Our agricultural industry is both fantastic and at the same time failing. Farming is a huge industry and a way of life for many. Having seen a small side to agricultural life, growing up on our family farm in Devon, UK. On the farm, sheep and cattle were reared as livestock, hay and silage was also made in the summer months, partly to be sold and the rest kept to feed the animals in more harsher months.
As a child I remember the struggles and stresses of market prices falling, rising and falling again. At times prices fell to the point where the market meant that it cost more to keep and rear animals than it did to sell them.
I could never understand how something so important as food, could struggle as an industry, when everyone needs it every day of their lives.
A glance to the past
Throughout history farming has been one of the most integral rolls in society and has enabled us, as a species, to develop into what we are today. To cultivate food has meant that we can produce food to meet our needs, all year round, so that we have time to do other things, concentrating on more social and developmental aspects of life. Earliest evidence of agriculture is found some twelve thousand years ago at the site of Göbekli Tepe, Turkey, and may go back much further. Irrigation of crops and a more organised and methodical approach to rearing animals was introduced in place of the simple hunting and foraging that may have preceded.
Agriculture in more recent centuries has given birth to the thriving industry of import and export; in this structure there are many intermediary factions that all take a cut of the profits and so diminish the profit at the source. Not such a long time ago people worked hard and in return did well in life, farming was a respected and prosperous profession being an integral part of society.
The industry today
The current agricultural model is geared towards factory farming and mass production, this means that only a few have a monopoly on the market, leaving smaller or family run enterprises to be bullied into lowering their prices to the point that it is simply not feasible to carry on without diversifying, and those that do struggle on and may eventually become bankrupt. Those that adapt to survive in the current model are forced to take on a way of farming that is more intensive which has less or no regard to well fair or sustainability.
Luckily European laws and regulations do currently lean the opposite way to GMO (Genetically Modified Organism) products being produced on its soils, although one GMO maize crop, resistant to the ‘corn borer’ pest, has been allowed to be produced in Spain. Pesticides and chemicals to promote growth are still used on a regular basis within the EU. Animals eat this vegetation and so ingest the chemicals which in turn are ingested by us.
GMO…No, No, No
In other countries where laws and regulations are more lenient and even at times corrupt, mostly due to a focus on profit rather than what may be good for the consumer. Often the governing health organisations are being funded by the same GMO giants, these GMO giants manipulate the genetics of produce causing it to be detrimental to its surrounding ecosystem.
There has been evidence of genetic pollution, meaning that pollen travels from these plants to other crops or animals which are accidentally cross-contaminated. If this is occurring how can anything in the future be organic? We still do not know enough about genetically modifying food, the necessary long term effects studies have not been carried out as it only began in the 70’s. It is evident that the use of GMO farming, to this point in time, is not in the best interests of the consumers health or the environment.
When changing nature genetically to fit an industrial model, it becomes out of sync with the natural order and so may jeopardise the longevity for life to exist; great care and thought should be taken when tampering within areas of science that could slip out of our control with the slightest oversight beyond repair.
In many cases throughout the world animals that are reared on feed that contains antibiotics and are treated with growth hormones. The reasoning for antibiotics to be present is to treat the animals against infection or disease which may occur more often in confined and unsuitable environments. People are ingesting these antibiotics through the meat which has given rise to antibiotic resistance which has led to an ever growing number of human fatalities. While there may be stricter guidelines in some countries on rearing and even labelling, it is hard to keep track, especially when considering the diversity of restaurants and food chains.
Britain currently imports 40% of the food it eats, which was only 20% during the mid 80’s. Fears of the NFU (Nation Farmers’ Union) are that unless the problems within the governments and industry are addressed concerning sustainability and productivity, the ever growing population will further exceed it’s inability to be self-sufficient and will need to import in excess of 50% before long. Agriculture injects £103 billion into the UK economy, £26 billion of which comes directly from farming production.
it’s big business
It is amazing to think that there are roughly 300,000 known plants that are considered edible and most stick to a handful that are available in supermarkets all year round. Varieties and strains within farmed species are being lost; some 75% since the early 1900’s, this is through farmers discarding their local breeds and strains for genetic uniformity and varieties that will guarantee high yields.
There are just twelve main crops for the commercial western market and just five main animal species that are reared. It may come as no surprise that focussing on one species or breed, whether it be flora or forna, by taking another’s natural habitat for its production will lead to decline or extinction of the respective less desirable flora and forna.
We are going to continue to eat plants, animals and fish and I am sure given the chance people like choice and variety; to consume sustainably we need to avoid exhausting one particular species and diversify more, respecting seasonality and natural breeding habits.
When a species becomes over or under populated it disturbs the natural pecking order in the food chain. An over populated species will exhaust its own food resources and out do its natural rivals which will decline or become extinct as a result. If a species becomes under populated, the predators above in the food chain will have less food and decline and the prey below the under populated species will increase, causing a domino effect of unbalance. This is currently evident in the worlds seventeen main fishing grounds that are all said to be falling short of their sustainable limits of fish populations to recover, which in turn is causing an adverse affect to life throughout the oceans.
‘Ethical’ is a word that the meaning can often be overlooked in farming. It is much more a question of the goodness and morality of a person than just putting guidelines and regulations in place. I remember my father once telling me of a time he was at market selling sheep, the sheep went through the bidding to a farmer who my father knew to keep his animals in poor conditions and mistreat the animals to a certain extent, with this in mind he refused the sale of the flock, withdrawing through a quiet word to one side with the auctioneer.
The term ‘organic’ is another that is thrown around too easily and is automatically thought to be clean and ethical in every way. There are so many more factors that must be considered when it comes down to the welfare of the animals and sustainability of the land and its ecosystems. Some 80% of organic produce is grown in third world countries. Many of the workers in these countries are exploited for their labour, being in a state of poverty and starvation, not even able to afford the very food they help produce; this food being exported to countries that will pay for the label ‘organic’.
There are, however, many that believe in their industry and are trying to make a difference. Although they are the minority, some are providing us with high quality produce week in, week out, whilst treating their workers, environment and animals with respect.
Intensive farming exists as it is a very efficient way to produce a high yield. I do not believe the methods used in conjunction justify this yield, such as a high carbon footprint and diminished welfare all for a lesser product.
The welfare of animals should never be overlooked; some may never see the light of day and be housed in unsuitable living conditions, while others are genetically modified and pumped with pharmaceuticals to fit within a uniform criteria, not generally to the comfort or benefit of the animals themselves.
we need to look back to look forward...
Arable farmers remove competing plants, predators or pests that play vital roles in a functioning ecosystem through the use of pesticides and genetically modified crops. Alternatives exist such as biological control, which is an alternative to pesticides where natural predators are introduced, but even this can have unforeseen effects on the food chain as a new organism will have been added.
I believe a step to a healthier diet that will also have an impact on the sustainability of agriculture is to reduce the amount of meat eaten. This said, not to cut it out, simply to reduce by having a couple or more days where you choose dishes that do not require it. This would ease the demand for crowed factory farming and their carbon footprint and also reduce health risks associated with high meat diets.
When buying your food, take notice of where it has been produced and try to source locally; not only is this better for you nutritionally, as it will not have had to travel vast journeys which allows vitamins to diminish, it also supports local producers.
The promotion of independent farmers to thrive could support the economy by spreading wealth and giving money back to people that really work for it and believe in their industry. Taking the monopoly away from intensive farming would also reduce the use of fossil fuels and their carbon foot print.
Todays western culture has developed so that our society can have everything that it wants with choice right across the board at any time of the year; meaning that waste is inevitable when every person has the same wide spread choice. Western societies food waste would be able to feed every starving person in every struggling country with surplus. More shocking is that it is actually just one quarter of the worlds waste that could feed each starving person on the planet.
Seasonality and climate change
Seasonality and local production go hand in hand. By regarding the seasons when farming you are working in harmony with nature and the climate, not forcing the growing conditions.
While there is an ongoing debate to whether humanity is the route cause of climate change, the simple fact remains, it is happening. We must adjust and prepare accordingly for the future. Climate change and the weather in general means that seasons and growing conditions are flexible which should be considered when shopping. Knowing more about where, who and how your food is produced will give a better connection and understanding of your food and ensure you are always getting food that is at its best.
Intensive farming of livestock is one of the greatest contributors to global warming through CO2 emissions, with a staggering 51%, higher than burning all fossil fuels and deforestation combined. Factory farming in such large numbers in concentration has also contributed to dead zones in the oceans, caused through nutrient pollution when the animals waste makes its way to the oceans in vast volumes and in turn kills nearly all aquatic life.
What can we do
There is hope in a greater awareness to change things; supermarkets who once branded their foods with ‘all year or fresh’ are now starting to brand their food ‘seasonal’ and ‘local’. If the supermarkets and stores that sell the food demand, through us, produce that is fair trade, ethical and organic from producers who actually believe in their produce, the demand will call for the supply.
Eating a broader range of produce will give time for diminished populations to recover, ensuring each is given a fighting chance with a more natural and diverse ecosystem to be intact for future generations.
Waste is something all too common and encourages intensive farming to an extent that may not be necessary, with some countries wasting up to half of what they buy. We should encourage supermarkets to stock their shelves with cheaper alternatives, that would normally be discarded due to being an irregular shape or undersized yet its nutritional value and taste is the same.
A call for community and sharing is needed, power in knowledge and to grow your own in gardens and utilise disused public grounds. We must get the industry back to being a way of life, not the future of our food being decided in an office by people who crunch figures and don’t understand what is sustainable and good for us and our planet.
From the many conversations I have been apart of to the numerous articles and documentaries that I have absorbed over the years, it seems to come down greatly to the conundrum of ‘supply and demand’. If the planet is going to continue to host our increasing human population, we must seek efficient greener alternatives that utilise a growing population.
There is no one way to be ethical but to be respectful to the environment around you, keeping yourself informed and making the right choices with the future in mind; you will not go far wrong...