Why do we have such a seemingly illogical food system? This is the question at the heart of Graham Harvey’s recently published book, Grass-Fed Nation, a manifesto for grazing livestock and the extensive benefits of mixed farming.
Peppered with case studies, the book convincingly asserts how mixed farms are essential for improving soil fertility, increasing yield and reducing pests. How they can strengthen local communities and rural economies by providing jobs and using a diverse range of local services. And how they improve long-term planet health by converting arable land back to pasture and thus improving the soil’s ability to store carbon.
Harvey, renowned food and farming journalist and agricultural advisor for The Archers, is a long-standing champion of grazing animals and mixed farming. This latest book is a damning criticism of the rise of industrial arable agriculture and a detailed perspective on the positive human health and environmental impact of a return to grass-based farming systems.
When the water in his local river turned murky brown following heavy rainfall, Harvey knew something was wrong. Like the canary down the mine, he cautions that, “Milky brown waters are a warning we ignore at our peril.” What it signified was a fundamental problem in our farm systems causing soil to become eroded and washed away. The decline of pasture and the rise of intensive arable cropping has mined the nutrients from the soil and left bare earth exposed and vulnerable to weather.
But the impact of this is not solely environmental, it carries equally worrying implications for our health. Harvey claims we need to join the dots, offering the river as a perfect example. “What happens to our rivers – and more precisely, what happens to the land they flow through – is connected with the level of disease in society.”
Integrated thinking combining food, farming, health and the environment has been in short supply for many years. But recently there appears to be a shift, away from thinking in siloes, and towards a more systemic approach. This informs one of the strongest messages in Harvey’s book, that the way we farm impacts our diet and our health, and vice versa – our diet and concerns about health affect the way we farm.
Meat consumption is one of the clearest examples of this. Despite evidence to the contrary, which is intelligently explored throughout the book, the myth that saturated fat is bad has been perpetuated by dieticians and manufacturers of low-fat foods. This has contributed to a decline in pasture and encouraged the shift to ever more intensive crop production as the demand for plant-based foods and vegetable-based oils has increased.
Harvey also points out how our diets have changed dramatically throughout human existence. We shifted from a hunter-gatherer lifestyle to reliance on starchy, sugary refined foods within a relatively short period of time. So it’s little wonder that society is now suffering from multiple dietary-related diseases, such as heart disease and Type 2 diabetes. This, he claims, is directly related to the shift to industrial agriculture.
Grass-fed meat is a nutrient-dense food containing far higher levels of beneficial fatty acids. Milk too is much healthier when produced in a grass-fed system. Far from being a cause of disease and obesity, Grass-Fed Nation contends that meat and dairy produced from pasture-reared animals should form a key part of healthy diets.
But industrial agriculture has not only waged war on our health, it has also waged war on our environment. Monoculture cropping reliant on chemicals poses an ‘existential threat’ to our countryside, according to Harvey. With subsidies that encouraged farmers to plough up pasture and sow wheat instead, the UK has seen the staggering loss of 97% of its wildflower meadows since the 1940s. An evocative description about the destruction of one particular meadow in Wiltshire, portrays it “As an act of sheer vandalism” continuing, “it was like taking half a dozen of Turner’s masterpieces out of the National Gallery and torching them on the pavement of Trafalgar Square.”
Intensive arable cropping has led to the decline of half of plant species, one third of insect species and four fifths of bird species. Harvey details the astounding number of chemicals that go into a typical growing season for a wheat crop, including four different weed killers, an insecticide, five plant-growth hormones and no fewer than twelve disease-killing fungicide chemicals. Traces of these chemicals not only end up in our soils and rivers, but also in the food on our plates.
There are, as Harvey points out, those who argue that intensive crop production is necessary to feed a growing world population. But this is far from the case. A major study in 2008 found that industrial crop growing would not be capable of feeding the global population and was unfit for purpose. With smallholder farmers still serving 70% of world requirement, a change of direction is evidently needed to ensure sustainable, small-scale farming is given protection and support.
According to Harvey, the way to enable this is through a return to mixed farm systems in which pasture and grazing livestock form a central part.
He also explores the role that mob stocking might play, a system inspired by Allan Savory in which the natural pattern of grazing animals is emulated by intensively grazing pasture in a rotation. This prevents pasture being overgrazed and damaged through re-grazing too quickly and adds an even spread of manure and the trampling that’s needed to improve soil and plant growth.
Grass-Fed Nation is far more than a book about grass. Encompassing everything from human health to the future of our planet, Harvey shows just how important it is to get our farming systems right.
Photograph: Steph French