“Just like that” – magical thinking promises saving the earth without changing anything

A piece on regenerative farming in today’s Guardian caught my eye this morning, and it all started rather well with a description of a farmer called Richard Thomas and his journey towards less intensive farming. So far so good I thought to myself until the National Farmers Union plans hove into view like a cruise liner in Venice; rather dwarfing the good sense of the first couple of paragraphs. It seems that the NFU’s cunning plan to save the world, taking into account – I might say – members responses to a questionnaire; is for farmers to offset three quarters of Britain’s agricultural emissions by growing crops to be turned into power station fuel. No intensive beef farmers will be harmed by this plan because there are no plans to cut beef production. They don’t, however, seemed to have factored in the enormous contribution to global warming that will be made by tens of thousands of lorries driving up hill and down dale to move the product from farm to power station. Maybe all that pollution will be included in the overall amount that will be captured by as yet not invented technologies and stored as liquid CO2 – or maybe it will be pumped into disused tin mines and fairy grottos beneath Heathrow airport.

Then, just to spread the good sense even more thinly, the retired (thank goodness) Chief Scientist at DEFRA suggests an alternative to re-forest half of Britain’s farmland, kindly suggesting that Britain’s farmers were sitting on a potential subsidy goldmine.

The uncharacteristically cynical thought occurred to me that the re-forested bit would amount to all the hill country and the land that’s unsuitable for industrial farming (that’s the bit we enjoy) in order to leave the best arable land free to be even more intensively farmed. I shouldn’t be surprised if Monsanto were already conducting field studies into intensively farmed, fertilized and chemically bombed industrial tree farms.

86% of farmers interviewed thought that subsidies were a jolly good thing . As Mandy Rice Davies memorably said – “Well they would, wouldn’t they”. I don’t hate farmers, by the way; but I think they deserve better from the government and from their union. There’s abundant evidence that most farmers know the industrial and heavily subsidised destruction has to end, and quickly. But where’s the vision? Where’s the leadership?

I believe that some green activists are inadvertently playing into the hands of the agrochemical and junk food industries by refusing to countenance anything except the end of all meat production and the reforesting of huge tracts of potentially food producing land. We have to feed ourselves in the most sustainable and healthy way possible, and a world full of imported food, lorries, carbon capturing megafactories and industrial forestry would be the worst of all possible ways of doing that. Even as I was reading the Guardian article the top of the screen was offering a variety of industrially produced supergloops; the fruits of a dangerously reductive view of nutrition, and offering vitality and almost eternal life by the teaspoon. Let’s not eat into our most productive moments by chewing stuff! – they suggest. Work, buy, consume, die – we cry as we fall into the pit we’ve been digging since the late eighteenth century. Or, as I used to remind myself sometimes – there are no pockets in a shroud.

Without the farmers there is no solution to the environmental crisis

I think this is a Katahdin sheep – photographed in St Davids this week

I ought to agree with George Monbiot more than I do. To all intents we’re on the same side of the argument when it comes to the climate catastrophe that’s bearing down on us; and yet there’s one theme that keeps on coming up in his columns, films and writing that’s typified in his column in today’s Guardian.

He reiterates his argument that governments are acting far too slowly to the crisis but then, in a throwaway line without any attempt to stand it up he writes this:

But net zero commitments by other sectors work only if farmland goes sharply net negative. That means an end to livestock farming and the restoration of forests, peat bogs and other natural carbon sinks.

George Monbiot in his Guardian column.

I’ve just finished reading Nicolette Kahn Hyman’s “In defence of beef” and I’m now reading Charles Massy’s book “Call of the warbler” which is a brilliant and passionate book about the Australian farmers who are trying to rectify the terrible damage done to their soils by decades of intensive farming and heavy chemical fertilizer and pesticide use, justified by the mindset he terms “the mechanical mind”.

Amongst a pile of challenging and hopeful ideas, one in particular comes to the fore – it’s to do with rewilding and reforesting. Thinking just about water runoff, one of the ideas that keeps getting pushed is tree planting. I don’t know enough about soil hydrology to put numbers to this but it seems possible that the amount of water capture achieved by tree planting would be very much smaller than the capture that could be achieved by the combination of tree planting and soil improvement. What emerges from Alan Savory’s methodology is that undergrazing is as dangerous as overgrazing in promoting desertification. Bringing back beavers to slow runoff is obviously a good idea, but it’s a stage too late by the time runoff reaches the streams and rivers. Here’s where there’s a possibility of working with farmers to improve upland areas which are often overgrazed, by subsidising tree planting (right kind of long-lived mixed woodland that could be possible in lower regions) and holistic grazing management that would rebuild soil structure and increase water holding capacity. What is clear is that if we just put a fence around upland areas and do nothing, the results would be unpredictable and possibly adverse; quite aside from driving out an established culture of small farms that manage the landscape on our behalf. Farmers – hill farmers particularly – are a conservative bunch and would need persuading that a different way of managing flocks and landscape could still provide a (likely subsidised) income and guaranteed future. To quote from “In defence of beef” – it’s not the cow but the how!

The takeaway point from these and many other studies – I think immediately of Simon Fairlie’s “Meat, a benign extravagance” – but I could as easily cite Sir Albert Howard’s “An Agricultural Testament” or a dozen other writers – the contribution that livestock can make to soil recovery if, (this is the important bit) – if – grazing is part of a holistic rotation, mob grazing is one type.

So after a fifty year obsession with intensive farming and the inexorable rise in consumption of junk food we’re starving and dying prematurely in a sea of waste, while species extinctions rise and pollution threatens our rivers. My point is that our problems aren’t caused by livestock farming per se but by intensive industrial farming. Of course we need to change the how of livestock farming, and of course we will necessarily have to eat much less, but far higher quality meat. The evidence is mounting that it’s not meat eating that’s causing the epidemic of ill health, but refined sugar and junk food. If only George Monbiot would read the evidence he would be able to take a much more balanced view of the potential for farming to mitigate some of the most pressing climate issues. It’s a fact that well managed grazing can capture carbon and increase water retention while providing high quality food at the same time. Until human beings learn how to digest grass and twigs – OK cellulose – we will probably need to access some high quality protein, vitamins and trace elements by consuming meat. It’s not coherent to argue that we should all be vegans. We in the UK are stuck/blessed with a vast amount of grassland that’s unsuitable for any other agricultural use than grazing, and all the oughts in the world will not grow a single soybean on a Welsh hill farm. Oughts and is’s are not – as any first year ethics student will know – interchangeable.

To return to an earlier point, undergrazing is as bad for the soil as overgrazing and so any sort of walking away strategy for so-called rewilding is a recipe for ecological disaster – just a different sort of disaster from the one being caused by intensive industrial farming. So while I agree with 90% of what George Monbiot writes, simply ending livestock farming would just throw the baby out with the bathwater. Charles Massy’s book shows several instances where farmers have reduced fertilizer and pesticide use to zero, improved biodiversity, reduced fossil fuel use and increased profitability all at the same time. Here in the UK, the much talked about Knepp wilding project uses grazing livestock as an integral part of their strategy.

In our compartmentalized way of thinking it’s easy to divide the climate catastrophe into ring fenced enclosures. We think that it would be a good thing to increase pollinating insects, but don’t think much about the role that insect predators, sawflies, hoverflies could play in reducing pesticide use. The whole chain of nature is one, vastly complex web of interactions. The only way to address the problem is to treat it holistically, not to imagine that we can change nature by cutting out the bits we don’t like. Ending, or attempting to end livestock farming would lead to the degradation of landscapes, the loss of habitat and biodiversity, and the destruction of human skills and communities that persisted for generations until the industrial mechanical model took over. Without enlisting the farmers to replace industrial farming with smaller and local mixed farms with strong ties to their communities and short supply lines; without reducing fossil fuel use on farms and putting aside our addiction powerful earth destroying machinery and chemicals; without transforming our entire food system, we shall see ever more destructive exploitation of the best croplands accompanied by the profound loss of the grassland biodiversity. Let’s say it – no more lapwing, skylark or any of the ground nesting birds.

I go back over and again to Michael Pollan’s dictum – “Eat food, not too much, mostly veg.”

Trouble with the bogs

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The Potwell Inn has moved briefly to a new location in Cornwall which is very beautiful but could be described as KB/sec land. More pictures tomorrow but the connection speed is agonisingly slow and whether this will ever appear I don’t yet know! I’m aware some readers would rather I confined myself to the sort of sourdough/allotment/wildlife topics that often feature in the blog.  I love writing them too, but there are some issues that haunt me and what follows is one of them.

On Monday we had the first of the Bath Natural History Society indoor meetings and heard Prof David Goode talk on “the ecology and conservation of bogs”. If you ever thought of a specialist talking about bogs might be a bit dry (couldn’t resist that one) then think again. In fact don’t just think again, grab a magnifer, take a trip to a bog somewhere near you and take a really close-up look at some mosses – they’re really beautiful, colourful, and it seems extremely important, especially at this moment of ecological crisis.

Mosses aren’t just a bunch of plants, they create their own ecosystems by acidifying and adding phenolic compounds to the water they’re growing in and so create exactly the kind of anaerobic conditions which prevent rotting, thereby preserving Tollund Man and millions of tons of carbon in perpetual storage without the intervention of a single yet-to-be-made invention. Even better they have a bunch of structural but dead cells called hyaline cells which resemble tiny bladders that can store up to 26 times their dry weight in water. All of which means that blanket bog is better at storing carbon than the Amazon rain forests, good news because the UK has 13% of the world’s blanket bogs.

At this point, and in fairness to Prof David Goode, I should say that the message I took away from his excellent talk and the way in which I’m going to develop it, is entirely my responsibility.

While we are pleased to sign petitions aimed at foreign dictators and multinational companies who are enabling the destruction of the Amazon rainforests are we guarding our own precious home-grown carbon stores – the blanket  bogs of the UK?

Well sadly we’re not.

When you drain a bog – possibly by abstracting water to drain it for farming, or in order to create a better environment for commercial grouse shooting, it begins to die.  It dies even quicker when the blanket bog is deliberately drained and burned so a very few extremely wealthy people can get to shoot wild birds. We less privileged mortals are only just beginning to turn away from using peat in our gardens, so you can’t reduce this problem entirely to wealth and privilege.

On grouse moors the bogs themselves are degraded and depleted whilst any creature remotely threatening the grouse is trapped, poisoned or shot. The upshot only adds to the catastrophic loss of wildlife on these habitats, while the depletion of the massive water storage capacity of the bogs results in more run-off into rivers and dangerous flooding downstream.  In addition, as the bog conditions disappear all that stored carbon as well as methane is released back into the atmosphere to wind up the ratchet of the same global heating that is already helping to dry out bogland across the world. Peat extraction has the same effect, and I was astonished to learn that in the past it has been burnt as a fuel in power stations.

So here is a terrifying figure.  The earth’s remaining area of near natural peatland stores more than 550 gigatonnes of carbon, representing 42% of all soil carbon.  The hotter the earth gets the more of this carbon is going to be released into the atmosphere, along with millions of tonnes of methane from the melting permafrost.

Some people are advocating planting trees to stabilize the climate but this is something of a scientific mirage because a tree only stores carbon during the period it’s growing. Let’s imagine for the sake of argument we planted 100 million trees tomorrow.  For the next 25 or perhaps 50 years they would take carbon out of the atmosphere but once they die, or are felled, we would have to use the timber as a building material to preserve its carbon storing integrity, or bury it deep in the earth under controlled conditions.  I suppose eventually (over geological time, that is), it would turn into coal which would at least be stable as long as we left it there in the ground. But any talk of bio-fuels or renewable energy based on burning wood or plant material is a chimera because without yet-to-be-invented methods of carbon capture, these supposed renewable fuels are as dangerous as any other hydrocarbon fuel.

Let’s get real about this. There is no way that we can avert the related disasters of global heating and species extinction and keep living the way we do. I’m fascinated at the psychological mechanisms we unwittingly deploy to ignore the warnings.  I wrote recently about the psychology of grieving which, I think, plays a part. There’s also the fact that we don’t experience directly or immediately the effects of our behaviour. It took decades for cigarette smoking to reduce because hardly anyone died immediately of lung cancer.  The same goes for drinking too much; it’s most insidious property is its plausible deniability.  People rarely die of asthma attacks right alongside the queuing traffic jams  on London Road (Bath) and its all too easy to think something like “my little car won’t make much difference”.

But there’s another way of looking at our behaviour, and that’s our attitude to moral wrongs. Let’s suppose there’s a crowd of people in a room with a table in the centre on which stands a bowl of sweets with a notice that reads “please don’t take the sweets”. In a crowd, where wrongdong is hard to get away with without invoking peer disapproval, we’re more inclined to do the right thing.  But imagine that same crowd of people passing through the room one at a time with no-one observing them. I’d wager that more than a few sweets would disappear. Social disapproval is a powerful force for behavioural change, and so if we really want to stop people buying those enormous 3 litre gas guzzlers  we need to express our disapproval. Nobody wears a real mink coat these days expecting a round of applause. That’s not to argue that a voluntary code will be sufficient. In the end, our strategies for dealing with this crisis will have to be enshrined in law, because the current beneficiaries of ‘the way we do things round here’ are not going to give up their privileges without a fight. By adopting the principle of making the polluter pay and only subsidising activities that bring definable public goods, our present unsustainable and dangerous lifestyle would have to change.

The impact of neo-liberalism isn’t confined to financial markets, it’s insinuated itself into our cultural bloodstream to the point where we can’t think straight about the environment. Somehow, flying across the Atlantic in an aeroplane or feeding fillet steak to your dog is regarded as a ‘freedom’ whereas breathing fresh air, drinking unpolluted water, listening to a turtle dove, having a roof over your head and a rewarding job with a modest but sufficient income is a burden on society.

So – just now, bogland has absolutely no rights, but if it disappears we disappear too. So I’m not trying to enter the hideously technical argument as to whether any non-sentient being can have rights.  My argument is simpler and suggests that my rights, our rights as flourishing human beings are contingent upon the flourishing of the biosphere. That’s not a lump of sphagnum moss at the top of this post, it’s a life support system!

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Storm passing over Mount’s Bay. St Michaels Mount is just visible in the centre