How farming can change to feed us all while saving the planet — and no, you absolutely won’t have to become vegan

Organic farmer Patrick Holden is an early adopter of mixed farming systems, where livestock and crops work together hand-in-hand. He explains how and why it can provide a sustainable future for all of us.

Sir David Attenborough and most of the elite of the scientific community are now telling us that we only have 10 years to act if we are to avoid irreversible climate change. They’re also saying that farming must play a leading role in helping us achieve net zero emissions.

It’s not surprising that most farmers and landowners are asking how they should respond.

Most experts agree that the only way we can actually take CO2 out of the atmosphere is to rebuild the soil carbon that 50-plus years of continuous arable farming has removed. To do that, we need to switch to mixed farming systems that include a crop rotation with pastures grazed by cows or sheep.

The key question is how could such a switch be profitable, especially in a country whose younger generation — including our own children — is reducing its intake of red meat, believing it’s the right thing to do, both for their health and the health of the planet, in some cases going vegetarian and vegan?

I don’t claim for a moment that it will be easy to address these challenges, but I’m certain that, with a combination of policy and market incentives, it would be possible to make money from sustainable farming. And, believe me, as an early adopter of this approach, I know full well that this hasn’t been the case in the past.

“Will Michael Gove — or his successors at Defra — do this? They must. If they don’t, our children will inherit a planet that is uninhabitable”

Unlike most farmers, who understandably have to follow the best business case in their farming, I’ve had a day job that has enabled me to put my principles into practice without jeopardising my farm’s economic viability. I’ve also been able to sell carrots and cheese into premium organic markets, an opportunity only available to a minority of farmers and consumers.

Could sustainable farming become both mainstream and sustainably profitable?

First of all, future Government interventions should take the form of incentive payments for sustainable farming practices that build soil organic matter, ideally by redirecting the single farm payments. That’s the carrot bit.

The stick part would be the introduction of the ‘polluter pays’ principle, taxing practices and inputs that cause damage.

Will Michael Gove — or his successors in the post of Defra Secretary — do this? They must. If they don’t, our children will inherit a planet that is uninhabitable, due to irreversible climate change and biodiversity loss.

That’s the top-down bit, but we must also harness the power of the market. We need well-informed consumers, who understand that purchasing grass-fed lamb and beef, as opposed to cheap industrial chicken, will not only help farmers rebuild depleted soil carbon, but also improve their health, because grass-fed meats are healthier and more sustainable in their impact on the planet than industrial palm oil and genetically modified soy.

“Can we do this and effectively counter the angry rhetoric of the George Monbiots of this world? Yes, we can”

To get these messages across, the farming community must unite in an educational campaign in defence of grass-fed — or mainly grass-fed — cattle and sheep, which alone can convert the grasslands that constitute two-thirds of the UK agricultural land area into food that we can eat.

In doing so, we need to explain that the methane emitted by ruminants contains recycled carbon, not new carbon, and is partially offset by the resulting carbon sequestration in the soil.

In addition, counter to the current orthodoxy of the nutrition community, animal fats — especially from grass-fed animals — are actually healthier than palm oil, genetically modified soya, oil-seed rape and all the other plant-based fats that have replaced the animal fats we used to rely on a century ago.

Can we do this and effectively counter the angry rhetoric of the George Monbiots of this world? Yes, we can.

Organic dairy farmer Patrick Holden worked for the Soil Association for nearly 20 years before becoming the founding director and chief executive of the Sustainable Food Trust — www.sustainablefoodtrust.org