Wisdom from a farmer, physicist and technologist
When I was 8 years old I became a vegetarian. I was a junior member of the RSPCA and was greatly troubled by animal cruelty and the idea of eating animals. I was very principled for an 8 year old and a bit of a pain in the arse — taunting my poor younger sister every time we walked past cows in a field “that will be in your tummy later.”
I started eating fish again at 21 — a very un-principled story of being so fed up with cheese omelettes on a holiday in (one big rave) Ibiza I succumbed to a tuna salad. Fast forward to today, at 42, and I now eat chicken and fish (though feel unsure about doing this), and am overweight (and pretty miserable about that, yet determined this year to change it). Alongside this, quite a few friends have become vegan, I’ve become increasingly aware of the impacts of our diets on our food systems and yet confused by all the mixed messaging. So I turned to my brilliant friend Abby — physicist, technologist, and most relevant to this, a farmer. And asked her to guide me on how to be a more responsible and healthy eater. I’m pretty sure what she shared is something useful for many people to read.
I’ve heard you talk about people needing to eat in a way that heals our soils, and that veganism is not the answer — can you say a bit about that?
Nothing in life is black and white. It’s all grey.
As vegan proponent George Monbiot acknowledged in the Guardian, “War, pestilence, even climate change, are trifles by comparison. Destroy the soil and we all starve.”
Three years ago a senior UN official announced that if current rates of degradation continue all of the world’s top soil could be gone within 60 years. (Scientific American). That’s 57 years to go.
95% of the world’s food comes from the soil, so soil degradation poses a serious existential threat and as Dr David Montgomery explains in Dirt:The Erosion of Civilisations, a number of past civilisations have collapsed after heavily depleting their soils.
So basically soil health should be at the core of all our choices moving forward, and as Monbiot alludes to — it needs to be even more of a focus than carbon.
This does not mean eating vegan is the answer. Choosing to eat vegan foods is often not consistent with improving soil health. In fact in many cases the soil health on farms producing vegan foods, e.g high intensity corn, wheat, soya, potato farms will be some of the most depleted soils on the planet, as large amounts of chemical inputs are required to keep these monocultures yielding well each year.
So if we really want to eat to help our soils, and civilisation, then we all need to demand that our food comes from farms that nourish the land. Farms that grow diversity, not monocultures. Farms that are low-input, not dowsing their crops in chemicals. Extensive rather than intensive farms.
I have visited many farms in the UK. I can tell you that high intensity pea farms do not nourish the land, nor do high intensity wheat farms, they are odd places, barren of many insects, the soils are just dirt — no life in them, the best have hedges and wildlife borders around the edges incentivised by the government. These farms are often highly specialised and have no animals — funnily enough they are truly vegan farms, with a nice dose of chemicals to keep them running.
On the other hand I have visited many farms that are buzzing with life at every level, including the soil. These are places where life flourishes. Many still use small amounts of chemicals, but are gradually decreasing their inputs each year as they begin to reconnect with the wisdom and systems of the natural world around them. They don’t need to add Nitrogen, or Potassium etc they can just grow the right cover crops, or companion crops so that the microbial life in the soil is attracted to the roots and makes these nutrients available in the soil.
Veganism is a huge misinterpretation of what a responsible diet might look like. What we need to talk about is industrial agriculture and how that is based on the premise of high inputs, maximising yields at all costs and depleting soils. The issue with a vegan diet is that it fully supports and exacerbates industrial farming of grains, pulses, fruits and vegetables.
Of course the good thing about a vegan diet is that it does not support intensive animal agriculture. I am in full support of that. But the whole situation is more nuanced and we do need to support the animal agriculture of the farmers who are doing a brilliant job building soil health and treating animals with respect. Eating animal products from these systems is regenerating the planet, not destroying it.
I recognise that it is not totally impossible to grow food following natural systems without animal inputs, I know of one farmer in the UK who does this successfully on a smallish horticultural operation. But this is not common and, although I think it’s an amazing valuable addition to the farming landscape, I don’t think it’s a positive vision for the future as it denies the fact that animals have been on the land forever and have evolved together with plants, so they work in symbiosis.
I would like to try to adopt a more responsible diet. What should I do more of?
- Know the source of your meat, milk or animal product and treat it with respect.
- Eat meat as a treat. Ensure the source of any meat you eat is ideally Pasture for Life or RSPCA Freedom Food certified. Organic certifiers also have good standards for animal welfare and organic farms often have better soil health. Buy meat from the UK.
- Alternatively, if you can, buy meat direct from a farmer who you know is farming in a way that builds soil health. You will be amazed how many farmers are on Instagram sharing about ways they are building soil health and offering next day delivery of meat boxes from their farm at certain times of the year. You can freeze quarter of a sheep or cow and eat it up over time. It will probably give you a whole new appreciation of eating an animal.
- Eat all of the animal, use the bones for broth, keep offcuts for soups or to flavour dishes.
- If you are in a restaurant — ask them where they sourced their meat or fish from. Never assume — you will be amazed how many ‘good’ restaurants have no idea where their meat is from.
- Almost never eat meat and fish in pre-prepared foods, or in shop-bought sandwiches etc, this is almost certainly fish or meat from industrial agriculture.
- Eat loads of locally sourced seasonal vegetables and fruits. If you are buying in a supermarket then preferably get vegetables that are organic.
- Buy organic grains and non-meat based proteins, or if you are buying from an artisan brand ask about the farmers behind their product. e.g artisan brands may work directly with farmers who aren’t certified organic, but are very good at building soil health, so of course support that — in many ways this is almost better than relying on just an organic certification because it’s a direct relationship with a farmer who they trust.
What should I do less of?
- Buying avocados and exotic superfoods regularly all year round.
- Drinking almond milk or soya milk without thinking twice.
- Shop as little as possible in supermarkets — go to the farmers market, buy from your local CSA (Community Supported Agriculture), or if that’s not convenient then use an online supplier like Farmdrop or Riverford. Or just find your local health food shop and they will almost certainly have food from local farmers — ask them of course!
- Why not supermarkets? Unfortunately there is almost no easy way to know in the supermarket that you are eating a responsible diet. The main distinction is organic or not…and so in the supermarket you almost always have to choose organic to know you are eating more responsibly, but that’s not really a true test of farming that supports soil health!
- I truly don’t think supermarkets are part of our future…but for now they are still around and unfortunately it’s difficult to know about the farmers behind the food. All fruit and vegetables in Waitrose are LEAF-marque certified which signifies the farmers are working towards building life on their farm.
One caveat to all of this is that food and what we eat are such delicate subjects — fundamentally I believe that you need to nourish yourself and so these are not hard and fast rules, but a guide for times when you have a choice.
Is there anything else I can do to support food systems?
Allocate a higher proportion of your income to food, if you can.
I recognise that is a privileged statement but actually… why don’t we allocate more of our income to food — the average in the UK is around 11%.
What is worth more than good quality nourishing food, good for you and the planet? By having cheap food we are impoverishing all beings — ourselves, our communities, the creatures in the soil, wildlife, everything loses out in the long term! Is cheap food really worth that?
For those (many) that can’t afford it we need to create effective systems to bring them high quality food and for the rest of us we need to wake up and put our money where our mouth is.
Tell the story of the soil.* I have outlined the soil health principles below to give you a soil health 101.
De-internalise the narrative that to feed the world we need industrial agriculture — we do not need industrial agriculture to feed the world.
Industrial agriculture feeds commodity markets and commercial entities, it makes the rich richer and the poor, poorer in the long run. 70% of our food today comes from small-scale farmers using 30% of the agricultural resources. A meagre 30% of our food comes from industrial farming using 70% of the agricultural resources. (This is mainly because much of the crops produced in industrial farming are commodities used to feed animals or to make biofuels etc. These crops are not what actually feed people.)
Tell other people this old narrative isn’t true, speak the new narrative of the soils and systemic farming as the future of food.
Who do you work for? Lobby them to only serve food from regenerative farms in the canteen or at events they put on. Do you have children in your life or dependents? Talk to their school, where do they get their food?
Before you eat, take a moment to think about the fields that the food came from, give thanks to the soil and the lives that had a hand in producing it.
Anything else I can read, or listen to, recipes, places to shop, other wisdom to bear in mind?
Obviously listen to Farmerama* and For Foods Sake is another good podcast for those interested in our food system.
The Female Farmer Project is documenting the rise of women in agriculture.
I love the wisdom of Leah Penniman, author of Farming While Black, who gave her top tip for farmers as recognising the land is a sovereign being. She tells the story of how her Haitian foremothers were shocked when they heard we didn’t give thanks to the earth before planting, or at harvest — no wonder our soils are being depleted they laughed.
This statement of the land as a sovereign being is relatively radical in the Western farming world today, and I think vital to changing our approach to the food system. I don’t have any religious belief, but I can see the power of working with the earth as a friend, rather than ravaging and taking all we can from ‘it’.
The food system can be healing for the land but we need to move away from simply thinking about how we can minimise damage and instead focus on building health and regenerating the land with a new-fashioned system (based on very old principles!).
Lastly, go and talk to farmers, go with an open mind, don’t tell them what they should be doing, but learn about what they are doing and why. The more we understand why farmers make the decisions they do, the more we are able to support them to align those decisions with building soil health.
Thank you Abby for all that wisdom and thank you too for the reading list and soil principles that are listed below.
Key books for a non-farmer reader:
- Farming while Black — Leah Penniman
- The Third Plate — Dan Barber
- Dirt to Soil — Gabe Brown
*How does a farm build soil health?
By mimicking and encouraging the natural soil-food-web.
The soil health principles are:
1. Keep the ground covered
Only deserts have exposed soil, everywhere else in nature the soil is covered either by plants or breaking down plant material. Exposed
2. Have a living root in the soils
The living root is key because the plant absorbs sunlight, photosynthesises and pumps sugar down into its roots. That sugar is exchanged with little microbes in the soil for nutrients, ensuring the plant has everything it needs. It’s these microbes that build soil structure, as they secrete sticky glues which hold clay, sand and silt particles together, and these glues mean the structure remains in tact under water — you can imagine it like a bag of popcorn, with lots of irregular shapes on top of each other, leaving lots of air gaps between them. This means that in a downpour, healthy soil with good structure easily allows the water to percolate down through it, in all the little gaps, and also retains oxygen in all the gaps keeping aerobic microbes in the soil alive.
Mob grazing means grazing that mimics natural herd behaviours. You have animals move across the fields in a herd-like manner, trampling and nibbling down grasses and wildflowers as they go, then moving on, not to return to that patch of the field for a few months. Once the animals move on the grasses grow back more vigorously than before, their roots go deeper and the whole soil system is fed. What’s interesting is the most beautiful, ecological and profitable farms I have visited have animals as part of their system, even if their main cash crop are products that are suitable for a vegan diet, such as wheat or beans. Those animals are vital to the whole system functioning. If you use a machine to cut the grass instead it doesn’t have the same effect. Farming is a business and so those animals need to be part of that business, and so inherently this system will produce animal products (unless we the public want to pay farmers to keep animals and not sell products from them.).
4.Minimise chemical inputs
A high chemical input system bypasses the soil as a medium for feeding the plant, and therefore the plant essentially becomes lazy, and does not feed the soil microbes around it’s roots that would ordinarily have brought the nutrients to the plant from the soil resources. Hence the soil food web dies out.
5.Minimise soil disturbance (don’t plough).
Soil that has been mechanically broken down (ploughed) turns into a slick in water, and starts to crust over on top which means the water flows over the top of the land washing away top soil into nearby rivers and lakes, and causing surges in water levels. So that’s how you end up with dirt, not soil, and terrible water erosion, flooding downstream as the dirt turns to a slick in the rain.