Farmers don’t have to contribute to the environmental crisis – we can solve it

Last week, I went to the funeral of an old farmer named Brian. Until he died, 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 dying out and being replaced by a farming system that is one of the greatest contributors to the climate and nature crisis we face. However, there is hope. My husband and I, like the many new farmers emerging, learned our approach from these old farmers, who have been through drastic changes in the farming industry, yet have managed to keep alive their knowhow.

Our family-run farm in Dorset produces meat, cheese, vegetables and apple juice, using many of these same agroecological farming methods. Agroecological farming means we nurture the soil, insects, grassland, plants, animals and trees on our land to provide healthy affordable food for our local community. For us, farming isn’t just a business, and it isn’t just about feeding human beings – it’s about feeding all living things on the planet.

Over the past 40 years, many food-producing farms have become more industrialised and integrated into the globalised food system. To produce the higher yields and uniform crops demanded by supermarkets, many farms converted and got bigger, buying fuel-hungry tractors and carbon-intensive nitrate fertilisers. Farmers started using pesticides that kill bees and earthworms. Instead of raising animals on homegrown feeds and pasture, they started using soya grown on land reclaimed from forests.

We are now in a situation where industrial farming is a significant contributor to the climate crisis, responsible for 30% of the total of greenhouse gas emissions. The industry must convert to an agroecological farming system where we feed ourselves without destroying the land for future generations, while, at the same time, protecting and improving the livelihoods of millions of food producers worldwide.

To be a part of the solution, I work for a union called the Landworkers’ Alliance representing small and family farmers across the UK. We are a part of La Via Campesina, a union representing 200 million farmers across the world. I lobby for policy to help our industry make the huge transition to nature-friendly farming that will restore biodiversity while mitigating the effects of climate change.

The UK government should reform the farm subsidy system so it pays farmers to restore our soils, plant trees, and provide sustainable employment, instead of simply paying them to intensify production. Alongside this, it needs to protect farmers from being undercut by cheap imports. Global trade has meant that supermarkets can source from anywhere, including, sadly, places with exploited workers or lower animal welfare and environmental regulations. This also goes directly against our climate commitment to reduce transport emissions.

Local councils, especially those declaring climate emergencies, should be encouraging local food webs to flourish. They should be developing food markets, delivery-box schemes, farm shops, community gardens, allotments and farms on the outskirts of cities (known as peri-urban farming). The plans should be strategic in considering how food can be produced using less transport, packaging, and processing.

We also need to think about less and better livestock. As a farmer I produce meat and cheese from cows and sheep that graze beneath 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 must produce less intensively and stop eating factory-farmed meat completely if we are to halt the destruction of Earth’s ecosystems.

Lowering the intensity of agricultural production is also important to the welfare of workers. Mega-dairies, indoor pig units and huge chicken barns are not pleasant places to work. Neither are huge fields of fruit and vegetables sprayed in herbicides and pesticides. If we transition to smaller mixed farms, we can create green jobs that provide exercise, fresh air and creativity. My farm now provides employment for five people growing vegetables, and many more through food-processing businesses located on it.

In the food and farming sector we can go for “green growth”, creating both dignified livelihoods and amazing shopping experiences for consumers at abundant markets bursting with unique cheeses, preserves, fresh fruit and vegetables, artisan breads, restaurants, breweries and food kiosks.

Many new entrants to farming want to stand alongside traditional farmers and indigenous people to feed and heal the planet. But the false solutions, such as GM and global trade, that corporate agribusiness promote, stand in the way. Corporations dominate 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 large multinational food corporations, because their “solutions” have driven millions of small farmers from the land and put us into the precarious position we are in today.

Small farmers should be the heroes of any new green transition. We absolutely can feed the world, while restoring it – we just need to be given the power to get on with this momentous task and political space to share our message of regeneration and hope.

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