LLast week I went to the funeral of an old farmer named Brian. Until his death, Brian managed his farm, with its traditional orchards, hedgerows and meadows, as an ecosystem. I could see from the age of the farmers who came to pay their respects that this way of farming was disappearing and being replaced by an agricultural system which is one of the greatest contributors to the climatic and natural crisis to which we are facing. However, there is hope. My husband and I, like many new emerging farmers, learned our approach from these former farmers, who went through drastic changes in the agriculture industry, but managed to maintain their expertise.
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 take care of the soil, insects, grasslands, plants, animals and trees on our land to provide healthy and affordable food for our local community. For us, agriculture is not just a business, and it is not only about feeding human beings, it is about feeding all living beings on the planet.
Over the past 40 years, many farms have become industrialized and integrated into the globalized food system. To produce the higher yields and uniform crops demanded by supermarkets, many farms converted and expanded, buying fuel-guzzling tractors and carbon-intensive nitrogen fertilizers. Farmers have started using pesticides that kill bees and earthworms. Instead of raising animals with homegrown feed and pasture, they started using soybeans grown on land reclaimed from the forests.
We are now in a situation where industrial agriculture is a significant contributor to the climate crisis, responsible for 30% of total greenhouse gas emissions. The the industry must convert to an agroecological farming system where we feed ourselves without destroying the land 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 Landworkers’ Alliance, which represents small family farmers in the UK. We are part of La Via Campesina, a union representing 200 million farmers worldwide. I push for policies to help our industry 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 to pay farmers to restore our soils, plant trees and provide sustainable jobs, instead of just paying them to intensify production. At the same time, it must protect farmers against competition from cheap imports. Global trade has meant that supermarkets can source their supplies from anywhere, including, unfortunately, places with exploited workers or lower 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, vegetable gardens and farms on the outskirts of cities (called peri-urban agriculture). Plans should be strategic in considering how food can be produced using less transport, packaging and processing.
We also need to think about less cattle and better cattle. As a farmer, I produce meat and cheese from cows and sheep that graze under the apple trees in my orchard on diverse carbon-sequestering grasslands. Livestock plays an important role in traditional land management, but there is no doubt that we need to produce less intensively and stop eating factory-farmed meat altogether 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 pig pens and huge chicken coops are not pleasant places to work. No more than huge fields of fruit and vegetables 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 provides employment for five people who grow vegetables, and many more through food processing businesses there.
In food and agriculture, we can embrace “green growth,” creating both dignified livelihoods and incredible shopping experiences for consumers in bountiful markets teeming with unique cheeses. , preserves, fresh fruits and vegetables, artisan breads, restaurants, brasseries and food kiosks.
Many newcomers to agriculture want to stand alongside traditional farmers and indigenous peoples to feed and care for the planet. But false solutions, such as GMOs and global trade, that agribusiness promotes, stand in the way. Business is dominating discussions about our food system at forums, including the UN Food Systems Summit, and will certainly dominate discussions about agriculture at COP26.
We must see through the claims of these big food multinationals, because their “solutions” have driven millions of small farmers off the land and put us in the precarious position in which we find ourselves today.
Small farmers should be the heroes of any new green transition. We absolutely can feed the world, while restoring it – we just need the power to pursue this momentous task and the political space to share our message of regeneration and hope.