Green Green Grass

In an article published yesterday in the British daily The Guardian, acclaimed journalist and author Graham Harvey urges the UK Government to critically assess the consequences of having the cost of food so ‘bound up with commodity movements’ and to encourage sustainable mixed-use farming.

Reflecting on changing agricultural practices in the UK from the post-war period up to today – from a time when grains like barley and wheat were cultivated in rotations that required two or three years of grass – Harvey describes how an entire system once powered by grass has now been wiped out by industrial agribusiness. He states: ‘Our food supply is now more dependent on globally traded grains than at any time in our history. This makes it inherently unstable and vulnerable to the kind of catastrophic meltdown that threatened the banking industry’.

Looking back to the time of prime minister Winston Churchill, who called on farmers in the UK to raise domestic food production after the second world war, Harvey also speaks of the present dependency of a grain-based system on public subsidies – with British farmers receiving 2.7 billion pounds (1.3 billion dollars) – and oil, with increased use of diesel thirsty machinery and the application of fertilizers.

‘Wartime farming was powered not by fossil fuels but by the sun, and at the heart of Britain’s food production was grassland,’ writes Harvey. ‘Most of Britain’s food animals were raised on it – cattle, sheep, poultry and pigs in a genuinely sustainable production model. Grasslands do not need chemical fertilizers or pesticides, particularly when they contain nitrogen-fixing clovers and deep-rooting herbs to tap soil mineral reserves. Supplemented by cereals and root crops, pastures produced most of our beef, lamb, pork, dairy, eggs and poultry for little more than the cost of the farmer’s labor’.

Harvey sees hope in the revival of the British countryside and the ‘sustainable mixed farming’ of the 1960s where ‘the food output per acre from a well-run mixed farm was often higher than today’s intensive chemical operation’. Greater pastures for farming could greatly increase soil fertility, aid biodiversity, improve yields, decrease chemical and oil dependency and raise homegrown food production. Increased grasslands would also absorb larger quantities of carbon released into the atmosphere from intensive agriculture and thus assist the combat against climate change.

Harvey’s article recalls American academic and journalist Michael Pollan’s recent open letter to the President Elect in the New York Times, in which he placed great emphasis on the urgent need to transform the fossil-fuel based US agricultural system, stating that: ‘This state of affairs appears all the more absurd when you recall that every calorie we eat is ultimately the product of photosynthesis — a process based on making food energy from sunshine. There is hope and possibility in that simple fact’. (See Slow Food News Archive)

On this same note, newly elected President of the United States, Barack Obama, did in fact acknowledge Pollan’s article in a recent interview with Time Magazine’s Joe Klein, saying, ‘I was just reading an article in the New York Times by Michael Pollen about food and the fact that our entire agricultural system is built on cheap oil. As a consequence, our agriculture sector actually is contributing more greenhouse gases than our transportation sector. And in the mean time, it’s creating monocultures that are vulnerable to national security threats, are now vulnerable to sky-high food prices or crashes in food prices, huge swings in commodity prices, and are partly responsible for the explosion in our healthcare costs because they’re contributing to type 2 diabetes, stroke and heart disease, obesity, all the things that are driving our huge explosion in healthcare costs’.

The Guardian

Michael Pollan in The New York Times

Time Magazine – Joe Klein interviews Barack Obama

Victoria Blackshaw

[email protected]

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