Taliban Farming

“’Taliban farming’ — pointlessly hostile to the natural world … It’s got no food. It’s been flailed within an inch of its life.”

                                ~ Jake Fiennes

“I think the tide has gone out on the agricultural system we have. I think that’s over. If you look at where the science is going, we have this fabulous opportunity not to drench the land in chemicals and actually to use the land to much greater effect.”

                                ~ Dieter Helm, University of Oxford economist

How do we feed the nine billion? … We feed them through functioning ecosystems.”

~ Jake Fiennes, the Conservation Manager of the Holkham Estate

One of the most basic pf human activities is farming, right behind hunting and gathering, (which all fall behind sex). However, we’ve been doing it (farming, not sex) so long, we’ve ceased to think about how it impacts us and our environment.

“At the beginning of the nineteenth century, the Holkham Estate set new standards for food production, instituting regular four-course crop rotations, long-term leases, systematic breeding programs, and the use of cover crops, such as clover, which fix nitrogen in the soil …” Writer Sam Knight explains, “Fiennes describes what he does as ‘multifunctional farming’ or ‘environmental farming.’ He believes that farmers in the twenty-first century must cultivate as much as they can on their land — fungi for the soil, grasses for the pollinators, weeds for the insects, insects for the birds, pasture for the livestock — for the long-term goals of carbon capture and food production.”

Professor Helm continues, “it is possible that British farming, which has revenues of around nine billion pounds a year, is currently worthless — once you take away its subsidies and the damage that it causes to the nation’s waterways and wildlife.”

Studies reported by Knight show, “Between 1935 and 1998, aided by chemicals, subsidies, heavy machinery, and crop science, British farmers more or less tripled their per-acre yields of wheat, oats, and barley. Milk production doubled. The amount of chicken meat offered for sale increased by a factor of twenty-five. Traditional farming methods … fell away … Many seminatural habitats were drained or plowed under. An estimated ninety-seven per cent of hay meadows were lost. Between 1990 and 2010, the area of crops treated with pesticides in the U.K. increased by fifty per cent. The environmental damage caused by Britain’s intensive agriculture has only recently been properly understood.”

“Hedges, mostly hawthorn and blackthorn, are a distinctive feature of the British countryside. They delineate fields, but they also provide invaluable habitat and food for birds, insects, and plant life. An estimated two hundred and fifty thousand miles of the nation’s hedges — about a third of the total —  were destroyed in the second half of the twentieth century.”

Helm is hopeful, “But the benefits offered by new forms of agriculture, such as vertical farming, or the restoration of wetlands, to sequester carbon, or nature-friendly food production, such as Fiennes’s, are potentially enormous …

Knight observes, “Much of what Fiennes does is simply an exacting form of traditional, mixed British farming. But understanding the dynamics of this system — a complex interplay of soil health, carbon sequestration, livestock disturbance, insect life and birdlife — is an emerging science.”

“Michael Gove, the U.K.’s one-time Environment Secretary announced a twenty-five-year plan for the British environment, based on the principle of “natural capital,” in which the nation’s air, water, soil, and biodiversity will be reimagined as an economic resource, including projects to improve soil health, plant trees, and mitigate climate change”.

“A forester is looking at trees, and he’s looking at income from trees,” Fiennes explained. “A woodman cares for the wood and maintains it, enhances it … He knows the importance of the bats and the flora.”

Nature bats last.

Additional information:

Sam Knight, Can Farming Make Space for Nature?, February 17 & 24, 2020 Issue, Annals of Nature

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