Opinion: Good secular breeding ticks the ‘regen ag’ box

I recently returned from what I think is my third or fourth visit to the Groundswell Regenerative Agriculture event, and each year it gets bigger and more impressive.

It’s interesting to see more and more familiar faces from the decidedly ‘conventional’ end of the agricultural spectrum and, with the proposed changes to government support, I can see the interest growing.

It’s great to meet farmers working together to share ideas and some refreshing reps trying to market the whole event.

See also: Find all our Groundswell content in one place

About the Author

Sam Walker

Farmers Weekly Opinion Editor

Sam is a first generation sharecropper who operates a 120ha (300 acre) organic arable and beef farm on the Jurassic Coast of East Devon. He holds a BSc from Harper Adams and his previous jobs have included farm management in Gloucestershire and Cambridgeshire and overseas development work in Papua New Guinea and Zimbabwe. He is a director of FWAG South West and its owners, Clinton Devon Estate, conducted an ELM trial in which he was closely involved, along with other tenants.

Looking around the talks at Groundswell, one finds a kaleidoscope of ideas, and the optimist in me hopes not to spot too many diverse vested interests wondering how to turn it to their advantage.

Even George Monbiot was pretty convincing (well, until he came around to replacing cattle with lab-grown protein).

If you want something different, how about the recent report from the Sustainable Food Trust, Feeding Britain from scratchwhose authors moderated a discussion at Groundswell?

The report calls for a complete restart of our agricultural system, removing most chemical inputs, giving grain to humans, not animals, increasing the production of pulses and vegetables, intensively grazing livestock, and all this while maintaining or even increasing the UK’s self-sufficiency levels in food.

Not only has the war in Ukraine made policy makers wake up to food security, but we also have to fight climate change and one of the largest populations of unhealthy citizens on Earth.

It’s pretty amazing how many global problems a radical overhaul of agricultural policy could solve, and here we have a way to tackle all three problems at once and put the farmer at the center of the solution.

Good food creates less waste. In the UK, 6.7 million tonnes of food are wasted by consumers every year. Most of these foods are overpackaged, nutrient poor, and likely imported.

I bet no one who buys quality produce from the local butcher or farm throws away a third of it.

Very often I go to farmers’ meetings and audience members begin their questions with “people should”, “people should”, “people should”.

Well, we don’t live in a dictatorship, so unless you give them some pretty compelling reasons, people won’t.

Compelling reasons usually revolve around money. Many studies have shown that people go to the supermarket expressing good intentions and walk out with a pile of trash because it’s cheap.

So here’s a thought: why not spend the environmental land stewardship program money that the government seems to be trying to figure out how to use to subsidize good honest local produce?

Give the money to small farms, local growers and ranchers, and use it to ensure we make the best food at an inevitably cheap price.

The health of the nation would improve, the grasslands would become profitable, carbon would be sequestered, and our traditional farms would be maintained.

Perhaps imports would decline too, unable to compete on price, which would do wonders for our food security and the global environment.

Are you all dreaming? Well, for some it’s more of a leap than others.

Many of the regenerative ideas — mixing arable crops and livestock, grazing cover crops, and larger, more diverse rotations — may sound radical, but are mostly age-old good livestock practices.

As the hands turn, perhaps we are “the clock stopped” which indicates the correct time again?

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