I sold the rights to my songs to buy a farm – now I’m trying to change food production Andy Cato

oh15 years ago when I came back from a gig I read an article about the environmental consequences of food production. “If you don’t like the system, don’t rely on it,” he concluded, a thought-provoking read. In search of self-sufficiency, I was inspired to turn our garden in France into a vegetable patch. This quickly escalated, and I started selling the rights to my songs with Groove Armada to buy a farm nearby. After 12 years of hard knocks at agricultural school, what we learned there is now being applied to a National Trust farm near Swindon, where we were awarded a tenancy last year.

Back in France, during the heat wave last month, the effect on the landscape was devastating. Crops sown in the fall, after very little rain and endless sunshine, are not worth harvesting for many. Looking out over the parched valley, obscured by the wildfire smoke rising from the coast, I made a pitch to some of my farmer friends about planting olive trees to combat the increasingly intense, dry heat. One replied that there was actually a meeting that night about creating a collection of Gascon olive oil. Climate change over the past decade has been dramatic. Farmers feel the results immediately; We work without a pipe.

Post-war agricultural activities played a significant role in getting us here. Soil is by far the largest store of carbon on Earth outside of the oceans – holding more than all the world’s vegetation and forests combined. Since agriculture began, soil has lost 8% of its carbon, which accounts for up to 20% of man-made carbon emissions. Soil carbon is critical for water retention. According to the US Department of Agriculture, this carbon loss can be translated into losses 800,000 liters per hectare reservoir. This makes crops vulnerable to drought and increases the risk of flooding downstream. The loss of biodiversity, so often seen on our error-free windscreens and recorded in the endless graphs of insects, birds and all forms of life, is no less a crisis than a changing climate. It is inevitable that it will be linked to agriculture as agriculture covers 71% of the UK’s land.

Done differently, agriculture has the potential to store carbon, house diverse wildlife, and provide sufficient, nutritious food. However, since the mid-20th century, Western policy has been pushing farmers in the opposite direction. Government-sponsored research, education, and subsidies have been used to drive chemically enhanced production on ever-larger scales. Nixon’s secretary of agriculture, Earl Boots, the most famous spokesman for short-term production, ordered farmers to “get big or get out.”

To maximize production efficiency, the agricultural landscape is uniform, with single crops in fields, areas, and even regions. A single plant species in a large area is something that cannot be found in nature because it is not compatible with a healthy ecosystem. Thus, nature’s efforts to promote diversity require the constant removal of weeds and unhealthy plant growth, killing insects. In the year In 1943, Albert Howard, the father of what is now called “reform” agriculture, wrote, “The appearance of the pest should be considered as a warning to Mother Earth to put our house in order.”

Collecting our food from ecosystems can be likened to extracting wood from a hilly forest. We have two choices. Our current preference is for short-term harvesting, reforestation and erosion of exposed soil by rainfall. Another option is to maintain the integrity of the forest and manage the wood for the long term. This not only preserves more crops in time, but also the habitat we depend on. Farming within the limits of nature may yield less in one year, but it can do so indefinitely. The products should be considered in the long term. With one-third of food wasted in the Western world due to the epidemic of diet-related diseases, questions of production often serve to obscure real questions about food quality and distribution.

In the first 10,000 years of agriculture, people produced food from polycultures, different groups of plants, almost for that time. Modern monoculture is a rare thing. Around the world, innovative farmers are finding ways to bring diversity back to our farms. Plant diversity means habitat diversity that allows wildlife to thrive. Different plant families growing together feed on different soil life. Rich soil communities feed and protect plants, meaning we don’t need to spray our food with toxic chemicals. The soil covered in plant diversity is an efficient solar panel, better at using the sun’s energy to absorb carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and into the soil.

No new technology is needed to harness the benefits of biodiversity to grow our food using nature’s regenerative biology than today’s destructive chemistry. So why isn’t it happening everywhere?

The unrelenting pressure on farmers has left many in dire financial straits. As a result, there is an understandable aversion to new agricultural ideas that come with perceived risk. Logistically, our storage and distribution infrastructure is designed around monoculture. Culturally, the beauty of what a “successful” farm field looks like runs deep—perfect rows of one type of plant, and nothing else.

It is unrealistic to expect that those same structures will organize a new narrative among peasants and citizens as quickly as possible, after governments have long recorded the history of starvation without a chemical monopoly. So it’s up to us to create field-to-table networks where citizens can support growing farmers in ways that renew landscapes through their food choices. This has been my focus for the past 10 years on our farm in France and more recently in helping to bring about change at scale.

Today’s food prices are not real prices. It will pass on its high environmental, health and social costs to future generations. Despite these costs, oil-based agriculture means increased food prices and soil depletion means reduced abundance. The labor efficiency of a single farmer presiding over thousands of hectares of monocultures hides high energy inefficiencies. The combination of fertilizers, sprayers, and machinery means that approximately 10 to 15 calories of fossil fuel energy are used to create 1 calorie of food in the United States. Affordable, nutritious food needs to be grown in a way that mimics natural systems, restores soil, and uses very few inputs.

We fed the eternal optimism of the farmer. For that indomitable spirit to endure in these rapidly changing times, we must do all we can to design our food systems around diversity, nature’s fundamental principle of health and resilience. Instead of despairing, let’s use this summer’s vision of dystopia to inspire action. We know all we need to know. There is no reason to delay.

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