Rewilding: challenges for agribusiness and questions for socialists
By Peter Latham
“The new conception of nature was complete in its main features: all rigidity was dissolved, all fixity dissipated, all particularity that had been regarded as eternal became transient, the whole of nature shown as moving in eternal flux and cycles.” Friedrich Engels makes this assertion when writing in 1875 on the emerging understanding of nature in natural science in his Introduction to The Dialectics of Nature (Progress Publishers, 1977).
The conflict between capital and labour has sharpened in recent years. The ruling class is riven with disagreements, and not just about the European Union. Some financial experts think capitalism could be amended from its neoliberal version. Labour's 2017 manifesto might have crystalised thinking among those in the ruling class who see the urgency of tackling climate change. Bringing the idea of a Green New Deal into common acceptance is a great achievement. However, the debate is still unresolved.
On the one hand, Mark Carney, the former Governor of the Bank of England, has complained that financial value has taken precedence over human value. Oscar Wilde had a point, he said (slightly misquoting him) about “knowing the price of everything but the value of nothing”. (1) Dr Carney observed that, early in the Covid crisis, most states gave human life more value than economic well-being, although he assumed a conflict between the two. Carney wants to tackle the environmental emergency by broadening “the market's conception of value” to include “inclusive growth and environmental sustainability.” Fine, but more attention to the labour theory of value would help. On the other hand, the Chancellor Rishi Sunak produced a Budget in March that continued austerity as usual, with public sector pay cuts and a questionable approach to the so-called levelling up of the North. (2)
We have a troubling background to the demise of nature, but with new positive features of some importance. A definite critique is emerging from farmers at the sharp end of the environmental crisis. Subject to Government policy on farm payments, and reliant on supplies from corporations promoting destructive farming practices which are detrimental to the land and to farmers, they compete in the market to sell their produce. Intensification has been the method, with ever more use of fertilisers, herbicides and insecticides to grow food, increasingly to standards set by the big retailers. Habitat loss and soil degradation have been the consequence. James Rebanks gives a shocking account of the doings of agribusiness, bankrupting some of his neighbours’ farms. (3)
Concerns about poisoning the land are not new. In the 1960's the Scottish scientist Kenneth Mellanby pioneered research into the effects of pesticides on the environment, advocating the use of predators to eat the pests as a means of biological control. (4) The science of ecology emerged soon afterwards. Since then things have got steadily worse. Wildlife is disappearing, with only another 100 harvests left in our soil, according to Farmers’ Weekly. However, the crisis is producing its own opposite.
Isabella Tree describes the collapse of farming on the Knepp estate in Sussex, and its conversion back to nature. (5) Her husband, Charles Burrell, inherited the estate from his grandparents in 1987. It goes back centuries, with a medieval castle in parkland designed by Humphrey Repton. The farm was already losing money, so Charles played the game by intensifying production. He amalgamated dairies, improved infrastructure and diversified into ice cream, yogurt and sheep's milk. The losses continued. They were going bankrupt, and had to rethink. Three dairy herds were dispersed and twelve men lost their jobs. In the year 2000 they auctioned all the farm equipment. The chapter describing the sale, “At Odds with Everything”, reads like a Shakespearean tragedy. The trouble was the heavy clay soil, really only marginal land. Commercial inputs failed to make up for it.
Charles and Isabella had expert advice from British and Dutch sources. They left the land to itself, sowing wildflower seed mixtures native to their soil, which were surprisingly hard to come by. With no industrial farming, they were soon wandering knee-deep through flowery meadows in a riot of colour, with the thrumming of insects in their ears. They learnt to put nature in the driving seat. The insects attracted more birds. Voles arrived in the rabbit burrows, which in turn attracted foxes. The woods needed grazing animals, left wild not farmed. They chose fallow deer, English longhorn cattle, Exmoor ponies and Tamworth pigs, and later red deer. They reverted to wood pasture, a land use from the distant past where grazing animals disturb the ground, browse the trees, and make use of natural glades that evolve as the woods respond to grazing, manuring and trampling.
Over the years long lost species have returned: turtle doves, nesting ravens, painted lady butterflies, breeding skylarks and five other bird species, 13 of the UK's 17 bat species, and 60 invertebrates of conservation importance. They found 34 nightingale territories, from none in 2002, 19 species of earthworm, and the UK's largest breeding population of purple emperor butterflies. Other work included restoration of natural watercourses. In time they were able to sell meat from the animals and open accommodation for visitors, bringing in an income. With no high input farming costs, they survived. Nature recovered remarkably quickly once the exploitation of the land stopped. Another lesson was the natural variation of flora and fauna from year to year, depending on conditions.
Yet their farming neighbours had a visceral objection to their doings, despite the implications for the profitability of their own farms. They felt abandoned. Why was Knepp not playing the game? However, their doubts mellowed in later years. Isabella takes a dialectical approach to all the factors at work in charting a way forward. She is keenly aware of where the obstructions lie, and how sympathetic allies may be marshalled to good effect. The emergence of Knepp as an authority on the subject of wilding has benefited not only the estate, but the world at large.
Other questions remain. How are we to feed ourselves if wilding is to be widely adopted, as seems necessary? Will the good farming land produce enough? With or without high inputs? If many people turn vegetarian, will there be enough demand for the meat from wild animals in the wood pasture? Will farmworkers be better paid?
There is a rapidly growing literature that questions current farming practices. “I have had a gutsful of chemical farming,” writes John Lewis-Stempel, “Really, I just want the birds back”. (6) He rented a conventional arable field for a year, a few miles from his Herefordshire farm, and sowed it with a wildflower-rich crop of wheat, in the spring old style, not the autumn. He describes the field’s wildlife throughout the year, revelling in nature's recovery. After harvest, a friend helped him load the sheaves of wheat. He needed three trailers, not two as his friend thought. Output was greater than expected. John used the wheat from his field as food for his cattle, sheep, pigs and chickens. The field gave him roughly a ton of grain per acre after threshing. “I could have improved the tonnage per acre by a more sensible drilling policy, and with better ‘weed’ control without too much detriment to my wildlife policy,” he writes. “The real benefit for conservation has been the wildflowers at the edge of the ploughland, and the grain and seeds left behind from the harvest for gleaning by birds and animals.” It is a myth, he says, that conventional farming is more productive than organic farming.
He quotes a study by Chinese scientists in which modern rice-growing using a single hi-tech variety was tested against a much older technique, planting several kinds in one field. Farmers reverting to the old method reported an increase in yield and a decrease of 94% in rice blast, a fungal disease. The farmers planting a mixture of strains were able to stop using poisons altogether while producing 18% more rice. This was one of the biggest agricultural experiments ever conducted.
James Rebanks has a family farm in Cumbria, and writes beautifully about his efforts to bring back wildlife, with a clear anti-corporate stance. (7) In one project he re-wiggled a straightened stream to provide pools, shallows and wetland, to complement the tree planting. His farm is becoming a new compromise between food production and nature. Traditionally, his farming neighbours only co-operated for certain things. Mostly they kept their own counsel. Now they are working together to find ways to farm with nature. Hedges are being laid, drystone walls rebuilt, stone barns and houses restored. River corridors are fenced off, ponds dug, and blanket peatbog on the common land restored. “I believe in this landscape and its people,” he says, “I am sick of 1980's economics bullshit.” Overall, it is not true that nature must be destroyed for farmers to make a profit.
The RSPB runs a demonstration project at Hope Farm in Cambridgeshire, where for 20 years now wildlife-friendly farming has replaced conventional farming, with strong positive results. (8) The farm makes a profit, as well as reducing inputs and benefitting the wildlife. It is not organic, but mainstream. They want to appeal to the average farmer. The soil is heavy clay. Techniques include more crop rotation and spring sowing, direct drilling, overwintering stubble, post-harvest cover crops, more food and shelter for birds and soil quality, reducing the cultivated area slightly by providing wildflower field margins, and scientific research into the habitat needs of farmland bird species. Successes include 213% increase in butterflies to 2017, breeding birds up 226% from 2000, and winter birds index up by 1,739%. Future work includes a 10-year field trial over 70 acres to analyse the soil’s microbial diversity, organic carbon, crop yield and vegetation structure. The farm’s work has been well received, with study visits from many interested parties.
REWILDING AND POLITICAL CHALLENGES
Rewilding has been going on for many years now, providing some answers to the questions raised. The charity Rewilding Britain brings together landowners, farmers, land managers, community groups and local authorities. They recently studied 23 projects covering 75,000 acres of land being rewilded. Most of the land was poorly productive or non-agricultural. They found a 47% increase in full-time equivalent jobs and a ninefold increase in volunteering opportunities. (9) All the sites studied produced an income from food production, livestock and other enterprises, showing that marginal land is able to produce food. This result debunks some early myths that rewilding means abandoning land or ceasing food production. The sites still support grazing animals, though livestock are 54% lower than before, solely due to fewer sheep. Cattle, pigs and ponies all increased slightly, closely replicating the natural grazing impacts of former native species. Some species were introduced, mainly beaver, white stork and water vole.
Rewilding presents a political challenge. It will be easier for the labour movement to take a legitimate interest than for the ruling class to resolve their ambivalent attitude to it, which arises from vested interests in agribusiness. Small and medium sized farms are threatened by capital intensive agriculture. Food production and the state of nature are of great interest to socialist opinion. The biggest, most damaging farms should be publicly owned, to restore good economics. More state support is needed, with restrictions on agribusiness and prairie farming, improved pay and conditions for farm workers, and adjustments to trade in agricultural produce. If a firm course could be steered, these matters would play on divisions in the ruling class to our advantage. The benefits of flexible thinking are enormous. Confidence returns as expertise grows. Public support is growing quickly.
1) Reith Lectures 2020, bbc.co.uk
2) The Guardian 3/3/21
3) English Pastoral, James Rebanks, Chapter on “Progress”, Allen Lane (2020)
5) Wilding, Isabella Tree, Picador (2018).
6) The Running Hare by John Lewis-Stempel, Penguin (2016)
7) Rebanks ibid
(9)www.rewildingbritain.org.uk and Yorkshire Post 12/3/21