Activist teenager Greta Thunberg scolded heads of state last month at a United Nations Summit in New York for failing to confront climate change: “How dare you!” Now she’s taking her show across the United States, including a stop last Friday in Iowa, in the heart of America’s farm country.
Climate change is at long last getting the attention it deserves. Agriculture, however, is getting attention it doesn’t.
I run an agri-business in the UK. To the layperson, “agri-business” conjures up an image of fields the size of Wales farmed with little regard for the environment.
Yet “agri-business” is just another term for a farm, and I am a farmer. I practice regenerative agriculture: growing crops, focusing on the soil’s health, managing habitats for biodiversity, and running diversified enterprises to supplement our farm income.
Farmers care about climate change as much as anybody, if not more. The climate affects our lives and businesses directly.
We can’t ignore the size of the challenge. Farmers are custodians over nearly half of the world’s landmass. On such a vast scale, incremental changes that reduce greenhouse-gas emissions can make a big difference.
Our farm operates on a zero-carbon basis. We do it through a commitment to conservation (regenerative) agriculture. This means we store carbon in the soil through no-till and cover cropping, improving the habitats and biology of our farm. In five years, we have reduced fuel use by sixty percent, halved fungicide use, and quit insecticides entirely.
So why isn’t everyone practicing regenerative agriculture? For three reasons: Most people resist change, including farmers; crop yields will take a knock in the first couple of years of transition; and finally, the threat to glyphosate.
On my farm, glyphosate helps me embrace the environmental responsibilities that I so passionately promote. Once per year, we use glyphosate to remove the cover crop, into which we then sow the cash crop. If we weren’t able to use glyphosate, we would have to abandon conservation agriculture, return to ploughing the soil and ultimately release carbon the soil has stored.
Recently, I attended a couple of contrasting events in Europe on climate change: an awards ceremony for sustainable development and a food policy summit in Paris.
The first event I attended spoke to the importance of change. It was an awards ceremony for a large UK house builder, which received a prestigious Queens Award for Sustainable Development for becoming a net-zero carbon business.
On receiving the award, the chief executive proudly spoke about his father, who in 1979 made a commitment to sustainable practices. Today, this construction company has whole departments devoted to this plan.
I joked with the chief executive that British farmers have an expression: “It’s harder to farm green if you’re farming in the red.” He agreed. I need to be environmentally and economically sustainable.
His mention of 1979 got me thinking. I had been analyzing our family business archives recently. Two figures jumped out: the price of wheat and the cost of houses.
In 1979, my father sold a three-bedroom semi-detached cottage next to our farm. The sale price was £4000. That same year, he sold his wheat harvest for £115 per ton.
Today, forty years later, that same cottage is on the market for £650,000—a value 160 times what it was in 1979. My 2019 wheat is worth £125 per ton, a fifth of the 1979 price in real terms.
So when environmentalists charge farmers with polluting and deforesting the globe in a quest for what Thunberg calls “eternal economic growth,” we must pause.
There is a dangerously myopic parallax at play. Blame for climate change is being exacerbated by the demands of our food system; changing diets, growing demand, undervalued farm gate prices, extravagant wasting of food, and powerful groups that are unaccountable for the outcomes of their lobbying. We all contribute.
The food policy discussions in Paris focused on sustainable development in the EU’s future Common Agricultural Policy. This may no longer be directly relevant to farmers in the UK when we leave Europe, but it will affect our trade policies and the setting of universally acceptable food and farm standards.
An arbitrage in costs has led to the migration of environmental abuse. The world’s demand for cheaper yet more plentiful food has sniffed out any opportunity to lower the cost base with a disregard of the impact. Many countries are happy to export their environmental responsibilities. Importing food produced to standards below those demanded of their own farmers.
We have all had a part to play, be it buying a cheap burger, strawberries out of season, or potatoes from a faraway land—choices that we make without knowledge and guilt have a huge impact on the environment.
In an effort to clear their consciences, some are denouncing such choices. If only it were that straightforward.
Farmers are not the evil. Nor are they without fault. They do however hold the key to addressing climate change.
Why is this relevant? The world recognizes that it needs to address climate change. The villains of the piece are being over simplified. To say all red-meat production exacerbates climate change and plant-based diets are much better for the environment is no more accurate than suggesting all politicians are narcissists. This is a binary conclusion to a multidimensional conundrum.
World leaders—as well as Greta Thunberg, her sponsors and her admirers—must understand that agriculture is a rook on the chessboard of climate change, not a pawn to blame.