Arable Farming & Ethical Eating

Maize, like other grain crops, is usually grown in unsustainable ways

Maize, like other grain crops, is usually grown in unsustainable ways

Last week I wrote about meat and whether it can be part of a diet that is ecologically sustainable. Today I want to look at the alternatives. The ethical complexities are many, and are one reason why I’ve never been a vegetarian, let alone a vegan. Take the choice between whether it is more ethical to eat Welsh lamb or Egyptian new potatoes. I decided many years ago that on purely ethical grounds the spuds had the greater negative impacts. When poor countries such as Egypt export relatively low value food items like potatoes, which require a lot of water and land, it pushes up the price, and Egypt’s urban poor are forced into ever greater food insecurity. Growing for export favours the bigger produces and pushes small farmers growing for the local market out of business, and thus land ownership becomes more concentrated. There are also of course the environmental impacts of growing the crop in a water stressed country like Egypt, and the pollution and carbon emissions of such long distance trade.

Most of the world’s arable farming is now dependent on a range of fertilizers, herbicides, pesticides, fungicides and systems of ploughing that are destroying the soil and its complex microfauna. Bees, butterflies and the broad range of insect species seem to be in global decline. As the smaller and simpler life forms die off so to do the birds and mammals that feed upon them, all the way up to the iconic apex predators. These systems of farming have been responsible for a decline in organic carbon content of soil, typically from say 5% to 0.5%, which is very serious from both climate change and food security points of view. In most cases the use of genetically modified crops is only exacerbating the damage for a very small increase in global food production.

Traditionally environmentalists have argued the case for small scale, mixed, organic farming, or systems of permaculture. Such farming practices are certainly very much more ecologically sustainable, but either tend to produce less food per acre, or to require more labour. They also have not had the political support, and therefore grant subsidies, that more ecologically damaging systems of farming have had. I would certainly like to see more support for these sectors.

One area of food production that is expanding, and where huge increases in productivity per acre can be achieved in ways that are potentially very ecologically sustainable is greenhouses, polytunnels and other forms of protected cultivation. This is not to say that all such systems are ecologically sustainable, but some are. On the very small scale I have two small greenhouses and a little polytunnel in our back garden from which I harvest a huge diversity of fruit and vegetables all year round. The productivity per acre is extraordinary. However it is time consuming and the old green idea of the self provisioning economy has singularly failed to take off in this world of busy, time-poor, modern urban living.

In the next week or so I’ll write about a few of my favourite farms that are developing highly productive systems of greenhouse cultivation that show we could feed a very much larger global population with a predominantly vegan diet on a relatively small area. This could leave a considerable area of land for rewilding and for some pasture fed meat and dairy farming.

2 thoughts on “Arable Farming & Ethical Eating

  1. Louie

    The idea of a model of the system which go into when talking about the economic system regarding Egypt’s can also be applied to the meat industry. Regardless of how many local industries you may be supporting and how many food miles you may be cutting, the model of meat isn’t sustainable, so supporting any meat or dairy industry is exacerbating the situation. Obviously you might not experience any difference and still get to eat nice tasting meat but if you take what is morally right and wrong this is what it comes back to. It’s either got to be veggie or vegan diets for the majority of the world, or world inequality continues, or we simply go extinct or reach near extinction due to being unable to support ourselves on current food agricultural structures where so much land, resources (water available in dry climates, grain, land for growing animal grain, water for growing animal grain etc) is given to produce low grade meat. Of course welsh lamb is very far away from this generalised commercial scale, but also bear in m ind that Hereford has approx. 16M battery hens and if one isn’t careful you’re taking a bite of an M&S sandwich on the train before realise this isn’t the same good quality meat of whose industry one is supporting.

    1. Richard Post author

      Hi Louie

      Feeding humanity is a complex issue. Lots of different criteria to judge what is good. Most of the global food production system, (fish, meat, dairy, arable and horticulture) is unsustainable. Meat certainly uses more land and therefore it would be good if more people went vegan. However the very best systems of meat production are ecologically very good for soils and biodiversity. There is a YouTube video of me trying to outline the whole picture. Over one hour long. I’d be interested in your feedback. See


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