Today, the Countryside Restoration Trust’s (CRT) Friend and Lake District sheep farmer James Rebanks spoke about sustainable food in a growing world with Stephen Sackur on BBC World Service HARDtalk. Many of the views in his discussion echoed remarks he made during a keynote speech at the CRT 25th anniversary event and encapsulated what the CRT is achieving on its farms.
Coming from a long line of farmers who grazed sheep on a patchwork of ancient agricultural landscapes, James has seen an evolution in the way his father and grandfather profoundly changed the ecosystem on the farm he now owns.
His latest book, English Pastoral explores how he has combined 100-year-old methods with modern management techniques to turn this land around into a thriving natural landscape.
In the interview with Stephen Sackur, he discussed how his father would be astonished at the way he manages the hills with his 350 flock of sheep, allowing for longer recovery time of fields in order to promote plant life and soil health.
Around 70% of his farm is managed using centuries-old methods to rotate crops, limit the size of fields and encourage hedgerow growth, while on the remainder – including the riverbanks – he follows the techniques developed by modern agri-science.
As Mr Rebanks implies, each farm and its ecosystems are unique, so CRT farmers use a mix of management styles. On Lark Rise, an arable farm in Cambridgeshire, CRT Trustee and Farmer Tim Scott uses a method of mosaic cropping to maintain and improve the soil health and the diversity of farmland species; similarly on Turnastone Court Farm in Herefordshire sheep and cattle are grazed on water meadows improved by sluice systems installed in the 16th century.
When questioned about whether this is achievable on a large scale while still producing enough food to serve the ever-growing world population of 10 billion people, Mr Rebanks agreed that there may be a need for intensive agricultural but stated “where we do intensive agriculture, we need to take care of the ecosystems.”
James Rebanks suggests that “how we shop, how we vote, how we regulate farming activity on the land” and ultimately the way society views food may need to change. Large, intensively farmed, mass production methods are driven by the desire for people to buy food as cheap as possible.
Household food expenditure has changed over the last 50 years. Statistics show that in his grandfather’s day 33% household expenditure was food costs, whereas now it’s just 10%. But is that sustainable? As he pointed out, cheaper food equates to mass production which can be found “trashing ecosystems” in order to create such high yields.
Should we pay more for food or pay more taxes to offset this industrialised production? Could this create a system like the CRT farmers who pay commercial conservation rate rent set at a level to allow them to farm in a wildlife-friendly way?
When Stephen Sackur suggested that ‘the world is fed by large, industrialised farms in Iowa, America’, Mr Rebanks dismissed this as propaganda, and explained that in reality ‘80-85% of the world’s food needs are met by small, sustainable, often subsistence farming.’
“We do need to produce a lot of food but we need to do it in ways that are actually sustainable and sensible; that care for soil, nurture soil and look after it and look after the wild things around us,” continued Mr Rebanks.
Like Mr Rebanks, Robin Page, the Chairman of the Countryside Restoration Trust, is concerned that changes stemming from a potential trade-deal that could lower agricultural standards would be “an economic disaster for our farmers and our rural communities, and an environmental disaster for our farmland wildlife.”
Over the week, a plethora of celebrities including CRT Farming and Food Patron Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall have joined chef Jamie Oliver to urge the public to write to their MPs to ask that low-quality food imports are not permitted under a new trade deal.
The new campaign by the charity ‘Food for Life’ is called Save our Standards. It is seeking to highlight that trade deals permitting lower food standards and unregulated imports could foster worse conditions for animals and more carcinogens in our food. The CRT is also concerned that in such an unregulated environment family farms may become uncompetitive and be left with no choice but to amalgamate with larger corporations to farm intensively.
This comes alongside David Attenborough and Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall is supporting Fauna and Flora International campaign “asking governments around the world to put $500 billion every year into the hands of those people who know best how to spend it.”