“Intensive farming is like a leaky bucket, wasteful of precious soils, water and ironically, food”
When it comes to food production, the concept of sustainability seems quite clear; meeting the “needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs” is how the UN puts it.
When at the World Bank in Washington, I couldn’t help noticing a quote on the wall attributed to Chinese philosopher, Confucius; “For all Man’s supposed accomplishments, his continued existence is completely dependent upon six inches of topsoil and the fact that it rains”. I was struck by his insight over two thousand years ago about how society relies on the services provided by nature.
A recent Farmers Weekly headline declared that due to intensive farming, there were just a hundred harvests left in Britain’s soils. The Independent newspaper went on to talk of a looming crisis, and one that is growing worldwide as around a quarter of croplands are said to be seriously degraded.
Yet still some call for more intensification not less, which for animal rearing means confinement and feeding them grain, something forty times more water-intensive than feeding on pasture. At the same time, Confucius’ rains struggle to keep pace in an ever-more water stressed world.
As if trying to tell us something, the ecosystem is breaking down. Britain’s farmland birds are at an all-time low, with the government’s own chief scientific advisor admitting the nation’s intensive farming is bad for birds. Pollinators, so essential for the successful cultivation of a large proportion of our food, are on their knees too; in drastic decline with less than a quarter of those needed for the proper pollination of crops.
In Oxford, at the nation’s big farming conference of the year, the president of the National Farmers Union, Meurig Raymond, described how farmers farm as if “we are going to live forever and we want to pass that land on to the next generation in a better state… That is the culture and psyche of all farmers”. With soils breaking down, water scarcity rising, and nature’s pollinators disappearing, it seems good intentions by some are falling short of reality.
When I stood up at the Oxford Union Debate to propose the motion, ‘this house believes intensive agriculture is no longer sustainable’, I joked that my task was rather like trying to persuade a UKIP conference to support Europe. Many a true word said in jest. The Oxford Farming Conference has a reputation for being a gathering of the more intensively-minded. It was greatly encouraging then to see more than 80 delegates support the motion. It was predictable to see three times that number vote against; the schoolboy debating antics seeming to be more geared toward getting a laugh than addressing serious and pressing issues.
As I said in my closing remarks, we are talking about the future of our farms and the food we depend upon. We are also talking about the legacy that we steward for our children and our children’s children. I hope that the common sense embodied by Confucius’ thought prevails before we find we have stolen from the legacy of our children.