Around 35 years ago, I set out to show it was viable to adopt a sustainable approach to farming, so that we could produce nutritious food without destroying the soil that grows it. Year after year I had watched with increasing concern as many of this country’s precious landscapes were slowly diminished in the name of “efficiency”. Such has been the damage to the natural systems we depend upon, we must achieve profound and rapid change to reverse it. We must put Nature back at the heart of the equation.
With roughly half of all the habitable land on Earth used for agriculture, I cannot think of a sector more central to the survival of the planet. How we produce food has a direct impact on the Earth’s capacity to sustain us, which has a direct impact on human health and economic prosperity. As we profit from Nature, so Nature must profit from us. But our current approach will lead to a dead end, no matter how cost-effective intensive food production appears to be.
I say “appears to be” because the way we manage our balance sheets still excludes so many hidden costs - damage to soils and major watercourses; emissions that add to global warming; and the social and economic cost to local communities. The fact these costs are hidden encourages us to ignore them. For example, our current approach is forcing many small family farms to the wall. If they go, it will quite simply rip the heart out of the British countryside and break the backbone of Britain’s rural communities. So, if we want to have food that is healthy and produced in a sustainable way, we must support a diversity of farms and help them make the profound and rapid change that the crisis demands.
Not a great deal has changed in the last 35 years, but I am increasingly confident we can achieve the transition, particularly when I meet the next generation. I recently opened a new centre for farm and food education in the Cotswolds. As I walked the fields it became clear there are many farmers who have identified how we can now produce healthy food in a viable way. My hosts spoke of cattle on permanent pasture; natural flood management schemes and the importance of building soil fertility – not just so it grows healthy food, but because it captures carbon. This is of vital importance. If we regenerate degraded soils around the world, we could capture as much as 70% of the world’s carbon emissions. So, you see, farming can play a big part in protecting the planet.
From field to fork, extraordinary work is being done to try and build a better food system for everyone, be it Jamie Oliver promoting education and a balanced diet, Henry Dimbleby’s ambitions for safe, healthy and affordable food, or Marcus Rashford whose mission off the football field is to tackle child hunger.
There is also a great economic opportunity here. This is precisely why, at the beginning of 2020, I launched my Sustainable Markets Initiative, aiming to put private sector investors together with the many innovative and sustainable approaches that now exist. The food production sector is ripe with such incredible investment opportunities.
To accelerate this, I published the Terra Carta – a roadmap of principles for Nature, People and Planet and a means of kitemarking best practice in genuine sustainability. It makes clear that our food production must recognise that the soil and biodiversity are the planet’s most important renewable resources. And I am hoping that this will all be an important focus at Cop 26, the big U.N. Conference in Glasgow this November.
Put simply, we all need the conference to succeed. The security of Nature’s entire life-support system is banking on it. Only by benefitting Nature can we benefit People. And that will ensure the future of our living Planet.