It’s no secret that our current food system is driving climate change, biodiversity loss and poor health. Our food is grown at a cost; modern agriculture is contributing to over 25 per cent of global carbon emissions as well as causing significant deforestation and biodiversity loss. Food is also a major contributor to the chronic disease epidemic. How have we allowed something as fundamental to life as food, to be one of the main drivers of so many of our problems?
Because of the intensive use of fossil fuels, nitrogen and pesticide inputs, food production, distribution, retail, and consumption are causing significant damage to the environment, climate, biodiversity and public health. Consumers are unwittingly driving this damage as well as paying for the reparations in hidden ways such as environmental clean-up costs relating to flooding, subsidising unhealthy agricultural practices and through the cost of diet-related diseases. Out of every £1 spent on food there is an extra £1 on-cost to society.
For all businesses and consumers who care about a sustainable and organic food system, urgent reform to an injustice is now imperative. As we ramp up to COP26 can leaders make the tough choices that are needed to make a better diet for us and the planet? Whilst it’s important that we as individuals do what we can, this is an existential problem that needs system-wide change.
Farmers and suppliers are currently penalised for healthy and sustainable food production. It is legislative insanity to have to pay a fee to prove you are farming sustainably and not using chemical inputs. In the EU, for example, organic farmers must pay for certification to ensure that their production systems do not harm the environment, human health, plant health or animal health and welfare.
The use of chemical inputs and farming subsidies results in less nutritious food and keeps it artificially cheap acting as a barrier for sustainably grown nutritious food to compete. Remember your £1 loaf of bread actually costs £2. This makes the price of healthy foods appear relatively expensive.
As business owners and consumers, we need to champion the value and quality of our food, not celebrate how cheaply we can mass produce it in a way that is harmful to our environment and people’s health. Governments need to legislate so businesses act with integrity and consumers are guaranteed healthy food.
Reward sustainable farming
Farmers must be rewarded properly for growing ‘good’ food with polluters paying the cost of their environmental damage through taxes or subsidies designed to encourage or discourage farming methods according to their true cost to the planet.
Take nitrogen; this gas is currently released into the atmosphere at four times greater than the planet can digest. The European Nitrogen Assessment estimates that collectively, the costs of nitrogen-related damages are €320bn, or up to €750 per person per year throughout the EU, about two-thirds of which relates to agriculture. The over-use of nitrogen is the steroid drug of the agricultural world that all farming is addicted to, with deleterious long-term effects on both planetary and human health. Concentrated nitrogen encourages the mass volume of the food but not the nutrient density, forces a need for pesticides and spiralling unsustainability.
To limit these damages, governments of the world must introduce a nitrogen tax, penalising the polluter rather than allowing, as currently, organisations to offset their pollution in shadow taxes. Farmers and producers growing more healthy, sustainable food can then be incentivised, reforms which will benefit people and planetary health without damaging commercial opportunity.
The need for organic agriculture
The ‘public reward for public goods’ intent in the UK is a step to positive farming but it’s nowhere near as ambitious as the EU target of 25 per cent of agricultural land being organic by 2030. COP26 stands as an opportunity to accelerate this and there is growing evidence for the ecosystem-wide benefits of organic farming.
Recent scientific reviews and meta-studies find that organic farms deliver more wildlife, healthier soils, climate mitigation, clean water, lower pesticide use, lower antibiotic use, more jobs and better food security. Organic is a ‘whole system’ approach to farming and food production that recognises the close interrelationships between all parts of the production system from the belly of the soil to the belly of the eater.
The meme that population increase necessitates the intensification of agriculture to mass produce cheap food is wrong. The recent ‘Ten Years For Agro-Ecology’ IDDR study carried out in France, shows that the EU can be 100 per cent organic/agro-ecological and, with some savings on food waste, grow enough food for the EU and reduce carbon emissions by 47 per cent. The current agricultural model is 50 years out of date – taking us in the wrong direction. We should be utilising traditional techniques – now coined regenerative – to build soil organic matter and improve soil health to increase the resilience of our farmland and ecosystems.
The last few years, we have seen the direct impact of climate change on our value chain. For example, last year abnormally heavy summer rains in Turkey caused a devastating crop loss at our fennel farm so we set up a three-year pilot project, working closely with the farmers, to grow a crop of clover under the sweet fennel plants. This naturally prevents weeds from germinating during wetter seasons and improves soil health as well as carbon retention. As a business, there are many simple yet effective ways to build and nurture relationships with farmers and suppliers to help navigate the effects of the climate crisis.
The conflicting pressures on the food system and the extent of poor health outcomes only highlights the need for government leadership to take immediate action and implement a coherent food policy which acts across the food system.
With so many people working hard in organisations driving change, from the Soil Association, IFOAM Sustainable Food Trust, Land Workers Alliance, and La Via Campesina, I have hope. The quicker we can get to a mind-set where climate, biodiversity and health are one, where the environmental, food and health movements work together, the better.
Sebastian Pole, is co-founder and practicing herbalist at Pukka Herbs.