In his birthday message, The Prince of Wales applauds efforts to combat climate change and acknowledges the urgent need to explain the value of the food our farmers produce.
At a time of unprecedented change and uncertainty, it is perhaps worth reminding ourselves that the diversity of the British countryside which so many of us know and love is a wonderful synthesis of the interaction between geography, geology, biology and climate, moulded by the activity of thousands of years of human endeavour. Although the interactions between the landscape and those who make their livelihood from it have changed over time, the process has generally been one of gradual evolution.
Now, the pace of change is accelerating rapidly. If we cannot find ways to respond effectively, we risk being overtaken by events and losing the capacity to shape the future of our countryside. I believe we urgently need a fresh, positive and practical vision of the future that will inspire and guide the changes we need to make, while re-emphasizing the importance of safeguarding the features that have the greatest long-term value.
The biggest problem we face is the pace and scale of the changes in our climate. The past five years have been the warmest five years recorded, as have 20 of the past 22. As the world warms, what were once extreme weather events — storms, heavy rain, extreme heat and drought — become a feature of everyday life, as do the dire human and natural consequences, as we have recently witnessed in California.
“It is unreasonable to expect an increasingly urban population to understand and support food production in the countryside if we fail to explain it properly”
At the same time, technological advances are making it possible for us to do things that were once inconceivable, including deriving new insights from collecting and instantly assessing vast amounts of data about the natural environment and human activity.
In looking to the future of the countryside, I believe the starting point must be sustainable food production. But, as we all know, there are lots of ways of producing food, so let us be clear that we need to promote the methods that make the biggest overall contribution to the common good. We need nutritious, healthy, locally produced food, but we also need to look for opportunities to store carbon, reduce the use of fossil fuels, improve the fertility of degraded soils, prevent erosion, manage flooding, protect clean water and biodiversity and engage the wider public. This means that how we grow crops and livestock is as important as what we grow. It also means that, in some situations, growing crops for energy, or even fibre for cloth, may be the best option.
There are two other factors I want to mention. The first is the need for local approaches and solutions because, in my experience, every farm is different from those around it. The second is the need to encourage innovation and enterprise. Bringing these two factors together encourages the development of local markets for distinctive produce that attracts a premium and engages the customer in the story of healthy food.
It is unreasonable to expect an increasingly urban population to understand and support food production in the countryside if we fail to explain it properly. The story we need to be able to tell is one that starts with provenance and farming methods, including the breed of animal or variety of fruit or vegetable, and then places those things within a wider environmental context. To be compelling, we need to be able to point to an absence of chemicals, artificial fertilizers made from fossil fuel, hormones, antibiotics and genetic modification, and to stress the benefits — including carbon capture and storage — from rebuilding soil fertility through the reintroduction of lost organic matter as part of a sustainable, pasture-fed livestock grazing regime, along with high standards of animal welfare and the safeguarding of biodiversity.
“There is no doubt in my mind that in their hearts many farmers would like to move in this direction, but there are no prizes for going out of business while you are trying to do the right thing”
Yet it is ironic that such farming systems, which deliver the wide range of public benefits, are currently less profitable for farmers than those which are based on monocultures and high levels of chemical inputs. There is no doubt in my mind that in their hearts many farmers would like to move in this direction, but there are no prizes for going out of business while you are trying to do the right thing, so you can’t blame farmers for not adopting sustainable practices on a wider scale unless it is profitable for them to do so.
Another irony is that we have adopted such an obscure and technocratic word as ‘biodiversity’ to describe the whole complex web of interconnected life with which we share this planet, but which, by our actions, and inaction, we are now rapidly driving to extinction at a rate never before seen in the world’s history. But alternative words to describe biodiversity are not easy to find. References to ‘natural history’ now seem archaic and I am told that research shows that many people regard ‘wildlife’ as something to be found abroad, seen either on safari or on television. Personally, I will settle for Nature (with a capital N).
But whether we have a proper name for it or not, and regardless of where and how we live our lives, interactions with the natural world have huge emotional significance for many of us. The first primrose of Spring, the joy of birdsong, a rising fish, Autumn colours or the glimpse of a butterfly or kingfisher will touch even the hardest or most preoccupied soul. In an increasingly transparent and inquiring world, systems of food production that cannot accommodate this dimension of our existence are unlikely to maintain broad public support.
There is also now a much greater public awareness of our alarmingly changing climate. Even if this were not the case, the evidence of what we are facing is now so strong that we need to take every opportunity to build resilience and adaptability into our land management activities. All my life I have seen the innate resilience of rural communities to the vagaries of the weather and the market, to human tragedies and to natural disasters, but the challenges of dealing with the ‘climate emergency’ are on an altogether different scale. So, I think it is particularly encouraging that the National Farmers’ Union has set an ambitious target of being ‘climate neutral’ by 2040. The accompanying aspiration that farmers should be confident in preparing for climate change and able to take advantage of new opportunities is also important and deserves the full support of everyone who cares about the countryside and its people. But I hope I can add a caveat without denting the value of the proposition.
“Trees provide the perfect mechanism for locking away carbon dioxide… But I hope we will resist the temptation to return to the bad old days of blanket afforestation, using a single species of tree to cover vast acres with dark, forbidding forests”
It might be possible to achieve climate neutrality (sometimes referred to as ‘net zero carbon’) by stimulating intensive productivity gains for food and offsetting this against equally intensive production of biomass fuel crops. Such a combination of damaging methods is not, I hasten to add, what anyone seems to be advocating, but experience suggests that we need to be careful about defining what we want and to ensure that appropriate safeguards are in place against unintended and undesirable consequences.
The urgent need to reduce carbon dioxide in the atmosphere will drive the biggest changes seen in our countryside for decades. Every part of society will need to become much better at creating less carbon, but only in the countryside is it possible to lock carbon away in soil, or by planting trees on a large scale, or through restoring peat lands. Self-evidently, none of these things can be done in towns and cities. Once again, this huge new opportunity for the countryside brings with it a need to think carefully about what we do — and how and where we do it.
One major opportunity related to this could be the rebuilding of carbon stocks in soils, but this can only be achieved either through maintaining our existing grasslands, or through encouraging farmers who have depleted soil carbon stocks through continuous cropping to include rotations with a fertility-building period, normally of clovers and grasses. In turn, livestock grazed on a traditional grass-fed farming system arguably produce better quality cuts of beef or lamb, and help to absorb carbon into the soil, which would otherwise be harmful to the environment.
It is important to make this distinction, because such a farming system is very different from some of the more intensive regimes that require huge quantities of cereals and forage to keep livestock inside, and thereby emit much greater quantities of carbon into the atmosphere. So, to enable the rebuilding of the soil carbon bank through farming, we need a new partnership between consumers and producers based on an understanding of which livestock are part of the problem and which are part of the solution.
Trees provide the perfect mechanism for locking away carbon dioxide. They also provide excellent building material, fuel, shade and give structure to the landscape. But I hope we will resist the temptation to return to the bad old days of blanket afforestation, using a single species of tree to cover vast acres with dark, forbidding forests. We need to think very carefully indeed about the mix of species we plant and be clear about the full range of benefits we should be seeking. For instance, our native trees have a wide range of biodiversity attached to them. Over 300 insect species are associated with oak trees. The horse chestnut, lovely though it is, has only four. And the invasive, non-native rhododendron has none.
Finding the right mix of species to plant in any given location is essential. But protecting trees is as important as planting them. Indeed, planting is not always necessary. Propagating trees is something that Nature does very well, when given the chance, and the result is both more diverse and more natural than most planting schemes. As one of our greatest botanists, the late Oliver Rackham, once observed: ‘The land is full of young trees which would grow into big trees if tidy-minded people did not cut them down.’ When I had the pleasure of meeting him, we talked at length about the need to maintain genetic diversity in trees and the risks for the future of planting only fashionable clones with identical genetic makeup.
“My heart sinks whenever I hear new evidence of what appears to be a mounting divide between strongly held views on environmental issues and equally strong views about how rural land should be managed. If there are two camps, then I have one foot firmly ensconced in each, which is distinctly uncomfortable”
Many parts of our countryside have the valuable capacity to soak up and retain water, as well as carbon dioxide. This is increasingly being referred to as ‘natural flood management’ and is another way in which, with careful planning, rural areas can provide economic benefits to society that cannot be achieved in towns and cities.
Holding water back on the land also allows more time for the natural underground storage, in aquifers, to recharge. This process is essential to the proper functioning of the chalk streams, which are one of the great glories of our countryside. The crystal-clear water that drives them in a seemingly magical process comes from deep beneath the surface and is only replenished when the soil becomes saturated. The current tragic state of the majority of our chalk streams, after three consecutive dry winters, demonstrates the importance of this natural process, for those who know what to look for.
Floods and drought do not follow each other in an orderly or predictable cycle, making it all the more important that we work with natural processes to build greater resilience against whatever extremes the weather, driven by an increasingly uncertain climate, chooses to provide. There is an urgent need to make further improvements to both the quantity and quality of the water in our rivers and increase the ‘natural capital’ they represent.
Recent developments in managing at least some of our river catchments in a holistic and integrated way are encouraging, with catchment partnerships bringing everyone, including land managers, together to deliver better local outcomes. It is this sort of collaborative working that I believe needs to be at the heart of any positive and productive vision for our countryside. My heart sinks whenever I hear new evidence of what appears to be a mounting divide between strongly held views on environmental issues and equally strong views about how rural land should be managed. If there are two camps, then I have one foot firmly ensconced in each, which is distinctly uncomfortable. In reality, these debates present a false dichotomy and are a huge distraction from the essential task of protecting and enhancing the fundamental things that make the countryside a special place to live, work and visit.
“On my frequent visits to different rural communities, I am always struck by the resilience, good humour and positive attitudes of the people who live and work there”
For what it is worth, my particular hope for the countryside of the future is one that embraces the changes that we all know are urgently needed, through collaborative and well-coordinated efforts, with clear long-term goals. Managing land in ways that will reduce the scale of climate change is a fundamental requirement, as is ensuring as much resilience as possible against the impacts that are now inevitable. At the same time, we need a much greater focus on producing healthy food through systems that will sustain and enhance the land and Nature — in all its aspects — for future generations.
To ensure we can achieve these benefits to society, and as our understanding deepens, it makes sense to look again at the incentives for farmers and rural businesses. It is important that sustainable farming is able to pay the people who will deliver our public benefits through reformed systems and practices that are more profitable than those which are not. More widely, rural communities must themselves be sustainable, which means providing affordable and attractive housing and maintaining the services on which they depend.
On my frequent visits to different rural communities, I am always struck by the resilience, good humour and positive attitudes of the people who live and work there. I am certain they can make the huge and far-reaching changes that are required, once the right framework has been established, while maintaining the very special character that makes our countryside so special.
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