A grass-fed message of hope

3 May
Graham Harvey

Graham Harvey (C) Calyx Picture Agency

I feel guilty about coming here with a gloomy talk, said Graham Harvey at the Swindon Festival of Literature.

Gloomy to me means pessimistic, lacking in hope. This talk, however, had a very clear idea of what we could do to fix things. And I hope this account gets all the facts right and does justice to his excellent talk.

The problem, according to Graham, is with modern agriculture. And the answer is to look back at the past. He showed us a Thomas Gainsborough painting, Mr & Mrs Andrews, in an idyllic North Essex setting. Gainsborough would have probably recognised the landscape right up until the 1960s, Graham told us, demonstrating with another picture – this time an aerial photo of the same, unchanged countryside – courtesy of the wartime Luftwaffe. In fact, the countryside hasn’t changed much since at least Roman times.

So what happened?

In a name, nitrate fertiliser.

Before nitrate fertiliser, farms were a mixture of livestock and crops, rotating the two to keep the soil nourished.

The advent of fertiliser must have felt like a miracle – fields no longer had to be rotated as nutrients could be artificially added to the soil. Or so they thought.

With the benefit of over fifty years of hindsight, this is the other side of the story: although crops grow fast, they are more susceptible to disease and pests so then rely on pesticides and weedkiller. Weedkiller is now known to stay in the body, breaking down gut enzymes and damaging our immune system – the breastmilk of American nursing mothers contains three times as much Glapozate as the EU maximum for drinking water. Nitrate fertiliser releases carbon from the soil compared to pasture which adds carbon. Crops have been modified to work better with fertiliser, so farmers are locked into a relationship with a chemical method of growing. Nitrate fertiliser breaks down soil, so in a heavy rain, precious topsoil is washed away. To maximise carbon in the soil and to reduce labour in farming, weedkiller is used to get rid of the last crop rather than till it into the soil. And because crops like wheat are propped up by subsidies because nitrates have created an over abundance, the grain has to be used somewhere…which leads to grain fed to animals rather than grass as nature intended.

Research has shown that pasture-grazing – especially containing wildflowers and plants – creates unique enzymes in meat and dairy not replicated by grain-fed animals, such as conjugated linoleic acid (CLA). These protect our bodies from disease. The action of grazing animals itself puts carbon back into the soil and the plants feed the soil with nutrients. In the good news, some farmers are now trying out generative grazing where the behaviour of American bison are mimicked – closely packed, constantly moving herds. Bison created the carbon-rich grasslands of America before it was turned into the dustbowl of the 1930s by thirty years of crop-planting.

The relationship between the land and animals, including human animals, are infinitely complex and so, Graham said, “A focus on narrow technologies will end in disaster.”

A farmer approached Graham and told him (anonymously as he didn’t want his neighbours to think ‘I’d gone over to the other side’) that he’d replaced nitrate fertiliser with a natural compost tea – and witnessed amazing results, with the soil ‘sequestering carbon at a rate far higher than the scientists say is possible’.

Eat less but better quality, grass-fed organic meat and dairy, says Graham, instead of ‘meat which gives us heart attacks’.

And if we went back to traditional farming methods, he said, this alone could put back climate change-causing carbon emissions to pre-industrial revolution records.

Which to my mind isn’t gloomy at all, but a message of hope.

Graham Harvey appeared at Swindon Festival of Literature, 3rd May, with his book, Grass-Fed Nation: getting back the food we deserve.

Chronicle written by Louisa Davison.

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