Since the Second World War, when the German blockade of Britain threatened to starve the island into submission, policymakers in the highest levels of government have been unable to shake the paranoia of food insecurity. The result is that our ‘green and pleasant land’ about which William Blake waxed lyrical over two centuries ago has been radically transformed. Gone is the rolling, half-wild pastureland featured in any rural painting more than a century old. In its place, featureless fields devoid of wildlife can be found. The legacy of the ‘Dig for Victory’ campaign is that every accessible inch of the English countryside has been ruthlessly subjected to plough, pitchfork and pesticide. Even the mere suggestion of allowing fields to become fallow – a time-honoured agricultural technique that was the keystone of mediaeval farming – is met with derision, as if it were dangerous heresy to suggest relinquishing a single farm’s worth of crop production – despite 15 million tonnes of British food being lost as wastage in 2013 alone. Far from being the lifeline of Britain, industrial agriculture and its consequences have been a disaster for the environment.
The idyllic vision of Britain’s agricultural past is one of traditional farming: lambing gravid ewes before dawn, overturning soil by ox and plough at midday and reaping the final ears of wheat by moonlight, depending on the season. A weekend break outside any major city reveals that this is far from the truth today. How did we get here? The blame largely lies with the Second World War. The harsh rationing policies introduced following the German blockade of Great Britain and the unshakeable feeling of food insecurity that followed led to an acceleration of the industrial conversion of Britain, especially England, into food-producing land, as exemplified by the ‘Dig for Victory’ propaganda campaign. This psychological relic of the war has been strengthened by innovations that serve industrial agriculture, such as artificial fertilisers and heavy machinery, while remaining obstinate in the face of developments that would cause its rollback, namely investigations into the environmental and physiological effects of intensive farming. In short, British agricultural policy has yet to recover from the wartime trauma of food shortage and is suffering from tunnel vision – pursuing industrial farming while remaining blind to alternative, green solutions to feeding the masses, such as tackling food wastage and discouraging overconsumption. The result has been catastrophic for Britain.
Our land is greener – almost neon – as a result of staggering amounts of nitrogen forced into the soil by industrial fertilisers. Genetically-modified crops spring up out of soil saturated with growth hormones within a matter of days. Tropical fruits, previously an exotic luxury for the wealthy, are available all year round thanks to colossal greenhouses.
After a cursory glance at the shelves of a supermarket, you would be forgiven for thinking that British produce has never been more nutritious than it is today. In reality, a large part of the dietary crisis facing Britain today is due to our consumption of malnourished crops. Industrial fertilisers saturate soil with the macronutrients needed by plants – nitrogen and phosphorus, for example – while over-ploughing strips it of the micronutrients – magnesium, calcium, zinc, etc. – that comprise the nutritional value of the crops. Between 1930 and 1980, the nutrient levels of British produce dropped significantly: iron by 22%, calcium by 19% and potassium by 14%. From 1940 to 1991, the mineral content of potatoes plummeted, dropping by 47% for copper, 45% for iron and 35% for calcium. Crops have become so stripped of nutrients that one would have to eat 8 times as many oranges today to get the same nutritional value as one orange grown before the Second World War. In an age when obesity and food wastage are at an all-time high, we should reject mass-produced, low-nutrient foodstuffs in favour of organic, healthy crops grown on a small scale.
Soil Damage and Flooding
Bringing most of the countryside under the plough multiple times a year is feeding into a growing concern for many communities: flooding. Flood defence and reconstruction costs the British economy on average £1.1 billion a year. The compaction of soil and destruction of water-holding environments such as floodplains has greatly reduced the capacity of fields to hold water, leading to flooding whenever heavy rainfall occurs. It also leads to great amounts of soil being eroded and carried into the sea, so much so that, in 2014, Farmer’s Weekly forecast that unless agriculture changes its course, we have only 100 harvests left in Britain before the topsoil is irreparably damaged. Agricultural damage caused by topsoil loss, whether through erosion or depletion, costs the British economy around £1 billion a year. Traditionally, irregular river structures caused by meanders, fallen trees and beaver dams slowed the flow of floodwater once it had entered a river with the effect of gradually releasing it into the sea. This is preferable to the situation today where canalised rivers act as accelerating channels in which floodwater, unhindered by obstructions, reaches dangerous, destructive speeds. For the sake of our villages and our budget, natural river management must be restored and soil must be allowed to return to a healthy, natural state.
Industrial agriculture remains one of the largest contributors to all aspects of pollution in Britain. Livestock farming makes up 5% of the country’s greenhouse gas emissions, largely due to the sheer number of methane-producing animals reared for the meat-heavy diets of 66 million people. Furthermore, intense industrial fertiliser and pesticide usage not only damages the local ecosystem of the farmland but also escapes into the surrounding area through chemical runoff. The issue of pollution is compounded by the over-working of soil, as agro-industrial runoff, failing to penetrate the soil when washed away by rainfall, is carried by rivers to lakes or the sea. Depending on the type of chemicals included in the runoff, a range of detrimental effects can occur, from the poisoning of fish to the dreaded algal bloom, a population explosion of algae caused by eutrophication that ultimately starves the water of all oxygen, suffocating all life within it. The restoration of natural river systems, including riverside plant life and beaver dams, has been shown to greatly reduce the levels of pollution carried by rivers downstream to near-zero. A return to traditional agriculture would be a great boon to the environment and a major step in pursuing green public policy.
Loss of Wilderness and Carbon Sequestration
The biodiversity of the British Isles has been in terminal decline since the introduction of industrial agriculture in the Second World War. Since 1970, the number of insects in Britain, crucial pollinators and links in the food web, has more than halved. The population of almost all species of wildlife has haemorrhaged in the past century as natural habitats are ploughed up, concreted over or brought under misguided ‘management schemes’ that freeze the depleted environments as they are rather than restoring their pre-industrial state. The 2016 State of Nature report ranked Britain as the 29th lowest-scoring country (out of 218) on the biodiversity intactness index, a new model for tracking ecological damage. For all the great work done by Natural England, the National Trust and countless other ecological charities, this decline will not stop so long as 70% of Britain is subjected to industrial agriculture.
Besides the catastrophic loss of biodiversity in Britain, the loss of woodland and scrubland has greatly reduced the carbon sequestration capacity of this island. Carbon sequestration is the process by which atmospheric carbon dioxide is ‘locked’ into plants and thereby removed from the atmosphere. All plants have a certain level of carbon that they can sequester, and areas of mixed plant life have the highest carbon-locking potential. The destruction of hedge lines and traditional fallow-field scrubland has reduced the ability of our landscapes to organically remove greenhouse gases from the air at the moment we need it most. The restoration of vast areas of untampered wildland – the lungs of the Earth – should be a national, and international, priority.
The seemingly insurmountable problem of industrial agriculture can, in fact, be tackled in a number of ways. In an age of hyperconsumerism, citizens vote with their wallets, and a mass-movement away from agro-industrial produce could bring the end of the tragedy. Already, the nascent organic food movement has triggered the introduction of organic ranges at many restaurants and supermarkets, as has the vegan movement. A shift in dietary habits away from excessive meat consumption and from the 15 million tonnes of food waste produced by Britain every year (7 million tonnes of which is household waste) is a way to force agriculture to reconsider its methods that everybody can start with their next meal. Shopping at local stores is another way, as these are more likely to source their produce from small-scale farms. Finally, citizens can join campaigns against overpopulation and the annual inflow of 700,000 individuals from overseas – the source of 80% of Britain’s population growth. Tackling massification in all its forms will bring an end to the nightmare of industrial agriculture.