Does farming show us a way out of our problems, or provide the seeds of our own destruction?

Since prehistoric times, farming has allowed our species to grow, and an increasing number of non-agricultural professions have made it possible to leave behind the hunter-gatherer way of life.

In spite of this, as late as 1700, approximately 40 per cent of the population in England were still small-scale subsistence farmers, growing their own food and tending their own livestock, cutting their own timber and firewood, often using common as well as village land. Although enclosures had begun in the 14th century, they really started to take off after 1700, forcing huge numbers of rural poor and subsistence farmers into cities to provide labour for the industrial revolution.

With the benefit of new technology, larger, more efficient farms could pay more rent to landlords, and produced enough food for everyone – in theory, anyway. The rich continued eating steak and the poor (when they could afford it) could eat offal. Along with an increasing middle-class, the richer farmers also provided the money to feed the desperate and dispossessed residents of the workhouses.

Roll on three hundred years and now only approximately 1-2 per cent of us are directly engaged in farming in Britain. For many years we relied on farmers on the plains of Canada and Australia, the West Indies, New Zealand and South Africa to provide what we could not grow here, simply because we didn’t have enough land (or wall-to-wall sunshine).

The Haber-Bosch process, perfected by 1910, allowed natural gas to be combined with nitrogen from the air, fixing nitrogen in ammonia to make nitrogen fertilizer (usually known by farmers just as ‘nitrogen’). This is where the agricultural revolution really took off. Giving nitrogen to grass can increase yields three to fourfold, and (with straw-shorteners and herbicides), can push wheat yields from 1.5 to 4 tonnes per acre.

I graduated in 1974 with a degree in agriculture from Reading University. Interestingly, we were aware then that the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere was increasing, but we were blissfully unaware of the problems that this would cause 50 years down the road…

In those days, phrases such as ‘don’t criticise a farmer with your mouth full’ were common currency; nowadays the saying should be ‘the farmer is the richest man in the graveyard’.

Farmers in the 21st century spend all their lives in one of the least profitable activities on the planet, and only the unrealistic value of land – which has little bearing on its agricultural output – is what makes them rich. Of course, tenant farmers like me simply fall back into the teeming masses once they retire.

In the last 50 years British farmers have done everything that has been asked of them: we have been on a treadmill all that time. The necessity to produce more and more from less and less, to run to stand still, to provide the public with cheaper and cheaper food, and now, finally, to be undercut by bizarre trade deals struck by the likes of Ms Truss – all these demands are mind-blowing.

You don’t have to be  James Rebanks to know that somewhere, things have gone slightly wrong. In my case I farmed organically for 13 years before I retired. Organic dairying is relatively easy – clover is a better food for cows than grass, and thrives once you stop using nitrogen. Dairy farms have tonnes of manure from the cows, which keeps fertility pushing on, so if you grow enough clover, you can safely replace 200kg/ha of the nitrogen that you used before.

The problem for the individual farmer is that you cannot simply farm organically one minute and use fertilizer the next.  It doesn’t work like that. After about five years of organic farming, you suddenly realise that your farm has turned a corner: soil organic matter (the thing that sustains us on this planet), soil structure and your new-found knowledge have all started working in your favour.

This is the centre of my argument…We rely on the tiny crust of our planet to sustain our species. By forcing them to be more ‘productive’, we will ultimately degrade our soils to the point where we will not be able to feed ourselves. George Monbiot (environmental campaigner, author and broadcaster) thinks we should start introducing food grown from bacteria into our diets. He may have a point, but the scary thing about that is it means food production will be concentrated into industrial units run by big business, which won’t be quite the push-over that our farmers with their tiny little enterpriaes are now.

Even if you farm organically, things can go wrong. For example, if your farm is on heavy wet clay, you may find that adding nitrogen enables grass to thrive and out-compete the indigenous rushes: the fertilised grass simply pushes the rushes out. If you convert to organic practices, however, your farm may revert to the way it was in 1700: stop the nitrogen and the rushes return! This can be a bit dispiriting. Thankfully this only happened to me in a very small way: after thirteen years of organic farming and several attempts to reseed and so on, our lowest-lying field became a rush patch. However, the snipe liked it!

Another thing to remember is that you can’t produce four tonnes of wheat per acre organically. In early 2022, Defra told wheat growers that using more than 200-250kg/ha of nitrogen on wheat was unlikely to be cost-effective, given the huge increase in fertiliser prices. With the rise in the cost of fuel and agrochemicals, margins are going to be tight unless there are big grain price increases too.

Interestingly, Adam Henson of BBC Countryfile fame has decided to convert part of his farm to organic. From the programme I saw, it looked like he was copping out slightly, as the bit he’s converting is some not-very-productive grassland, which would probably grow cattle better if he put clover on it anyway. The majority of his farm will still be growing arable crops (wheat, for example, produced by ploughing, fertilising and combine-harvesting etc) just as before. During the programme it was shown that his soil is being degraded in these arable fields, which caused him to furrow his brow a bit…but don’t forget he’s on the treadmill too. It’s easier to put these things to the back of your mind rather than confront them, but good for him for at least having a go at organic.

I suspect that most farms which are predominantly arable would go bust if they decided to go organic in one leap, and this is the problem. In most cases these farms have no livestock on them, and no fences to keep animals ‘in’, either. I know you don’t always have to have livestock, but I suspect that no amount of green manure can substitute for an old-fashioned mixed farming system. The consequence is that these farms need recapitalising – and where is that capital going to come from? You guessed it: questionable borrowing.

On a global scale, the desperate situation in Ukraine has raised the spectre of famine in many of the poor countries in the world. It seems we need all that lovely grain and all that prized fertilizer from Russia if we are to avoid the prospect of a famine of biblical proportions. Yet Russian gas produces much of the nitrogen that grows the crops which feed the millions, and at the same time it degrades the soil on which we all depend… A bleak outlook to be sure.

It has been suggested that across the planet there may be only 40 harvests to go before we have degraded our soils to the point where we can no longer feed ourselves. This raises the most urgent questions. If we are drinking in the last-chance saloon for global warming, we surely are very late to the party on soil degradation.

Ukraine may have wonderful reserves of topsoil, but we can’t rely on those to feed the world when we have degraded our soils to the point where nothing much will grow in them.

What we really need is clever young people to go into farming, because as ever, it’s all down to farmers. Sadly, I won’t be around to see it. Meanwhile, some of us may be lucky enough to have our mouths full at the moment, but it may not always be like that…