Agriculture tends to get a bad rap when it comes to its impact on climate change and biodiversity loss. Believe me, industrial and intensive agriculture lives up to those perceptions. But, there are farmers on this planet who take on their role as stewards of the land quite differently. They work with mother nature regenerating their local biospheres through agroecological farming practices. This is stripping food production back to sound biological processes, not relying on the chemical and mechanical.
The over consumption of conventionally reared meat products has a detrimental impact on soil health, land degradation, ecosystem breakdown, animal welfare, food quality and comes with an unnecessarily high carbon footprint. Conventional intensive crop and cereal production is no better, it has just as much of a negative impact on degrading soil health and polluting this planet as intensively reared meat systems. Conventional farming systems tend to be based on high inputs and high output. This results in using large amounts of synthetic fertilisers, pesticides and heavy tillage with large machinery all in the name of chasing high production, fast growing cheap food and “good” farming practice. As a result, over the last 80 years of intensive farming, it is obvious that the food system is broken. We are losing topsoil at an alarming rate, once fertile lands are now lying desertified and unproductive. Waterways are polluted, wildlife is declining, the essential carbon and water cycles that both agriculture and nature depend on are now dysfunctional.
Don’t panic, it is not all doom and gloom. Many farmers who have implemented ecologically based regenerative farming systems are achieving the opposite results of their conventional counterparts. Using methods like no-till (no ploughing or heavy soil disturbance), holistically planned grazing and introducing livestock back on to arable crop production systems farmers can super charge soil biology and heal this planet.
Livestock are in fact the key component to regenerative systems. They trample plant matter into the soil, increasing soil carbon levels which feeds soil biology. That active soil biology then feeds the plants back in turn. Over time, soil mass increases through this trampling effect and the carbon and water holding capacity of the soil increases with it. In terms of emissions, when livestock are not housed and are out on pasture, they are part of a carbon cycle that sees no net increase in methane emissions when there is no increase in livestock numbers – the carbon literally keeps on moving through the carbon chain over a 10 – 12 year period via photosynthesis, grazing, belching and atmospheric carbon breakdown. In improving biodiversity, the short sharp bursts of animal impact achieved through holistically planned grazing stimulates centuries old seed banks stored in the top soil. This results in the germination of rare and forgotten plant species, often to the benefit of pollinators, insects, birds and other wildlife.
Properly managed livestock systems build soil carbon levels, increase plant diversity, provide food and habitat for wildlife and fix dysfunctional carbon and water cycles. The problems of drought, flood, biodiversity loss, poor animal welfare and low food quality can be solved through farming regeneratively. Livestock are the essential part of this regenerative system.
We all know it's better to eat some meat and more veg - by choosing to eat meat from animals raised in a regenerative way, we can do our bit to support the best of British farming and help protect our soils and the planet. But where can you find food like this?
Try to buy directly from local producers, you should be able to find good meat, dairy, veg, honey and more produced right on your doorstep. The shorter the supply chain the better. Don’t be afraid to ask questions, make sure your local producers are farming in a way that works with nature and does not rely on high inputs. Look for certification marks such as “Pasture for Life” who certify farmers for producing 100% pasture-fed meat and dairy. Organic and biodynamic certifications are also good indicators of sound farming practices. It is usually the farmers who are most proud of the ecosystem they support, not the amount they produce, who have got the right perspective.
The Eating Better alliance have also put together a guide to help retailers and restaurants source climate and nature friendly meat from the best of British farming. Download it here.
Silas Hedley-Lawrence is Farm Manager at English Farm, Oxfordshire. As stewards of the land, English Farm ensures that their organic farming system enhances the local biosphere by increasing soil diversity and health, encouraging diversity in pastures and reinstating hedgerows for wildlife habitat.