We Must Return Once Again to Farming with the Grain of Nature; Historically, Habitats of the Greatest Value for Wildlife Were Largely the By-Product of Farming Decisions. but Nature Conservation Has since Become Separated from Farming. Patrick Holden Argues That This Is Unhealthy, and Calls for a Sustainable Approach to Farming That Can Deliver Both Food and Nature
Byline: Patrick Holden
WHEN current Foreign Secretary David Miliband, below, was still Secretary of State for Defra in 2005 he referred to organic food as a "lifestyle choice'.
In doing so he unwittingly drew attention to a major misunderstanding about the benefits of organic farming, particularly in relation to the environment.
If there is one simple point that I want to make in this article, it is that the best way to promote wildlife is to change the way you farm.
I should know, because I first started farming organically back in 1973, long before there was any structured market for organic food, or even standards for livestock.
When we arrived at Bwlchwernen Fawr, Llangybi, the motive was environmental sustainability.
From the beginning, our objective was to farm organically - that is, sustainably - and avoid the use of chemical fertilisers and pesticides and during the last 36 years we have stuck to these principles.
At the time there was no government grant or other public purse inducements. So we had to compete against neighbours who were pouring on fertiliser and selling commodity milk to the MMB at guaranteed prices.
It soon became apparent with our 30 relatively low-yielding Ayrshire cows that, financially speaking, we were handicapped and that we would need to increase our returns if we were going to survive.
And so it came to pass that around 100 of this new generation of organic farmers and growers got together and decided to build the market for organic food.
Our idea was that if we wrote down a prescription of sustainable farming practice and took our story to the consumer they would support us for the environmental benefits in the marketplace.
I was one of a small group of producers who wrote the early drafts of the organic livestock standards that have now found their way into the UK, EU and international standards framework.
Everyone is now aware of the success story of the organic market.
The rise in the demand has changed the landscape for food producers, opening up opportunities to experiment and to sell directly to the public.
It has released a wave of enterprise within the farming community, and built a powerful bridge between producer and consumer. It is a step on the road to restoring the historic link between nature and farming.
But the underlying problem is that industrialisation of agriculture has separated food production from environmental protection. Once it became apparent that these practices, based on large applications of nitrogen fertilisers to stimulate plant growth and the suppression of weeds, pest and diseases with a range of pesticides, had a devastating effect on wildlife diversity it became necessary to invent the concept of stewardship payments. A whole raft of nature conservation schemes under the EU umbrella of agri-environment programmes, and currently available in Wales through the Tir Gofal and Tir Cynnal schemes - to be swept up in the new Glastir scheme - offer farmers inducements to farm less intensively or to isolate specific areas for nature conservation.
But all they have managed to do, over more than 40 years, is mitigate the damage done by most conventional farming on the land outside these protected areas.
Even in programmes like Tir Gofal there is still a separation between fields where there are more draconian restrictions on agricultural practice and those where fertilisers, silage making and normal unrestricted farming operations are permitted. …