The garden has but a few chicory and cabbages left in it, and the soil is having a rest.
Modern industrial farming in the UK is totally unsustainable, causing environmental and ecological destruction on a grand scale. We farm 24 million acres but to do so we burn about 1 billion gallons of diesel fuel each year, apply 1.5 million tons of chemical fertiliser and make at least 6 passes with chemical sprays (for arable crops). Tractor powered cultivation destroys soil carbon at the rate of about 3 tons per acre per year (good soil contains about 50 tons of carbon per acre). More than half of farmers’ income comes from government subsidy. Best rates of output on arable land are around 4 tons per acre which compares to the potential for up to 20 tons per acre from a well-managed garden. Habitat destruction and chemical poisons are reducing the numbers of birds and insect pollinators and most of the nitrate and phosphate pollution in our rivers comes from farm run-off. Although we spend about £100 billion on buying food each year only about £15 billion of this goes to the farmers – shopkeepers and middlemen take the rest. 25 percent of food is wasted either in homes or super-markets. About 10 million tons of food waste is dumped in landfill every year.
Just how did we reach such a disastrous state of affairs and why do governments involve themselves so greatly in farming?
The problem is that the multiple objectives of farming and food policy are highly conflicted – for example you cannot have cheap food (for the electorate) without using chemical fertiliser and diesel fuel. You cannot improve soil structure (and carbon) without expensive and labour-intensive composting, manure and crop rotation. You cannot keep up farm income without subsidy unless you significantly increase the price of food.
Here is a list of some objectives which a food policy maker might choose:
Cheap food – means using fertiliser and fossil fuels and big subsidies to support farm income
Increasing output per acre – more chemicals needed, including pesticides and insecticides
Healthy food and good diet – less cereals, less intensive production, taxes on sugars and carbs
Reliable supply (self-sufficiency)- means reduced imports and bigger subsidies to boost acreage
Availability of exotic foods from abroad (olive oil, wine, fruit etc.) - Assumes no trade disruption
Increasing /decreasing food exports – Renegotiating tariffs
Profitable farming- bigger subsidies and/or higher food prices
More pollinators and wildlife – Cut back on chemicals and leave more land uncultivated
Improved soil quality/reduce erosion – reduce arable acreages and spend money on composting
Compost organic waste so it can be returned to the soil – the extra cost means expensive food
Greater biodiversity in the countryside – Reduce area under cultivation, plant trees and hedgerows
Retain viable rural communities/villages – Increase the agricultural workforce adding to costs
Reduced use of poisons, chemical fertiliser and fossil fuels -Reduces output per acre
Reduce food waste – Persuade super-markets and consumers to change habits, buy substandard
Reduce dependence on fossil fuels - Significantly increase the labour force, adding costs
Reduce levels of government subsidies – Means higher food prices to keep up farm incomes
Reduce food imports and expand food exports- Bring more land into cultivation
Control weeds, insects, fungi and animal pests – Means more labour or more chemicals
FACTS AND FIGURES
There are about 216,000 farms in UK with about 300,000 people working on them.
Each year the government pays about £3 billion in subsidies - £10,000 per person employed
Basic income per farm averages at £46,000 of this £27,800 was government subsidy
Area being farmed is about 24 million acres (about 80 acres per labourer – 1600 sq yds per person)
8 million acres are arable – diesel fuel required is about 60 litres per acre
Output per arable acre is around 4 tons (compared to possible 20 tons per acre from a raised bed)
Most arable fields are sprayed at least 6 times each year – fungicides, herbicides, insecticides....
16 million acres are grazing (unsuitable for arable) – diesel fuel required is about 30 litres per acre
Output per grazing acre is about 1 ton of produce or 2 tons of hay/4 tons of sileage
UK farming requires burning 1 billion litres of diesel each year (about 8% of national consumption)
UK farming applies about 1.5 million tons of chemical fertilisers each year
Average person spends £1500 each year buying food (excluding going out to eat)
The nation annual food expenditure is around £100 billion – but only about £15 billion of this goes to farmers!
On average people spend about 11% of their income on food (15% for the lowest 20%)
Value of the food we import is £48 billion. We also export £22 billion.
Total food output in the UK is around 55 million tons – 43 m tons is purchased to eat of this 3.6 m is wasted in primary production and about 10m tons post farm gate (about 25 % of food supplied by farmers to super-markets is wasted). Food waste numbers are not known exactly.
Soil erosion and degradation is costing (estimate) £1.2 billion per annum but nobody really knows.
Wheat is our main source of carbohydrates (bread, pasta, cereal) but eating too much is unhealthy.
Less than 3% of UK land is farmed organically and this is decreasing...
Intensive agriculture has already caused arable soils to lose 40 – 60 % of their organic carbon... Soil health is (according to Govt) the single most important factor for future domestic production. Unfortunately, the government produces no proper indicators on this...!! Good soil contains up to 50 tons of carbon per acre (to 30 cm depth) – compared to the 15 tons in the average arable field today. Modern farming reduces soil carbon by about 3 tons per acre each year.
SO, WHAT IS TO BE DONE?
1. First consumers (the great majority live in towns) need to be educated and informed about what is going on. We need to pay more for our food if we want farmers to look after our soil and our eco-systems.
2. Second our government needs to make soil conservation and improvement a major policy objective.
3. Third the power of the food industry and farming lobbies needs to be reduced in a political system which depends on short-term popularity for its success.
4. Fourth we should recognise that eating too much sugar and carbohydrates is very bad for our health.
5. Fifth we should do much more to encourage labour intensive healthy organic production on small farm units which does not depend on burning millions of gallons of diesel.
6. Sixth we should understand that ruminant methane does NOT add to global warming because the carbon it contains comes from grass which collects it via photosynthesis from the air. This carbon is recycled continuously by growing plants, animals and sunlight as it has been for millions of years. It does not come from buried reserves like oil or gas and it does not add more carbon to the atmosphere. In fact, eating meat (which contains carbon from the air) results in less carbon in the atmosphere because our sewage systems dump human waste into our oceans to become food for plankton.
7. Finally, we should learn to use and/or recycle what we now call “waste”, especially using composting and bio-digestion.