Low-Carbon Future?

November 14, 2012

NOTE: Images in this archived article have been removed.

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‘We need a different society where food is decentralised and people live and work in small rural communities, but this needs massive social change to bring about a new direction and it will not happen overnight, no we are talking about generations of time and the political will needs to be with it, that may well be the greatest challenge of all.’ ~ Iain Tolhurst

Farming Today: Climate

It’s quite easy to bury your head in the sand but even with our heads fully submerged, our bottoms cannot ignore the fact that over the last five years they have been intermittently frozen, drenched, dried out and/or baked at the most odd and unexpected of times.

In recent years the UK has started to see much drier springs, wetter summers and colder winters, and farmers have had to start adapting to these changes. Those of us not living off the land might well be crossing our fingers tightly and hoping that next year’s weather will go back to ‘normal’. However, if producing food is your livelihood, you simply cannot take the chance — the slugs will win and farmers have had no choice but to assume that this is how our climate means to go on. One Welsh Organic farmer I met this year told me that a future where most of her vegetable crops are grown undercover may well have just arrived.

Farming Today: Crude Oil

Over the last century, crude oil (or petroleum) has become the black gold of our generation. This dark slime that humans have managed to morph into extremely powerful energy has enabled consumerism to boom at concord pace. And we have left a snaily trail of destruction, pollution and runaway climate change in our black gold’s path. For, as fossil fuels such as crude oil are burnt, carbon is released into the atmosphere increasing the levels of carbon dioxide in the air, which is believed to rapidly increase the speed at which climate change is coming about.

The seemingly unending flow and unrivaled power of cheap oil in the twentieth century has precipitated a widespread addiction to its supremacy. And the consequence is our absolute dependence on it in all areas of our lives, and particularly within agriculture. As Iain Tollhurst, a leading Stockfree Organic food grower based in Oxfordshire points out, us Brits no longer seem happy just to consume oil as a raw material to power our machinery. “We are now eating oil”, he says, in every stage of conventional agriculture — from the packaging, the global transport system, through to the nitrogen fertiliser. In truth, petroleum oil is used in pretty much every stage of the food chain as well, right from the field to the collection of our landfill and food waste in big oil-guzzling trucks.

Come the twenty-first century, however, this much loved fossil fuel is starting to run out. Many believe we have reached ‘peak oil’, which is ‘the point in time when the maximum rate of petroleum extraction has been reached, after which rates of production are expected to enter into terminal decline.’ As oil prices have hit the roof, our desperation to find more so that we can ‘keep calm and carry on’, allows us to ransack the earth for any last dregs but much of these dregs are incredibly fossil fuel intensive to access.

Just look at Canada’s Tar Sands (sometimes known as oil sands or bituminous sands), which is a form of unconventional petroleum deposit. Accessing this oil generates a higher amount of carbon emissions for the same quantity of final product than the production of conventional oil. In other words, we are burning a colossal amount of fossil fuels, resulting in more carbon emissions, to get our hands on more fossil fuels, in order to burn more fossil fuels, meaning we need more fossil fuels in order to access more fossil fuels. And so on. To me, this is the behaviour of addicts or just plain madness.

The panic that can arise inside us at the thought that if oil ran out, our lives might have to adapt quite significantly, seems quickly to be assuaged by the illusory mantra: “Don’t worry, we’ll find more!” And for a moment, we might feel reassured – for aren’t humans clever? Surely, we’ll find a way! So, we might find more. But will future generations keep finding more of this fossil fuel too? And is nuclear fusion really the answer either? Here are some thoughts:

1) Oil is a fossil fuel and it is running out.
2) Conventional food and farming is highly dependent upon oil and we need to find sustainable methods of feeding a growing population.
3) We need to do this in spite of increasingly expensive oil and a rapidly changing climate.
4) Being less oil-dependent and less driven by the need to consume things other than the food that sustains us may not be as awful as we thought. It could even lead to greater well-being!

Low-Carbon Farming

In response to both the oil and the climate crises we are facing, there is definitely and thankfully a growing movement of farmers and food growers in the UK who are experimenting with and adopting a variety of inspiring pre-petrochemical wisdoms, alongside pioneering new low carbon farming methods. Recent schools of thought would even use the term ‘agro-ecological farming’ rather than ‘low-carbon farming’, as something which nods to the fact that we need to attend to more issues than just carbon emissions, such as water quality and quantity, our bees, general biodiversity and soil degradation.

Finally, even the government is admitting that we need to do something to address our nation’s carbon emissions and that farming is a good place in which to start — which shouldn’t be surprising since the food we eat accounts for 30 percent of the UK’s carbon footprint, according to a 2010 report published by WWF-UK and the Food Climate Research Network.

Low carbon farming, according to the Soil Association, involves the adoption of practices and techniques that lead to a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions and improved energy efficiency. It aims to primarily control and regulate methane and nitrous oxide through soil, livestock and manure management practices while concentrating on reducing fossil fuel and fertiliser use and maximising carbon sequestration to reduce carbon dioxide emissions.

As well as being better for the planet, there is much evidence to show that less fossil fuel intensive farming has benefits for the farmers and growers too. The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA), in a 2012 report, states that low carbon farming also presents business opportunities and can improve business efficiency. (Again, this shouldn’t really be surprising given the ever increasing fertiliser and fuel costs farmers face). DEFRA suggests not only that low carbon farming could help farmers/growers meet growing customer demands for sustainability, save them money and increase their base income, but could also help to safeguard the future of their farm business.

Re-learning How to Live: The Urban

I first observed low-carbon farming in action in my early twenties when I began volunteering and eventually working at some incredible London-based community food projects: Spitalfields City Farm a city farm intersecting the City of London and the hugely deprived borough of Tower Hamlets; OrganicLea a workers’ co-operative based in Waltham Forest and Hackney based social enterprise Growing Communities.

Through these projects, I discovered revolutionary ideas on food sustainability, the power of the grassroots and for the first time in my life, I experienced a real sense of community. I found driven individuals, dedicated to these little green idylls, miraculously growing food and farming animals despite and because of the concrete skyline. These projects, alongside many others, provide essential rehabilitation services, serve as powerful tools for community cohesion, improved health and well-being, and education and more often than not, they do this on a shoestring. Community food projects are invaluable in re-connecting people not only with where their food comes from, but in re-connecting people with themselves and with their communities.

Powerful as they are, however, community food projects practicing low-carbon farming methods in London are unlikely to realistically be able to feed its urban population, which is expanding daily. The more I began to learn about people-focussed food systems (food sovereignty), climate change, peak oil and the potential for these issues to be addressed by changing our farming practices, the more I began to wonder what was going on beyond the crowded Capital.

So, in search of some answers, at the start of this growing season my partner, Pip, and I left behind our urban lives. Cycling away from the metropolis that had been home for most of our lives, we pedalled out to the countryside to seek out some rural low carbon farming projects.

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Re-learning How to Live: The Rural

Through an organisation called World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms (WWOOF) we began volunteering on a range of low carbon farming projects around the UK, working around 6 hours a day, 5 days a week, in return for board and lodging. We spent one to two weeks at a project before cycling onto the next one.

Over these last 6 months we have ‘WWOOFed’ at around twelve different projects in Dorset, Devon, Somerset and in Wales. These projects have ranged in scale from family small-holdings on 10 acres, to intentional communities on 50 acres, suburban homes with a back garden and ‘small-scale’ commercial organic farms on 400 acres. We have observed a variety of different low-carbon farming methods, including the complete exclusion of fossil fuels in land management (i.e., everything farmed using hand tools), to forest gardening, night slug patrol, the use of working horses in the fields and for extracting logs, to experiments with burying biochar under crops for sequestering carbon.

We have found these fair isles to be truly beautiful, despite this year’s seemingly relentless rain and climate change. And we have experienced the most wonderful human kindness and generosity time and again. Humbled by those who have opened their doors to us, we have observed a diversity of people giving their lives to exploring ways of living and working on the land in a low impact way, mindful of all the earth’s inhabitants.

Low-carbon Farming/Living in Action: A Synthesis

On our travels, we discovered the Peasant Evolution Producers Co-operative, a collective of small-scale producers in West Dorset, South Somerset and East Devon who have joined together to help each other make a viable living off the land. They believe that being a peasant is a way towards the future. They promote organic farming and sustainable land management, fairtrade, rural crafts and handmade, healthy local food.

We also met a young family living off grid in mid-Wales, helping to manage 22 acres of land which belongs to members of the Dyfed Permaculture Farm Trust. This family stoically cycle their two young children everywhere despite the hills, supply 70% of their fruit and vegetable needs (in a good year) and make all the hay on site by hand with scythes, to sell and to use as a mulch in the gardens. As well as managing the land sustainably, The Trust sells wildflower seed to support the development of new wildflower meadows, hosts educational visits and courses that empower people to live and work in a more sustainable way through learning and practicing new skills, provides space for local people to grow food, graze animals and set up small livelihoods.

We visited Lammas, an eco-village currently under construction in mid-Wales, which has influenced Welsh planning law to make low-impact housing more accessible for people who want to build their own. Lammas combines the traditional small-holding model with the latest innovations in environmental design, green technology and permaculture. The planning permission which they have managed to attain for the site has been designed using a method that can be replicated across Wales, paving the way for many more people who want to live a low impact life on the land.

Finally, there is one project, Tinkers Bubble, which for many reasons made the greatest impression on Pip and I of all the projects we have ‘WWOOFed’ at in the UK this growing season.

Tinkers Bubble is an intentional community, set up around eighteen years ago, living on 40 acres of land; part woodland, part orchard, part pasture, in Somerset. The members live in low-impact dwellings in the woodland, which the community worked incredibly hard to attain temporary planning permission for. They grow as much as they can of their own fruit and vegetables, and variously keep a couple of cows and some chickens for meat, dairy and eggs. Tinkers Bubble earns a small amount of money by pressing by hand the organically grown apples from their orchard and selling the bottles of apple juice locally. They also sell their sustainably produced timber which is felled from their woodland by hand, logged using a working horse called Dolly and cut using a steam powered sawmill (that looks like a cousin of Thomas the Tank Engine). What unites the folk of Tinkers Bubble is a commitment to banning the use of fossil fuels on site, except in paraffin lamps, which are only kept in case of a night-time emergency. Tinkers Bubble are determined to be a community that not just survives but thrives without fossil fuels.

What really struck me about Tinkers Bubble was how passionately its members felt about the way of life that they had chosen. In actively choosing to reject a fossil fuel dependent life, they seemed to have discovered a life they found healthy, fulfilling and perfectly comfortable. No – this is not a return to the ‘Middle Ages’; members charge their mobiles and laptops using solar and wind power and even give birth to babies in the local hospital. Tinkers Bubble is by no means a rejection of all things modern. To me, Tinkers Bubble seems to be a real life example of people trying their best to live a low impact, engaged and harmonious life, embracing the knowledge that humans have collated over our oil-rich years, but choosing wisely how to use this knowledge. It is a community experimenting with innovative low-carbon living and farming methods, whilst opening their doors to all who were interested in finding out more. Tinkers Bubble was about as far away from a post-oil apocalyptic nightmare as I could imagine; instead it enabled me to see for myself how exciting a future without endlessly cheap fossil fuels could be.

I am not suggesting for a moment that Tinkers Bubble or any of the other projects I have mentioned, hold the absolute answer to how we are going to go about stopping runaway climate change or to how we can feed a growing global population. Or that everybody would enjoy the Tinkers Bubble experience as much as I did. But what I am so grateful to all of these projects for, is for allowing me to experience for myself how other ways of life are possible, not just in theory, but in practice, and not just out of necessity, but out of choice. What’s more, I feel that if the conventional Western capitalist system comes to fail in the future (or more likely, when), these experiments in alternative ways of living now will be vital in creating the conventions of tomorrow.

Being able to share in the lives of people living in such a way that enables both well-being of self and the potential for others’ well-being gives me a huge sense of hope in light of future changes and challenges. As a member of one of the projects we visited so wisely pointed out, choosing a low-carbon lifestyle at this stage in human history is a choice, at once political and personal: ‘It is what we believe in and it’s what makes us happy,’ she said. ‘We’re not just doing this because it seems the right thing – we’re doing it because it’s what makes us happy.’

What we owe the future
is not a new start, for we can only begin
with what has happened. We owe the future
the past, the long knowledge
that is the potency of time to come.

From ‘At a long funeral’ by Wendell Berry


Naomi Glass has worked on several different local and community-based farms, travelling around the UK to work and learn from other farmers.

Tags: climate change, sustainable farming