As a nation, we are becoming more aware of the impact that our diets have on the climate. Having been a vegan myself for around six years, it is amazing (and brilliant!) to me that Gregg’s, Subway and so many supermarkets have climbed aboard the plant-based band wagon. However, the bad news is that eating our way out of climate change isn’t as simple as just ditching the animal products.
The good news? Well, for those of you who are partial to the occasional steak or scrambled egg - if you choose right, you can eat these things without damaging the planet.
A movement of farmers in the UK (and around the world) is engaging in regenerative agriculture; farming that aims to increase biodiversity, improve soil health, protect the environment and enhance ecosystem services. While many traditional farming systems take more from the land than they give back, regenerative agriculture aims to do the opposite. If farmers work together in this way, there is hope that they can reduce and sequester carbon, an idea which is pretty exciting for the climate concerned among us.
Photo by Gary Ellis on Unsplash
WBCA recently hosted a fantastic talk on Regenerative Agriculture from Dan Geerah, a former agricultural adviser, and a promotor of landscape collaboration between landowners, plus an occasional Tweeter. I found the talk inspiring and educational - so here are some of the highlights, for those of you who couldn’t make it. You can check out the talk on YouTube whenever you like.
1. Soil health is key
Healthy soil should be dark, rich and full of nutrients. Sadly, much soil around the world is light, dusty and unhealthy, meaning that nursing it back to health should be a top priority. Researchers from Oxford University have said that we must adopt better agricultural practices to protect our soil. These include:
• cover cropping, which is the practice of planting crops for the purpose of covering (and therefore protecting) the soil rather than harvesting them;
• minimal tillage, in which land is tilled (prepared for growing crops) without the soil being turned over; and
• contour cultivation, where sloped land is tilled along lines of consistent elevation to conserve rainwater and to reduce soil losses from surface erosion.
Darker, healthy soil has is made up of 10-12% carbon, whereas unhealthy soil is just 1-2% carbon, demonstrating that looking after soil sequesters a lot of carbon.
Regenerative farmers limit soil disturbance by drilling seeds directly into the ground and keeping soil covered to protect it from wind and rain.
Crop rotation is another great way to increase soil health whilst protecting biodiversity. Rotating the crops grown on the same piece of land means that the soil benefits from a range of nutrients, rather than giving and taking the same ones year after year.
Additionally, heavily tilled, unhealthy soil does not absorb rainwater, leading to more floods and droughts. As the rainwater drains away, it takes both soil and any fertilisers that have been used with it - eroding topsoil and spreading pollutants. Thus we can see that healthy, untilled soil has multiple benefits. Check out this experiment to learn more about this.
It’s not just farmers who should be aiming for healthy soil. If you have a garden, healthy soil will help the environment. If you’re unsure how healthy your soil is, try burying a pair of your undies in it. No, seriously! Healthy soil should erode the cotton in two months, so plant your pants and then hoik them out again eight weeks later to find out how healthy your soil is.
Integrating animals into crop farming is another way to protect soil…
2. Farmers can work with animals to benefit everyone
Regenerative farmers use rotational grazing to increase the health of their land. In this practice, cows are moved every day from field to field in what is known as ‘mob grazing’, meaning they are continually moving across the grass. The land is rotated every three months, meaning that each piece of land only has cattle on it four days per year, meaning the grass can flourish on the other 361 days of the year.
Photo by Lomig on Unsplash
Additionally, farmers can harness help from critters who can do their pest management work for them. Hedgehogs can be encouraged, as they eat slugs. Beetle banks attract miniature John, Paul, George and Ringos (geddit?) who will eat aphids. Clearly, this holistic way of working is way better than using harmful pesticides and chemicals to bend land to our will.
3. We can support farmers doing this excellent work by buying their products
How can we, as individuals, help the farmers who are doing this great work? Well, as suggested at the beginning of this blog, one way is to vote with your wallet when doing the weekly shop. We all know that buying local food is a good idea, but if you can spot one of these logos on your grub, this is even better as this demonstrates that your food has been grown regeneratively.
If you want to eat meat, look out for Pasture for Life products. The cows sold under this label have been entirely grass fed (using the mob grazing method described above) in the UK. This method of feeding cows means that their carbon output is net positive, and so a far cry from your bog standard burger, fed by cutting down vast swathes of the Amazon. Meat Box on Wapping Wharf is just one place in Bristol where you can buy PLF meat, which also includes chicken and lamb as well as beef. Cotswold Beef is another source.
WBCA secretary Dorian loves Meatbox. He says, "my girlfriend and I have a big steak from Meatbox about once every two months - it's always absolutely delicious, not that expensive, and makes our mostly pretty strict vegetarian diets much easier to enjoy."
These products are more expensive than the fare on offer down at Tescos - but if you are fortunate enough to be able to afford this food, you’ll be making a real investment in humanity’s future. Additionally, an interesting fact to ponder is that we used to spend 20% of our income on food, whereas now it’s only 8%. We’ve got very used to cheap food - is that really a good thing?
Once you have got your British, sustainable food in your fridge, try your best not to waste it. UK households wasted a shocking 4.5 million tonnes of food in 2019. If your veg is on its way out can you make and freeze a soup or stew? Invite your buddies over for a feast? Feed it to your niece’s guinea pig?
And finally, if you buy some of these products and enjoy them - tell your friends. Tell them why you chose to buy these items and where they can also get them.