Does sustainable farming mean we should eat differently?

Jason Walker, communication director of the Sustainable Farming Association of Minnesota was recently quoted:  “To be truly sustainable, a farm must do three things: Produce enough food, produce enough income for the farmer and leave the land in better condition for future generations.”

Over the past 50 years, in the rush to provide ever increasing yields, have some farmers thrown the baby out with the bathwater?  In our own countryside, we see fields of green pasture grazed with cattle and sheep – seemingly an idyllic agricultural landscape.

However, these grassy expanses have been gained by sowing single grass species and applying generous doses of nitrogen rich fertiliser.  Insects, pollinators and small mammals struggle to survive in this barren landscape, and it  also impacts on crops and environmental balance.

Further afield, we are seeing deforestation on a mammoth scale to provide open grazing for cattle, often in valuable rain forest areas.  This removal of trees and vegetation destroys habitats for thousands of insects, birds and animals, not to mention damaging those of indigenous tribes.  Loss of the rainforest also reduces capacity to sequester carbon leading to increased global warming.

Population rises created more intensive farming

To satisfy increasing populations and also a huge rise in meat consumption, farming has become more intensive, requiring increased use of antibiotics and artificial yields.  This has led to growing concerns of the health of the food we eat.

The outbreak of ‘Mad Cow disease’ was one indicator that perhaps we weren’t managing our environment in the best interests of ourselves and other creatures.  Increased use of antibiotics used in the food chain could be leading to resistance problems in humans.  We could be creating a food chain that is making us more sensitive, with increased instances of allergies which can be fatal.

So how do we make our food chain safer?

Does the answer lie in becoming vegetarian or vegan?  The vegan diet is the fastest growing market in the food industry and it’s a trend that producers ignore at their peril.  Even those who are sticking with meat and fish are becoming more invested in where their food is coming from, and free-range, organic and traceable produce is more popular.

A diet based on vegetables, pulses and grains does have benefits for food production in that more can be produced on the same amount of land and often at a lower cost than meat.  However, there is a risk that if the soil is used continuously to grow crops the structure will break down leading to it being less productive.

There will also always be areas that are not fit for cultivation and thus not productive for a crop-based farm.  In farming, the land must be managed efficiently to produce an income – otherwise the farm will go out of business, and this means making the most of every acre of land.

More traditional farming methods making a come back

Farmers have long been stewards of our environment, and it is heartening to see a growing resurgence in methods such as herbal leys.  Before the arrival of single seed fields and chemical fertilisers, most pastures were sown with a mixed crop such as clovers, plantain and chicory.

These plants provided nutritious grazing for cattle and sheep as well as a haven for pollinating insects which attracted birds and small mammals – these pastures were alive in a way we don’t see today.  Herbal leys also help enrich and improve the soil which is a bonus when the fields are replanted with wheat or barley.

These types of pasture provide a much more nutritious diet for grazing animals leading to improved milk yield and quality of meat.  Herbal leys are becoming more popular as fertilizer prices rise, but it still a big step for farmers to take.

Grazing cattle and sheep on herbal leys also helps improve the quality of the soil by adding in a more natural fertilizer and as their hooves break up the surface of the soil, the nutrients are able to filter down.  The grazing also helps improve the root system which in turn improves the structure of the soil.

There is evidence to show that cows in the field attract insects and butterflies, which in turn attract a wider range of birds, making the whole environment richer.

Will our choice of diet make a difference?

If we all eschewed beef and lamb, there would be no incentive for farmers to raise cattle and sheep, and fields would be given over to rows of carrots, cabbages and cauliflower which don’t provide a good habitat for wildlife.  As there are less calories in vegetables, we would need to grow much greater quantities to feed our growing population.

The future of farming depends on their being able to produce crops that consumers want to buy, and as we all become more invested in our health and well-being, the quality of what we consume is of greater importance.

I hope, in future, we will see a greater level of tolerance of different diets, together with a better understanding of where our food has come from and how it has lived it’s life.  Whether you choose to be an omnivore, pescatorian, vegetarian or vegan, as long as we eat healthily and don’t damage the environment in the production of our food, then we should all accept individual decisions.

After all, the farmers, their animals and crops depend on us buying their produce for their livelihood, and without them we wouldn’t have such passionate and hardworking stewards of our environment.


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