Sustainable farming: making sure people and nature thrive

Wildflower meadow by Richard Croft on Wikimedia

Across the world, extreme weather is causing devastation as wildfires destroy natural habitats, leaving any surviving animals homeless and hungry. In the UK, raging storms erode coastal cliffs, while inland, rainwater gushes down sheep-grazed hillsides and rivers burst their banks, putting animals and people in danger. Climate change also impacts animals’ migratory, feeding and breeding strategies, in positive ways for some species and negative ways for others. There are various drivers of the climate and nature crises, but one contributor often downplayed is food production.

Factory farming the norm at what cost?  

Farmers in the UK have been moving away from traditional animal husbandry since World War II, subsidised by the Government to increase flocks and herds in the name of food security. US-style mega farms are now common in the UK with 95% of animals slaughtered raised on intensive farms. Such systems not only inflict considerable suffering on farmed animals, but the way we use land for agriculture has significant impacts on nature too.

Paying the price for cheap chicken

Intensive chicken farming is a case in point. For health reasons, people are eating more chicken than red meat in the UK, but this isn’t good news for chickens or the environment. Mega farms confine birds in cramped conditions and fatten them so quickly they collapse under their own weight, suffering burns as they lie in excrement. The demand for cheap chicken also comes at a cost to wildlife. In the Brazilian Cerrado savannah, a biodiversity hotspot, wooded grassland is destroyed to grow soya beans for global markets that fatten indoor-reared chickens, including the UK. Meanwhile, in England, the manure from millions of chickens farmed in the river Wye catchment is spread onto farmland as fertiliser. When it rains heavily, phosphates wash into the Wye, turning once-pristine waters murky and creating algal blooms that risk ecosystem collapse.

Intensive dairy farming cruelty and pollution

Intensive dairy farming, likewise, is a cruel and polluting industry, yet the Agriculture and Horticulture Development Board (AHDB) tells a story of happy, healthy cows on a green and pleasant land. The AHDB’s marketing focuses on the natural way milk is produced, requiring no vitamin B12 supplementation like plant-based milks. Yet intensive dairy production is far from natural. Cows are often artificially impregnated, living a short and exhausting life of constant milk production. Newborn calves are taken from their mothers soon after birth so their milk can be used for human consumption. Not only is the calf denied their mother’s milk, but if the calf is male, he may be slaughtered soon after birth. Male calves are almost worthless in intensive dairy systems.

Keeping high numbers of cows in confined spaces on intensive farms also affects nature due to significant volumes of slurry. If farmers don’t expand their slurry lagoons as herds increase, slurry high in phosphates and nitrates seeps into waterways. As George Monbiot reports in his book Regenesis, with current pollution inspection rates, dairy farms can expect an Environment Agency visit once every 263 years.

Eurasian Curlew by Andreas Trepte on Wikimedia

Impact of modern farming on wild birds

Changes in both land use and farming methods are key factors in wildlife extinction. One species that has suffered significant population declines is the Eurasian Curlew, now on the UK Red List. Between 1994 and 2015, the UK lost half of breeding Curlews due to afforestation, intensive farming practices, climate change, and predators. Cutting fields four times a year for silage to feed livestock has reduced suitable breeding habitat for Curlew in England’s lowlands. Meanwhile, rewilding advocate Eoghan Daltun says sheep afterbirth and pheasant releases have increased the food available to foxes, thereby boosting fox populations and their predation of Curlew eggs and chicks. On farmland with high densities of sheep, eggs are at risk of trampling too. “We need to heal dysfunctional landscapes,” says Daltun.

Intensive crop farming isn’t in the clear either. The State of Nature Report 2023 reveals the following species declines and extinctions in the UK.

Looking at the decline of bird species in particular, a collaborative study suggests that intensive agriculture, the increase in chemical pesticides and fertilisers in particular, is driving bird population declines across the UK and Europe.

Inefficient use of land compounds pollution

Compounding its climate and biodiversity impact, modern farming systems are an inefficient way to produce food. Dairy and meat products provide only 32% of calories consumed in the UK, and 48% of protein, yet livestock and their feed make up 85% of the UK’s total land used for agriculture,” according to the WWF-UK Future of Feed report. It makes no sense to grow crops to feed livestock when crops could feed people directly. For example, the report states that wheat grown each year to feed livestock (mainly chickens and pigs), accounts for half of our annual wheat harvest. Likewise, oats grown to feed livestock makes up a third of our annual oat harvest. “Far too much of the food we eat is produced in ways that are fuelling the climate crisis and driving catastrophic nature loss, yet failing to deliver affordable, healthy food for all,” says Kate Norgrove, WWF-UK Executive Director of Advocacy and Campaigns. 

Intensive farming is not sustainable

Farming systems aren’t ethical or sustainable if they treat animals like objects, destroy forests, pollute waterways, damage soils, and involve excessive greenhouse gas emissions. A recent study in the Nature journal reports that a vastly depleted Amazon rainforest now emits more carbon than it absorbs. The environmental impact assessment of food production also needs to consider greenhouse gas emissions of different foods across the supply chain. Surprisingly, choosing local food isn’t necessarily the most sustainable choice – the type of food matters too.

Ruminant animals such as cows and sheep produce large volumes of methane when they digest food, so cutting carbon dioxide emissions alone won’t solve the climate crisis. According to the latest report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), in the short term, methane has more impact on temperature rises than CO². So, by reducing methane now, we could buy time while we cut CO² emissions to meet the Paris Agreement targets.

Benefits of nature-friendly farming

Modern farming has disrupted nature, but farmers are central to future sustainable food production and nature restoration. The Soil Association wants the Government to support farmers to switch to nature-friendly, higher-welfare systems like agroecology. In the same vein, the RSPB supports farmers in nature-friendly practices based on farming crops profitably at Hope Farm, Cambridgeshire. At RSPB Haweswater in the Lake District, Lee Schofield and his team reduced the number of grazing animals to the level nature can accommodate. In his book Wild Fell, Schofield describes the transformation to support a profusion of wildflowers and wildlife and produce food.

Likewise, on Hill Top Farm in Malham in the Yorkshire Dales, a region where sheep farming is deeply cultural, Neil Heseltine and Leigh Weston reduced their sheep flock. They also faced criticism by introducing hardy belted Galloway cattle. Sheep graze plants to the ground, but cattle pull at clumps of grass, which allows plants to grow. Their land holds more water now, so there is less flooding. And with a single cut of meadows in August, wildflowers have returned, and to their delight, so have nesting Curlew. The farm is no longer reliant on inputs such as supplementary feed, so the changes make economic sense too. “The more we put nature at the forefront of what we did, we realised the profitability of the farm improved as well,” Leigh explains in a Curlew Action webinar, part of a series on Curlew conservation.

Belted Galloway cattle by Joachim Müllerchen on Wikimedia

Sustainable farming in Norfolk and Suffolk

Closer to home for me, farms like Wild Ken Hill, the Holkham Estate and Old Hall Farm in Norfolk and Lodge Farm and Calf at Foot in Suffolk work with nature to produce food. Wild Ken Hill Estate Director Nick Padwick is a Soil Food Web Consultant, one of only 39 worldwide. Rather than leave soil bare after harvesting cash crops, Wild Ken Hill uses cover crops, which improve soil health and water retention, and prevent erosion. They also preserve trees, hedgerows and field margins, providing connected habitat for insects, birds and small mammals to feed, move and nest in safety. The BBC’s seasonal Watches series explored Wild Ken Hill’s habitats rich in wildlife, showing us what has been achieved with a sustainable model of regenerative farming, rewilding, and traditional conservation.

On the Holkham Estate, conservation director Jake Fiennes, author of Land Healer, is an educator and implementer of farming that restores wildlife and produces better food. This ethos also underpins Lodge Farm in Suffolk where the Barker family manages an intensive agricultural farm growing crops on 1300 acres. Featured in the BBC’s Wild Isles, the farm supports 400 species in ponds, hedgerows, margins and wildflower meadows. Minimal ploughing helps to improve soil health, biodiversity, carbon storage and water retention, and the Barkers have reduced pesticide use on the farm too – “Ladybirds are our farm workers.”

In contrast to intensive dairy farms, Calf at Foot Dairy and Old Hall Farm let cows feed in pastures and keep calves with mothers. By making the transition to more ethical and sustainable dairy farming, we can stop the cruelty to cows like Luma. Her daily sacrifice and short life is documented in Cow. Milk production is lower and the purchase price of milk is higher, but the welfare and environmental benefits of these dairy farms put the price focus in perspective.

Raising awareness of sustainable farming

But how can sustainable farming become the norm? In 2023, a coalition launched the Consensus on Food, Farming and Nature, a shared vision of a sustainable, resilient and fair food system that benefits people and the planet. The coalition includes the Nature-Friendly Farming Network, Pasture for Life, Rare Breeds Survival Trust, Soil Association, Wildlife and Countryside Link, RSPB, The Wildlife Trusts, WWF-UK, Woodland Trust and the National Trust.

The Consensus recognises three key points:

  • a healthy natural environment underpins food security
  • as well as producing food, farming has a key role in tackling the nature, climate and health crises
  • diversity in nature, farming and communities will build resilience against climate change and economic challenges.

The Consensus believes strong leadership can deliver this vision by making sure public money rewards public goods; farmers receive a fair return; and land use is strategic. People need support to make healthy and informed choices within a food system that meets high animal welfare, environmental and human health standards across supply chains.

Turtle Dove by Edwyn Anderton on Flickr

So, what can we do as consumers?

While we wait for the UK Government to prioritise nature in policymaking, we have choices as consumers. Whether we go meat- and dairy-free one or two days a week or reduce our meat and dairy consumption across the week, every step takes us closer to the Consensus vision. For those of us opting for a plant-based diet, Plant-Based Health Professionals UK and the NHS websites are useful resources. By choosing sustainably produced meat, dairy, eggs and fish and including more whole-food plant-based meals in our diet, we can reduce our impact on the natural world. Our reward is higher welfare for farmed animals, fair pay and respect for farmers, a healthier environment, and greater diversity in flora and fauna.

Imagine the joy of seeing flocks of Curlew and Turtle Dove breeding in the lowlands again and knowing these birds are no longer on the Red List. And it isn’t just about the recovery of birds we’ve lost. When nature isn’t a focus in farming, we risk losing the birds we see in abundance, like our beloved “Pinkfeet” – just ask Norfolk’s Nick Acheson.

This article was first published in the North East Norfolk Bird Club (NENBC) digital newsletter (September 2023).