Historically, farming has shaped much of the British countryside, contributed to its beauty and provided a unique way of life in rural areas. Unfortunately, by using pesticides, artificial fertilisers and other intensive farming techniques, industrialised agriculture in this country and across the world is damaging our life support systems – the water, soil, wildlife and climate we need to continue to feed ourselves.
The UK, like most countries in the world, is not only losing significant quantities of soil but also not taking proper care of its quality. This has been acknowledged by government but many independent organisations are concerned that the problem is not being adequately tackled. The Soil Association www.soilassociation.org is among those organisations. Indeed it was founded in 1946 on the principle that healthy soil is the foundation for healthy plants and animals and, in turn, healthy human beings. Today, it puts those principles into practice as the largest organisation certifying and supporting organic farming and food in the UK.
Birds, bees, butterflies and other wildlife – and the wildflower meadows and hedgerows and other habitat they need - are not only an integral part of the attractiveness of our countryside, but are also vital indicators of the health of complex systems that allow us to produce food. The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds www.rspb.org.uk/ourwork/farming works with farmers and government to help reduce the decline in farmland wildlife caused by industrial farming systems and promote a more sustainable approach to farming in the UK. By managing their own land, including an arable farm they have shown that it’s possible to benefit wildlife and run a viable farm.
As well as producing our food in unsustainable ways, we are also transporting it over long distances. This not only uses energy in transport, storage, and building roads and other infrastructure, but also further stretches our long and complicated food chains, reducing our self-reliance and cutting us off from the seasonal rhythms of our farming climate.
It is now widely agreed that numbers of bees, and some other essential pollinators of our crops, are declining alarmingly throughout the world. Pesticides are thought to be one of the reasons for this and are hence the subject of campaigns to reduce pesticide use, such as those run by Friends of the Earth, Pesticides Action Network UK, and the Soil Association.
The vitality of our honey bee populations is critical, so every step we can take to creating better forage – plants they need to feed themselves - will also help all other pollinators such as butterflies. The crisis of the bees is our crisis, and an urgent reminder that we rely on nature.
The Natural Beekeeping Trust’s sustainable beekeeping courses are orientated exclusively to meet the needs of the bees and it has introduced the ‘sun hive’ - a quintessential hive for bees.
What we can do
Buy local and seasonal
This is harder than it sounds, because there are no legal definitions of ‘local’ or ‘seasonal’ and these terms are often used misleadingly. It is easier than it used to be though, with the growing range of farmers’ markets and other outlets available (see Growing our own, and buying the rest from a wide range of outlets). As one report noted, "Seasonal food can offer better taste and be more affordable, while local food can provide freshness, reduce food miles, offer benefits to local farmers and communities and help reconnect consumers with where their food comes from."
One of the best seasonality charts around is published by the Children’s Food Trust.
http://eatseasonably.co.uk offers information on what’s in season each month and how to make the best of it with top tips and recipes.
Arguably one of the best ways to have confidence in the environmental quality of the food we buy is to get to know personally the farmers that supply our food, and find out about the methods they use and the standards they work to. Some small farms, for example, operate to high standards but cannot afford the time or money needed to join an official accreditation scheme. In many places it is getting easier to have this personal contact as farmers’ markets are bringing the producers closer to our homes. See also the section Growing our own, and buying the rest from a wide range of outlets, where we look at local shops, pubs, markets and so on.
Buy from trusted schemes
However, we realise that getting to know your local farmer is not a practical option for most of us. In the absence of direct links, make sure that you buy food accredited to a recognised standard, such as one of the schemes listed below. Many consider organic food to be the most environmentally benign form of farming, with the LEAF (Linking Environment and Farming) scheme assuring some environmental benefits. Organic and LEAF Marque accreditation is clearly marked on food packaging and/or on signs at farms, and accredited producers will be able to provide a copy of a valid certificate. Other schemes, such as Assured Food Standards (the ‘Red Tractor’), guarantee that food has been produced to UK legal minimum standards, or higher in some cases.
Organic. These standards require farmers to protect the environment, primarily by severely restricting the use of pesticides, and avoiding using artificial fertilisers. Instead, organic farmers rely on developing a healthy, fertile soil and growing a mixture of crops. Studies of organic farming systems show less environmental damage and a greater amount and variety of wildlife than conventional systems. Certified organic farmers must also operate to high standards of animal welfare. There is a range of organic inspection and certification bodies, of which the Soil Association is the largest. The word organic is defined by law, and all certifying bodies must comply with European organic regulations. Some certifying bodies, including the Soil Association, have higher standards than these. Buying seasonal and local organic food brings even greater benefits.
The Soil Association’s definitive annual Organic Market Report shows that organic food and drink sales in the UK nudged the £2 billion mark for the first time in 2006, and even in 2011- after several years of recession – eight out of ten households bought some organic produce.
LEAF (Linking Environment and Farming). This scheme requires farmers to audit their production systems and examine soil management, fertility, pesticide use, and pollution control and management62. It encourages farms to have an ‘integrated farm management system’, to reduce farming’s impact on the environment, and member farmers can use the LEAF Marque on their products. This is not a scheme defined in law.
Assured Food Standards (AFS). This is an umbrella body for various different crop and meat assurance schemes. Standards require farmers to comply with UK laws about the environment, food safety and how animals are treated, and occasionally other steps that take them above this legal minimum. Member farmers can use the Red Tractor logo. Like LEAF Marque, AFS standards are not defined in law.
Other schemes encouraging improved environmental performance include the ‘Entry Level Scheme’ (ELS), and the ‘Higher Level Scheme’ (HLS), which are government-run schemes known as ‘agri-environment schemes’. These provide government funding to farmers to implement environmental management on their land and these schemes do not have logos, so you are unlikely to see this description on a label, but you might find it on a farm’s website.
Breast is best
The most local and environmentally friendly food in the world – if you are a baby! – is breast milk. It is designed to meet the specific nutritional needs of babies, comes with no packaging, and requires no transport. A breastfed child is less likely to suffer from digestive disorders, respiratory and ear infections, diabetes, allergies and other illnesses. Breastfeeding also provides health benefits to the mother, such as reduced risk of some cancers.
That is why an international marketing code was introduced in 1981 to regulate the marketing of breastmilk substitutes (commercial baby products made from milk from animals) and protect breastfeeding. Unfortunately, some companies continue to violate the code so there is a global movement to try to stop this. In the UK the movement is co-ordinated by the campaign group Baby Milk Action – you can help them here http://info.babymilkaction.org.
Ask businesses and policy makers to take action
Government should spend all of the money it uses to buy meals for public sector institutions – such as schools, hospitals and care homes - on local, seasonal and sustainable food that is nutritious and also accredited to have been produced to higher environmental and ethical standards.
- You can help make this happen, starting in hospitals, by supporting the Campaign for Better Hospital Food www.hospitalfood.org.uk.
- You can also help to ensure that all children get good food in schools by supporting the Children’s Food Campaign www.childrensfood.org.uk.
Food Matters, a not for profit company supporting individuals and organisations working towards more sustainable, equitable food systems, has done some pioneering work with their local authority in Brighton to integrate food into the local planning system http://foodmatters.org/.
- You might want to suggest that your local authority does something similar. A good way to help persuade them is to create your own local food map. See the Mapping Local Food Webs toolkit and reports, produced by Food Matters and the Campaign to Protect Rural England.
As well as the organisations mentioned above:
- The Bio-Dynamic Agricultural Association www.biodynamic.org.uk promotes a whole farm approach that seeks to manage the soils, crops, and animals on a farm in such a way that the enterprises on a farm strengthen and support each other. Food produced to this standard is fully organic and carries the ‘Demeter’ label.
- The Campaign for Real Farming www.campaignforrealfarming.org runs the annual Oxford Real Farming conference and other activities to promote ‘Enlightened Agriculture’, including establishing a college.
- Common Ground www.commonground.org.uk uniquely links nature, culture and the arts, inspiring celebrations – such as the annual Apple Day www.england-in-particular.info/cg/appleday - as a way for people to improve the quality of everyday places.
- Commonwork Land Trust works for sustainability through education and enterprise, including on their pioneering 500-acre farm at Bore Place in Kent www.commonwork.org
- Farm www.farm.org.uk exists to bring together farmers, consumers and environmentalists to fight for a common, sustainable future for farming in the UK.
- The Scottish Crofting Federation http://crofting.org is the largest association of small-scale food producers in the UK, and their work safeguards and promotes the rights, livelihoods and culture of crofters and their communities.
- Slow Food UK www.slowfood.org.uk works for food which is good, clean and fair and promote the greater enjoyment of food through a better understanding of its taste, quality and production.
- The Land is Ours www.tlio.org.uk campaigns for people to have access to the land, its resources, and the decision-making processes affecting them.