I recently attended the Women in Food & Agriculture Industry Digital Festival. I heard a fascinating talk titled “How can we Decarbonise Agriculture to Tackle Climate Change?” by Patrick Holden.
Patrick is the founder of the Sustainable Food Trust and is also a farmer. He spoke of the urgent need to decarbonise agriculture locally and globally to tackle the Climate Change crisis. He started by speaking of David Attenborough’s recent Netflix documentary ‘A Life On Our Planet’, incidentally a documentary I immensely enjoyed. While he agreed with the focus on addressing irreversible effects on the environment before it is too late, Patrick disagreed with the documentary’s take on agriculture. The documentary promoted the Dutch approach: that is, technology-focused and increased production on small amounts of land and ‘re-wild’ the rest of the land. This is the “land-sparing approach”. It is his belief that we should instead focus on a ‘land sharing’ approach. We should farm in harmony with nature, allowing biodiversity to exist in harmony with reasonable food yields while locking up carbon in the soil.
The soil is the world’s second-largest carbon bank after oceans, and industrial farming has depleted the carbon bank of soil. Patrick emphasised the need for this change now and everywhere, not just in a niche market. He focused on the need to move from a chemical approach to an approach based on biology. We can mimic the systems of nature in building soil using crop rotation with fertility building phase. We can then use the land to grow a succession of arable crops. After a few years, we go back to a regenerative stage of growing grass and use the grazing ground to produce meat produce. This is an approach he currently uses on his farm; his dairy cows contribute to building the soil as they graze and move on, a practice he called holistic grazing. Patrick stated that soil building is the crucial challenge of our time. We need to avoid the use of chemical fertiliser pesticides and herbicides. Increasing the lost organic matter of the soil and soil building will be the best way to secure our future.
He also focused on the need for a global harmonised measurement of soil fertility gain and impacts of farming practises on sustainability, not just in the UK but across the world. It needs to measure soil carbon levels, water, emissions, nutrient density, energy and resources use, crop and livestock health and social and cultural impacts on social and human capital. He devised the harmonised sustainability assessment framework.
Looking to the future, he spoke on what would happen if the world converted to a truly regenerative farming system. What food and ratios would these systems produce? What should I eat to be sustainable and healthy? His answer was simple; we should eat what the farmers of our country or region can give under these systems. We will have to eat less meat. Interestingly under this system, chicken wouldn’t be the most sustainable meat to consume. It would be the livestock used to graze during the system’s fertility building phase- so grass-fed lamb and beef.
He ended his talk with a moving message of hope, pointing out the power we as individuals have. We can use our buying power and our powers as electors in democratic countries to ensure the focus is on genuinely regenerative farming systems and sustainability in the future. As an investor in agritech and foodtech that have sustainability at their core, such a focus is important to me from a business and personal perspective. Companies that answer these questions as part of their business plan are bound to be successful as consumer awareness changes around such issues.