Sea-eagles over the Isle of Mull, Red Kites along the M40, wild boar in the Forest of Dean, beavers in Devon, and spectacular outbursts of wildflowers and native trees on motorway verges. It all looks as if, alongside our swelling cities and world record yields of cereals, we’re getting Britain’s wildlife back to its pristine state at the end of the last Ice Age, before civilisation took hold. It’s a vindication of applied science, high-tech farming and astute and humane government strategy. The principle of “sustainable intensification” – high-input farming, typically monoculture, with strips and patches of wild vegetation in between – is working… or so it seems.
But the success is an illusion. As the RSPB reported in 2013, 60% of the 3000 wildlife species they surveyed in Britain have declined over the past 50 years, and nearly a third have declined “strongly”. A few have disappeared altogether. Within each remaining population, numbers continue to dwindle. There is an average 77% loss among 155 of the most threatened species, “with little or no sign of recovery”.
Far from peaceful co-existence, modern industrial farming is the prime cause of our wildlife’s decline – as demonstrated not just in Britain but the world over. Conservation biologists speak of mass extinction, not yet as extensive but far more rapid than any of the great extinctions of the past. Some estimate that half of all species are in realistic, imminent danger of extinction – probably about four million out of an estimated eight million. Loss and degradation of habitat is the main cause; and the spread of agriculture, with its thirst for fresh water and its power to pollute with pesticides, herbicides and fertilisers, is the main reason for both. The continued slaughter of anything that moves for food – including monkeys, parrots, squirrels – is another outstanding threat, reflecting the failure of modern farming to provide enough of the right kind of provender in the right places.
It may sometimes seem that all this is inevitable. Human numbers are too high, we’re told; we need more and more food and only high-input, high-tech agriculture can possibly supply enough.
Yet all this is remarkably untrue. The untruth may be rooted in misunderstanding or it may be outright lies but in either case it is deeply reprehensible. For the world’s farms could be feeding all of us, and could do so, in effect, forever, and although many species are already doomed in the wild and others will surely follow, we could ensure that most species recover and thrive. Their descendants, like us, could still be here in a million years’ time, enjoying each other’s company.
But to achieve all this we need to farm quite differently. Not with less science or even less tech but with science and tech that are far more subtle than we have at present, and that are far more realistically tuned to the world’s real needs. Today’s farming is a field exercise in industrial chemistry, conceptually rooted in the 19th century, when people talked grandly of “conquering” nature and physicists seriously thought they knew all there is to know. Now after many a failure, it’s clear that such talk is nonsensical. The best we can hope for is peaceful co-existence achieved through a humble attempt to understand nature as best we can and live within its norms. The subtle but intrinsically humble science of ecology, designed to deal with complexity and uncertainty, must lead the way.
Overall we need to design farming expressly to do what is wanted of it – to provide us with good food without wrecking everything else. This has been called ‘Enlightened Agriculture’ or ‘Real Farming’, and its method is that of ‘Agroecology’ – treating each farm as an ecosystem and agriculture as a whole as a positive component of the biosphere.
Agroecology has many ingredients. Farms should be as mixed as possible with genetic diversity within each species of crop and animal. All should be integrated. Organic should be the default position – what farmers should do as a matter of course unless there is very good reason to do something else. We need plenty of hands-on farmers to manage the necessary complexity – and all this is the precise opposite of the high-input zero-labour monocultures that are now recommended in the false name of ‘efficiency’. Farms can be combined with trees in many different ways to create ‘agroforestry’ which is more productive in terms of value per hectare than farming or forestry alone. Judicious use of ponds and other water-ways opens huge possibilities for freshwater fish and miscellaneous algae with a range of properties – and could help enormously to control Britain’s and the world’s increasing problems with flood and drought. Most of the world’s ‘agricultural’ land is grassland and nearly all of it could be far better managed than it is. As has been shown not least in Africa, eroded dustbowls can be restored to productive grassland and woodland just by managing the grazing more astutely.
One last essential: we have to give a damn. It’s the present mind-set of people in high places that’s the cause of all our ills – the uncritical technophilia, the search for magic bullets, driven by the neoliberal imperative to maximise short-term wealth. If we pursue the paths of Enlightened Agriculture, including agroecology, the world can easily produce enough food for everyone, everywhere, effectively forever; and still keep our fellow creatures in good heart.
If you want to learn about the new ideas that really could serve humanity and our fellow creatures well, then book in to the Oxford Real Farming Conference on 6th–7th January – especially Wildlife on Farms at 11.00am on the 7th.