To spare or to share?

Thu, 04/08/2022 - 20:20pm

I guess many people will be familiar with the debate about how we should produce our food and manage our land in a more sustainable fashion, going forward. To ‘spare’ or to ‘share’? This is not a new subject. I first came across it in David Quammen’s book The Song of the Dodo more than 20 years ago.

Basically, ‘sparing’ is the idea that we intensify food production on the best land, leaving the rest for rewilding. Good for climate change and good for biodiversity. While intensification has potential downsides in terms of pollution and animal and social welfare, with the appropriate use of technology we can minimise these challenges and achieve ‘sustainable intensification’. Probably the logical conclusion for this idea is outlined in George Monbiot’s latest book Regenesis.

The sparing idea certainly seems to be favoured by the agricultural industry, as it ensures that there is ongoing demand for the goods and services currently on offer but tweaked to minimise their downsides. This on-going consumptive model is also seductive to governments who see jobs and growth, generating tax revenues.

‘Sharing’, on the other hand, is about farming in a way that is kinder to the environment, reducing pollution, sequestering carbon and encouraging biodiversity. I have to declare an interest here as, also with good social and animal welfare, this is the way we are farming.

This type of farming is loosely described as ‘regenerative’ and is based on managing natural processes rather than trying to dominate them with technology. As using nature means we don’t buy much stuff, this is not a popular option for our current industry. Nor is it - despite the rhetoric - very popular amongst our politicians.

The accusation made by industry with regard to ‘sharing’ is that by encouraging nature and by trying to harness that natural energy to produce our food, we will reduce food production which in turn will threaten our food security. Not only that but it will make food more expensive, and politicians run a mile at that very suggestion.

So it is with great interest that I read a report this morning of a long-term research project looking at the food production from a large farm practising a regenerative ‘sharing’ approach to farming. The result? Very much in line with what we have found here on our farm. That nature-based farming can be as productive as the industrial model.  

It is so ironic that the very things regenerative farming is accused of by vested interests - things like food insecurity and high costs of production - are now being exposed by recent global events as being more a feature of the industrial model, because of its reliance on bought-in stuff.

But that is not the only flaw in the ‘sparing’ line of argument. For example, we are constantly reassured by agri-tech that the mistakes of the past will not be repeated in our sustainably intensified future. To this end, the industry has recently introduced controlled-release versions of artificial fertilisers and pesticides which, it is claimed, will better meet the needs of crops and reduce the quantities of chemicals required. A win-win for farmers and the environment, we are told.

What we are not told, but is highlighted in this report, is that this technological advance is achieved by the incorporation of micro-plastic into the chemical mix. Not only are we introducing proven toxic chemicals into our environment, but also adding in micro-plastic that enhances their toxic effects.

Surely by now there is sufficient, independent evidence to show that our attempts to produce ‘cheap’ food through the techno-dominance of nature, as required by the ‘sparing’ line of reasoning, is not only flawed but also dangerous and on so many levels.

The growing evidence and our personal experience convince me that by focusing our efforts on ways of harnessing the power of nature, through ‘sharing’, it is perfectly possible to provide adequate amounts of safe, affordable food for all.

David Finlay