This past weekend I went to a conference organised by the Sustainable Food Trust on sustainable food and agriculture and the direction of UK food and farming over the coming years as Brexit is negotiated and eventually becomes reality. Although I’m not from the UK or currently living there, much of the conference was more broadly relevant to the creation of sustainable food systems globally. I met so many incredible people (like the wonderful Abby Rose, one of the founders of the Farmerama podcast, which I’ve listened to for years back home) and learned so much – I’m still buzzing over a week later!
There were six sessions, on topics ranging from how to actually measure that elusive concept of ‘sustainability’ (with a presentation from Dieter Helm on natural capital); to sustainable food businesses creating new models for local food systems (like Farmdrop, which is similar to My Food Bag, for my Kiwi readers); to soil; to the importance of local abattoirs to small farmers and local food systems and how policy can support, rather than hinder these businesses.
For me, there were three key messages that came out of two days of conversation and learning. First: it’s all about the soil. Soil is like that person who was always really quiet and a bit weird at school, who nobody ever thought would amount to much. But then when you’re 25 and have spent the last eight years of your life half-heartedly attempting to destroy your liver and trying to figure out how to operate a tin-opener, you find out that they’re an accomplished concert pianist, and have also just won the Nobel Prize in Economics. Soil basically makes the world go round, but chemical-laden, industrial agriculture is largely responsible for severe soil degradation around the globe – to the point that if we continue farming in the same way as we have for the past 70-odd years, there are only an estimated 60 harvests left. (Considering that practically all food comes from soil if you go back far enough (with the minor and currently insignificant exceptions of lab-grown meat and hydroponic vegetables), this is potentially problematic.) On the other hand, healthy soil supports life and, fortunately, soil isn’t only created by the erosion of rocks over millennia – regenerative agricultural systems can also build up healthy soil over a much shorter timespan.
Secondly: He aha te mea nui o te ao? He tangata, he tangata, he tangata.* The atmosphere of the conference was one of incredible energy that came from so many people excited about the possibilities for farming to revitalise not only the environment but also local communities and economies, both urban and rural. So much of the conversation and the content of the presentations focused on the human element of agriculture and the food system. One aspect of this was how to make it more appealing, easier and more accessible for young people to get onto the land. For example, Joel Salatin, of Polyface Farms, spent a significant portion of his presentation explaining his farm’s apprenticeship programme, which aims to ‘germinate young farmers’ by creating ‘independent entrepreneurial fiefdoms’ within the context of the broader farm business. The ultimate regenerative agriculture, he said, is when the next generation takes over. Many other speakers and attendees spoke about how important it is for children to learn where food comes from – how it is grown and raised, who grows and raises it, and how it gets from the farm to their table.
And finally, the single, most fundamental, underlying message of the conference was that it is absolutely imperative that agriculture works in harmony with the environment if we are to have any hope for the future of a sustainable food system. The opening address, given by Michael Gove (Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, UK) emphasised this fact as the cornerstone of the Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs’ (DEFRA) policy. He stated Britain’s goal to be the world leader in sustainable food production; given his emphasis on the non-food-related but non-market-supported benefits that can be produced by farming (such as wildlife protection, enhancing rural communities, carbon sinks, etc.), and the fact that farmers should be supported in achieving these benefits, it seems that this aspiration may not just be greenwash. Perhaps New Zealand’s Ministry for the Environment and Ministry for Primary Industries (and those of other countries) could take a leaf out of Gove’s book in appreciating not only the possibility, but the urgent necessity, of the agricultural and environmental agendas to be seen as (and practiced as) inextricably linked. I can only hope that this vital perspective continues to shape the conversation around agriculture and the environment in the UK as it decides what direction it will take after Brexit. More than that, I hope that this perspective begins to shape global agricultural policy such that it is no longer seen as ‘radical’ to consider farmers as conservationists, and to implement agricultural and environmental policies which complement, rather than conflict with, each other.
*What is the most important thing in the world? It is people, it is people, it is people.