturally, the aesthetic of what a “successful” agricultural field looks like runs deep: perfect rows of one type of plant, and nothing else.
Given that governments have for so long subscribed to the narrative that famine awaits without chemical monocultures, it is probably unrealistic that these same structures can, with the speed required, mediate a new narrative between farmers and citizens. It is therefore up to us to create networks from field to plate where citizens can, through their food choices, support farmers who cultivate in a way that regenerates landscapes. This has been my goal for 10 years, first on our farm in France, and more recently helping to develop collectives to bring change at scale.
The price of food today is not its true cost. It passes on its enormous environmental, health and social costs to future generations. Despite deferring these costs, agriculture that relies on fossil fuels drives up food prices, and soil depletion leads to diminished abundance. The labor efficiency of a single farmer managing thousands of acres of monocultures hides his enormous energy inefficiency. The combination of fertilizers, sprays, and machinery means that about 10-15 calories of fossil fuel energy are used to create 1 calorie of food in the United States. Nutritious and affordable food will need to be grown in ways that mimic natural systems, restoring soils and with far fewer inputs.
We are nourished by the eternal optimism of the farmer. For this irrepressible spirit to endure in these times of rapid change, we must do all we can to redesign our food system around diversity, nature’s fundamental principle of health and resilience. Instead of despairing, let’s use the dystopian visions of this summer to galvanize action. We know everything we need to know. There is no reason to delay.