A brew of chemical fertilisers, sewage and other pollutants is costing lives and money as it splashes over our environment and our dinner plates.  Jyoti Banerjee and Arnav Jain offer food for collaborative thought.

The global financial crisis was still three years away, but in 2005 a financial pall was already hanging over Bradwell Grove Estate in the Cotswolds. Rising oil prices – affecting in particular chemical fertiliser, had rocketed while crop prices stayed low. Manager of the 3500-acre farm, Charles Hunter-Smart, found that “revenues were not covering high running costs,” largely due to the substantial cost of the chemicals used to drive crop productivity.

Making a financial loss was not the full story. Bradwell Grove’s use of chemicals had depleted the land and its biodiversity. Hunter-Smart felt the immense pressure of failure; one of the factors behind the rising sickness and mental health issues among farmers across the land. A neighbouring farm’s shift to organic farming inspired Charles to do the same.

But a question of uncertainty loomed over Hunter-Smart then, as it still does for many farmers today; can a farm survive on organic’s lower yields? In the past 15 years, Bradwell Grove has made higher margins under a chemical-free organic approach than a conventional one. Its organic soil content is on the up. And the biodiverse farm has proved to be an excellent home for nesting corn buntings, grey partridges and a dozen other red-listed species. “You could say we shifted from chemistry to biology,” according to Hunter-Smart.

Bradwell Grove has made higher margins under a chemical-free organic approach than a conventional one.

However, perhaps the subject every farmer needs to get a grip on is neither chemistry nor biology, but economics. Wales-based pioneer in organic farming, Patrick Holden, explains the farming problem: “We have never paid the true price for food. Farmers have been remunerated for food, and the traditional assumption is that they would take care of the environment as part of the deal.”

But that was never true. The price farmers received had to be supplemented by a subsidy, without which conventional farming would have collapsed. Market prices plus subsidies failed to incentivise farmers to use environmentally-friendly methods. The food system’s social and wellbeing costs rarely, if ever, got a look-in.

Post-Brexit, the subsidy scheme is in complete flux. The phasing-out of basic payments means that some farmers are facing a 70% reduction in their incomes. According to water expert at Mott MacDonald, Brendan Bromwich, “in places like Cumbria and the Yorkshire Dales, farmers are seeing the writing on the wall in terms of their incomes, so they are increasing the stocking rates of sheep.” This is very unhelpful in terms of carrying capacity of the land, but farmers facing declining incomes feel that they have no choice.

Water: deeper into the dilemma
In 2021 The Guardian reported government data that revealed farming to be the most significant source of water pollution in the UK – accounting for 25% of phosphate, 50% of nitrate and 75% of sediment loadings in the water environment. And industries’ impacts on river health took a severe lashing from a 2020 Environment Agency report that showed every single river and lake in England to be polluted beyond legal limits. So toxic industries past and present have poisoned water courses with their chemicals. Water companies pumped raw sewage into England’s rivers at an unconscionable rate – on at least 200,000 occasions in 2019. And urban run-off, abandoned mines and nanomaterials all added to the brew.

Water companies, facing their next five-year price review cycle in 2024, are balancing their own economic pressures. English water firms have handed £57 bn in dividends to shareholders, while taking on £48 bn in debt, over the past 30 years, according to a 2020 report in The Guardian. Where are the resources for the scale of clean-up needed? And should the water companies have to pay for the clean-up on their own?

“A Northumbrian Water initiative on water quality was actually reducing the risk of flooding to the East Coast mainline railway,” according to water expert Brendan Bromwich. “By investing in wetlands, soil health, meadow margins, and buffer strips, we get co-benefits in carbon sequestration, biodiversity, and flood reductions.”

Clearly if these co-benefits are enjoyed by farmers seeking to shift out of conventional agriculture, and insurance companies seeking to reduce flood payouts, and perhaps the odd railway or three, the case for multiple participants joining together to enable this sort of change will continue to grow.

Water companies can seek nature-based solutions to bring together a wide swathe of stakeholders interested in the benefits of river health, but utility business plans operate on five-year cycles, while nature-based solutions might need twenty years to deliver their benefits.

Farmers are not the only ones suffering from the crisis in food. In 2021 The Guardian newspaper reported that according to government data, farming was the most significant source of water pollution in the UK (see box, Water: deeper into the dilemma). The health sector is yet another participant in the food system affected by a flawed system. It makes zero choices on what food is grown, its nutrient density, or how much gets consumed and yet every single day the health system pays out to cover the social and wellbeing costs caused by the food system through cardiac failures, strokes, cancers and hip replacements. 

Every single day the health system pays out to cover the social and wellbeing costs caused by the food system.

Can bottom-up activities on farms such as Bradwell Grove drive a difference? Wales Transition Lab, an initiative from North Star Transition, brings together over thirty leaders from across food, health and the environment to drive bottom-up actions that reshape the working of the food system in Wales (see box, Wales Transition Lab). But bottom-up actions lack scale or impact. Do we need a new set of regulations, incentives and subsidies from the government?  In truth, the subsidy system is being rethought in each of the four nations of the UK and each nation is bringing out its own version in the next few years. But farmers need to take action now in a farming cycle that lasts longer than the time it will take for the new incentive schemes to arrive. What judgements should they make today?

Welsh Transition Lab
Over the past 18 months, North Star Transition has pulled together leaders from 35 Welsh organisations, representing food, health, environment, education, insurance, business and finance into an initiative called Wales Transition Lab. It is seeking to reconfigure how its different sectors might work together to improve outcomes for wellbeing and nature at a national scale. This is not a talk shop. It’s about getting people connected to each otherand listening to each other and  re-imagining together what their system could look like. Their aligning with each other in their actions, and pressing forward  is system-change economics, brought to life.

The health sector is not one of the usual suspects when it comes to thinking about the food system. So itsinvolvement in Wales Transition Lab might be unexpected but it should not be a surprise. The health sector pays out to cover the social and wellbeing costs caused by the food system. For example, every year, the NHS pays out £500m in diabetes-related costs in Wales. It judges two-thirds of its diabetes bill to be avoidable, relating to Type II diabetes driven by lifestyle habits, nutrient density of the food, and so on. Yet, every year, the diabetes bill in Wales continues to rise.

There are already actions emerging in Wales Transition Lab which show what can happen when the health sector intervenes in the food system. One long-term planning objective for Hywel Dda University Health Board, the NHS organisation in west Wales, focuses on the optimisation of the food system for human health. Another project is seeking localised food sources for NHS hospitals in Cwm Taf Morgannwg’s health board. A third action in Wales Transition Lab seeks to link together food, wellbeing, nature and economic interventions across the Welsh Valleys, one of the most deprived parts of the UK.

The arrival of the government’s 25-Year Environmental Plan has been well received as a first attempt to tackle the crisis facing our natural world. Yet, critics say the poor state of our rivers and lakes on their own might prevent the plan from ever achieving its goals. Our governments have to step up. The UK government is pursuing cheap food in its trade deals, ignoring the fact that cheap food is a band-aid hiding the wounds of inequality afflicting the national economy. How can Australian lamb be cheaper than Welsh lamb, if we take its true price into account?

Wales has an excellent regulatory framework for driving systemic change: the Wellbeing of Future Generations Act 2015 and 2016’s Environment Act, for example. But citizens have yet to see the most significant changes that could be carried out under this framework. For example, Wales has lost most of its food processing facilities and not much seems to be done about it. Grass-fed lambs from farms in South Wales are shipped by Waitrose to processing plants in South Yorkshire. How can that make sense if we are going to pay the true price of carbon?

The blunt truth is that top-down actions have not really worked. But bottom-up actions among farmers and other system participants will lack impact, if they cannot be aligned to top-down actions that policymakers and regulators are putting in place.

Yet, it is also true that farming cannot wait for all these governmental policy changes. Farmers must change, and they are changing.

Farming cannot wait for all these governmental policy changes. Farmers must change.

Much like Hunter-Smart, farmers are taking the future of farming into their own hands. Organic vegetable grower at Blaencamel Farm in Ceregidion, Peter Segger, is campaigning for the establishment of hundreds more farms like his to supply communities across Wales. Bradwell Grove has launched a joint venture with a Cornish dairy farmer using herbal leys as the sole feed for an outdoor mobile dairy – the natural manuring and walking arising from grazing cattle is mixing nutrients into the soil, with all kinds of benefits.

North Wales farmer Philip Hughes’ innovation has led to a solar power installation on his farm, plus an anaerobic digester. But why stop there? Hughes has put all that extra energy to power a data centre on his farm that currently mines cryptocurrency. How’s that for 21st century farming?

This farmer-turned-cryptocurrency-miner, is not standing still either. He has undertaken a study of carbon in his farm using the Farm Carbon Tool Kit and now wants to use his data centre to offer blockchain-certified carbon offsets to UK coffee houses and restaurants. Soon, a coffee-drinker in London will settle their bill, offset their carbon, and then be able to take a virtual guided tour of Hughes’ farm to check out nature-based solutions for themselves.

It’s not farming as you know it. As Hughes says: “It’s modern farming.”

Jyoti Banerjee

Jyoti is co-founder of North Star Transition, a start-up focused on accelerating systemic change. He spent ten years as a technology entrepreneur before getting involved in impact investing. He was …

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Arnav Jain

Arnav is a media associate of North Star Transition. He trained as an economist and is a freelance news and documentary producer.

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