The 20th century food revolution was successful in feeding people, but a failure in terms of environmental impact. If farming is to rediscover its full purpose after Brexit, it must face up to the problems of large-scale meat production, says Professor Tim Lang, co-author of the EAT-Lancet Commission report.
Why farm? I suspect many readers will ask themselves that!
Perish the thought that you have ever cursed a wall down, or a crop which won’t grow, or the roulette of disease, or the weather, or your parents for encouraging you!
Whatever our trade, there are times when we feel the fates conspire against us. Or politicians just don’t get it. Or the public is fickle.
By raising the purpose of farming, I don’t mean these everyday ups and downs. I mean how does farming fit the wider scheme of things.
Farming can give many positive reasons for its existence.
It feeds people. Keeps the landscape in good fettle. Sequesters carbon. Looks after water systems. Maintains biodiversity. Provides jobs. Delivers national food security in uncertain times. Offers tourism and the view to a highly urbanised population. Grows natural resources: fibre, wood, textiles. Creates energy. And so on.
Last week, the report of the EAT-Lancet Commission Food in the Anthropocene was published. I chaired its policy elements and was a co-author.
For three years, 37 scientists and academics took a long hard look at whether and how the world can be fed healthily and sustainably by 2050.
The good news is we say: yes, it can be done.
The sober news is it can be done only by making big changes throughout the food system.
We call for a Great Food Transformation, engaging everyone everywhere.
The problem is this. We now know that the 20th century food revolution has been a huge success – more food, more people fed.
But also a huge failure – with food as a big (sometimes the biggest) driver of land use change, biodiversity loss, greenhouse gases, soil and water damage.
Somehow this conflict has to be addressed. And that’s what the EAT-Lancet Commission set out to do.
A big challenge is to consumers. The 20th century offered the promise that everyone everywhere could eat like there was no tomorrow. Feast day food every day. Alas, that simply wrecks planetary and human health.
This is when some people get angry. But the estimates made by the EAT-Lancet Commission are clear.
We must begin to change how meat is produced and how much consumers eat.
The report is definitely not anti-meat. But we must stop meat production being the tail that wags the dog.
Here in the UK, and round the world, we are using huge amounts of land to feed grain to cattle and others.
The ‘livestock from leftovers’ approach needs careful consideration.
We also need to cut the huge social and financial costs from diet-related ill-health.
Food is so cheap UK consumers waste at least a fifth of what they buy. And farmers and growers aren’t getting their due rewards for the hours of hard work.
We must slow down the treadmill. A food culture in which meat is feast-day food – meat as a treat – not bland tastelessness, is probably the way to go.
In Darwinian terms, it implies putting animal-rearing back into its ecological niche.
There is good news, too. We need to double fruit and veg growing. More nuts and seeds.
Plant-based diets require someone to grow the plants. We won’t be growing pineapples on the Pennine fells, of course (or not yet). But we must begin the slow process of change.
If farming addresses this agenda, it rediscovers the reasons for farming. All of them.
And it delivers sustainable food security, an important message in Brexiting times when some politicians seem to think we can quietly abandon farming and import ever more from abroad.
Tim can be found tweeting at @ProfTimLang