John Humphrys - What Price Our Food?

March 18, 2022, 5:25 PM GMT+0

One of the many side effects of the war in Ukraine, as we learn every day, is the price of the food we put on our tables and what’s going to happen to it. That’s partly because we have come to rely so heavily on Ukraine and, indeed, Russia, for so much – especially wheat and other grains. Not for nothing has Ukraine earned the description of the breadbasket of the world. Between them Ukraine and Russia grow 30% of the world’s wheat exports. But food prices were rising steeply even before Putin launched his murderous assault. By some estimates, the price of vital foodstuffs has reached record levels. Last month the cost of farm produce in the United Kingdom was 20% higher than it was a year ago. The reasons are complex but it’s widely accepted that climate change is a big factor – probably the biggest. That plus politics. How do we balance the appeal of a green and pleasant land against the needs of intensive agriculture?

The environmental pundit and Guardian writer George Monbiot sums up the debate in one crisp question: ‘Should we plough up Britain’? Many people, he claims, seem to think we should. The National Farmers’ Union of Scotland is amongst them. It wants food production to be maximised and Scotland’s feeble environmental measures to be rescinded. Those measures include paying farmers to plant hedges and introducing beetle banks. Nor would farmers be rewarded for planting cover crops instead of ploughing their fields.

In many ways, the use of cover crops goes to the heart of the dispute between those like Monbiot, who argue that farming practises have to change, and those who say intensive agriculture must be supported if we are to feed ourselves without having to pay a fortune to import food at prices we simply cannot afford. That’s assuming, of course, that food is available. And that, they argue, is by no means a safe assumption.

Cover crops do what it says on the tin. They are small plants – often clover – that are sown between harvests literally to cover the earth. They might be grazed by sheep but they are not harvested. What they do is enrich the soil. They increase its fertility and protect it from being eroded. They give a home to valuable insects and wildlife. They increase biodiversity.

But the ‘intensive’ farming lobby say the cost is too great. That’s partly because of the huge amount of extra labour needed at a time of year when farmers are at their busiest but mostly because, they say, the most efficient way to increase yield is to spray or spread the appropriate chemicals. Chemicals that kill pests. Chemicals that give the soil all the nitrogen or potash or phosphates it needs to keep producing more and more food as they’ve been doing since the great agricultural revolution after World War II.

But the environmentalists argue that those days are long since over. It’s true that crop yields increased massively but the cost in damage to our soil has been infinitely greater and the reckoning, they say, is near. Uncountable trillions of microscopic creatures and worms that created and have nurtured that soil aeons ago are being wiped out by the chemicals. Even cautious scientists believe we have only a limited number of harvests left. It is now widely accepted that within the lifetimes of our children our soil will be dead unless we do something now.

The most radical view is that ultimately the only solution is to end the use of synthetic chemicals entirely and embrace an organic system. Nobody doubts that there would be great environmental benefits but, most point out, it would result in a drastic reduction in yields. And the cost of food would go through the roof. We have only to compare the price of a pound of organic carrots or an organic chicken with its ‘conventional’ equivalent to see that for ourselves.

But there is a centre ground which has been gaining increasing support. It’s often called ‘regenerative’ agriculture. This is where our cover crops come in. ‘Regen’ farmers try to disturb the soil as little as possible. They accept that even tilling it disturbs the complex network of worm-holes, vital fungal growth and a labyrinth of microscopic air pockets which enable the oil to ‘breathe’. Most of them grow a variety of different crops, often at the same time, and use grazing animals wherever they can. Unlike organic farmers, they are prepared to use artificial fertilisers, especially nitrogen, but the minimum possible.

One of the nation’s most famous farmers (second only to Jeremy Clarkson!) is James Rebanks whose family have farmed in the Lake District for 600 years. In his book English Pastoral he argues that farmers around the world have no choice but to change drastically the way they farm. That, in his view, means regeneration. He admits that he once considered advocates of regenerative agriculture to be “cranks”. After all, British farmers effectively tripled their yields of wheat, oats and barley, and doubled milk production between 1935 and 1998 and that’s because of new chemicals and more powerful machinery which were at the heart of this boom. But by the time that Rebanks’s father died in 2015, leaving him with a loss-making farm, he admitted that the ‘cranks’ had a point. He told The Observer: ‘The evidence started to mount across my lifetime that actually their scepticism is bang on the money.’

Environmentalists and climate scientists argue that there is, of course, another vital reason for changing farming practices. Global warming. No serious scientist doubts any longer that climate change is a reality nor that it is vital that we reduce greenhouse gas emissions. This is another reason, say its supporters, why we must adopt regenerative agriculture. The explanation is simple. Cover crops capture atmospheric carbon dioxide by transferring it into the soil. And not only cover crops. The cultivation and nurturing of forests and permanent perennial pastures and grasslands have the same effect. The more green stuff allowed to grow out there without the help of chemicals, the more carbon will be sucked out of the atmosphere where it is threatening the very existence of our planet into the soil where it is positively beneficial.

So this is where you come in. Are you worried about the price of food and do you believe we shall see it increasing dramatically over the coming years? If you do, where do you believe the solution lies? Should we plough up more of our land and farm it intensively, using whatever chemicals produce the greatest yields? Or do you believe those who say we are causing so much damage to our soil that if we carry on like this it will be incapable of delivering the food we need? And to what extent does the fear of global warming influence your views?

Do let us know.

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