Bird-friendly farming

Bird-friendly farming is a way of farming which, as well as profitably producing food for humans, preserves habitat for birds and other wildlife; protects and nurtures invertebrates; and regenerates the soil. This is done by avoiding agrichemicals, by avoiding compaction of the soil (low-till or no-till), through careful crop selection, leaving plenty of space uncultivated, and, where possible, benefitting from the services of other species to protect the crops.

The death of wildlife is now mainstream knowledge: in 2017, insectageddon hit the news when a German study emerged showing that flying insects had fallen in number by more than 75% over the last 27 years (https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2017/oct/20/insectageddon-farming-catastrophe-climate-breakdown-insect-populations). This year the French have learned that birdlife has fallen by a third to two thirds because of farming (https://www.theguardian.com/world/2018/mar/21/catastrophe-as-frances-bird-population-collapses-due-to-pesticides). In the UK they have lost 50% of their wildlife (https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2018/mar/26/wildlife-modern-farming-insects-birds).

I read of a concerned scientist trying to understand how this has happened. Surely a case of an Oxford PHD being less useful than common sense: if over a period of several decades, and several times a year, you cake over 50% of your landmass in chemicals which are designed to kill off life, and they you repeatedly compact the soil with heavy machinery, don’t be surprised if life gets poisoned and crushed to death. You wonder what they teach scientists and engineers at university. It is certainly not to think broadly about the ramifications of their work. Too much mechanics and not enough philosophy.

With this our soils are being destroyed. Even fertiliser, for all the good it does, when misused, which is often, creates imbalance in carbon and nitrogen in the soil and leads to the evaporation and leaching away of all the good.

Why does this happen?

Farmers are under pressure to squeeze the last penny from the land, ignoring the long-term consequences which they don’t consider they will live to endure. They are under pressure from supermarkets which are competing with each other. Supermarkets are competing for shoppers who are trying to save money on food. Shoppers are deluded by politicians’ meme that “cheap food” is a good thing.

It might have been a good thing after the second world war to produce cheap food for people, but the second world war was more than seventy years ago. Cheap food is now a pernicious meme which, at the age of seventy, now needs to be killed off quickly.

Even though a simple average shrouds much complexity, it is worth noting that the average UK household spends 9% of its income on food, Germans 11% and French 14%. Assume conservatively that organic food is on average 30% more expensive, we are talking about exterminating our wildlife for around 3%-5% of the household budget. This also means that there is hope: once Facebook and other forms of social mediocrity have been shut down, there could be a sufficient release of human enterprise and energy to make that extra 5% easily affordable.

Here are some things that could be done about the extermination of wildlife, but might not be:

  1. The food industry could introduce a voluntary labelling scheme for conventionally produced food as being harmful to wildlife, pollinators, insects, birds etc. This would involve the de-branding and elimination of illustrated packaging (as applied to the cigarette industry) for factory- and intensively farmed foods which pollute our soils and constitute a danger to society far graver than smoke-induced lung cancer.
  2. The farming industry could voluntarily make it a requirement of a farmer’s land-stewardship licence that she or he clearly understands the various impacts of conventional, organic, and low- or zero-tillage farming on soils and wildlife.
  3. Supermarkets could agree to phase out conventionally produced food over a ten year period on a straight-line basis (i.e. 1/10th reduction each year). They would subsidise this in recognition of their insidious if unwitting role in wildlife extermination over the last few decades.
  4. Customers could become enlightened by way of social influences, schooling and watching Netflix (note impact of Blue Planet 2), and then willingly seek out bird-friendly farming labelled foods in the shops and local markets, paying any premium in the knowledge that they and their descendants will be happier and healthier as a result.
  5. Global chemical crop control companies could enter into voluntary liquidation and their chemical engineers could voluntarily go on a retreat to Gruinard Island in Scotland. This form of corporate hara-kiri is necessary for the officers and shareholders of these companies to restore the social honour of their families.
  6. Meanwhile, the skills of bird-friendly farming, which can be done productively and profitably, need to be imparted quickly and effectively to farmers around the world. To this end, a global network of bird-friendly farming centres of excellence needs to be endowed and established quickly; probably funded anonymously by the aforementioned corporations, for whom this would constitute a desirable legacy.

Any other suggestions as to how to bring about fundamental change in farming around the world would be gratefully received by some skylarks, frogs, snails and worms, among others.

(Before anyone says authoritatively “You can’t feed the world with organic food”, consider that by working hard on cutting down on food waste and meat eating, we would free-up land to make good any net fall in yield from farming wholesomely; and not all land needs to be farmed organically to save the world’s wildlife. But a lot does.)

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