Monoculture of plant-based cropping is depleting carbon levels to critical point in parts of Britain, the CEO of the Sustainable Food Trust, Patrick Holden, warned this week.
Holden’s comments came during a discussion on the BBC’s PM show about whether people should stop consuming meat and dairy to protect biodiversity and limit agriculture’s contribution to global warming.
The organic farmer and former Soil Association director told the presenter Carolyn Quinn: “There’s no doubt, especially among younger people, that there’s a strong trend towards vegetarianism and veganism. But our concern is that in giving up eating meat altogether, which of course is perfectly legitimate for ethical reasons, many people do not understand the difference between the livestock that are part of the problem – which undoubtedly a lot of industrial livestock are, including poultry, pigs and intensively farmed dairy cows – and the livestock that are essentially part of the solution. I’m talking here about ruminant animals – beef and sheep, mainly grass fed dairy cows – without which we would not be able to fed ourselves in this country in a sustainable way.”
“many people do not understand the difference between the livestock that are part of the problem… and the livestock that are essentially part of the solution”
Holden said that grass-eating livestock play a vital role in building soil fertility. “Some of the most fertile soils in the world, including in this country, were built between and interaction between ruminants and grassland. 71% of the United Kingdom farmed area is in grassland, and if we ploughed that up we would have a massive carbon release. For all those reasons we need to become more sophisticated in our future meat eating habits to differentiate between the meat we should eat, and the meat we must give up.”
“…we need to become more sophisticated in our future meat eating habits to differentiate between the meat we should eat, and the meat we must give up”
While acknowledging the growth of veganism and the sincerity of its advocates, Holden challenged the view frequently advanced by vegan groups that plant-based protein is always a more environmentally positive option. “I think many people who are on the plant eating side of the campaign fail to understand that if we want to maintain the fertility of UK soils in a sustainable food system, we need to go back to production systems that have a crop rotation which includes a fertility building phase.
“I’ve just been talking today at the East of England Agricultural Conference in Peterborough, which is a mainly arable part of the world, where it’s crop after crop, year after year. Because of that monoculture of plant-based cropping we’ve deplete the soil carbon levels to critical points. And it’s only if we return to sustainable crop rotations, which will probably have at least 40% of the time period under grass, that we’ll able to get the carbon back. For that grass to be tuned into something we can eat we need ruminants, and they are very efficient at doing that.”