Food, Farming and Human Health
The earth is about 5.3 billion years old. Humans have been around for about 200,000 years. Everything that we virtually associate with human culture and civilisation has occurred in the last 10,000 years: during which time population and consumption increased significantly, spiking particularly within the last 200 years, beginning in the 18th century and intensifying post-World War II. This is the period known as the Anthropocene.
In the 1970’s, developed countries turned towards food that was cheap and convenient. The methods that traditionally guided agriculture were replaced by a new, industrial system that become known as intensive farming. 1The result of increasingly intensive production is that soil has been negatively aged in the UK, some estimate by as much as up to 10,000 years in the last 40 years. This soil degradation coupled with mass insect decline – predominantly caused by pesticide use – and decline in biodiversity has led the Institute for Public Policy Research to announce an ‘age of environmental breakdown’. 2This crisis has significant implications for global economic and social stability.
To address the deteriorating condition of our planet there is an emerging consensus that we need to think towards regenerative farming and 3economic practices, including new political policies which incentivise sustainable and environmentally-friendly farming operations and encourage societal dietary change. The mitigation of the impact of 4intensive farming and pesticide use whilst maintaining food production for UK’s growing population can be achieved by adequate support and optimising the productivity of traditional 5small-scale farming systems which use agroecological and/or organic practices, for instance by using principles of conservation (zero/minimal tillage) agriculture (CA). Presently only 3 % of the UK arable area is farmed using 6conservation agriculture. By refocusing diets around plant-based proteins and pasture-fed livestock, and away from grain fed white meat, Europe would be able to feed its growing population whilst maintaining export capacity and domestic yield and cutting greenhouse gas emissions by 40%, within 10 years, if it switched entirely to environmentally-friendly farming systems. Such a dietary and farming change could address multiple health and environmental challenges synergistically: aiding the reverse of the global burden of chronic disease, such as obesity and diabetes.
The state of the current crisis can be summarised below:
- 7Between 1980 and 1995, 18% of soil organic matter (SOM) in arable soil was lost, resulting in UK arable soil containing less than 2% organic matter; they should contain 3-6%.
- 52% of soils worldwide are degraded; 25% severely degraded
- In the UK, 2.2 million tonnes of soil is eroded every year
- 85% of fertile peat topsoil in East Anglia has been lost
- more than half of the EU’s cereals and oilseed crops are fed to animals
- 70% of UK diet consists of processed foods; 51% of family food purchases consist of ultra-processed foods, the highest proportion in western Europe (compares to 14% in France).
- 80% of processed food is made from just four crops: soy, maize, wheat and meat.
- The UK produces circa 60% of food consumed and rely on the EU for circa 30% of food imports
- Over the last two decades, approximately 20% of the earths vegetated surface has become less productive
- Organic agriculture covers 58m hectares (143 million acres) worldwide, only 1% of global farmland.
Evidence of the environmental benefits provided by organic farming is strong:
- Organic farms have on average 50% more wildlife than conventional farms
- Organic farms have 44% higher levels of humic acid – the component of soil that stores carbon over the long term.
- Organic farming can help tackle water pollution – with 35-65% less nitrogen and no persistent pesticides leaching.
Notwithstanding the more general ‘direct and existential threat’ of climate change there are specific consequences to human health. For example, exposure to pesticides has been observed to be a causative factor in cancer, hormonal disturbances, infertility, developmental delay in children, Parkinson’s, depression and Alzheimer’s. For instance, malathion, an organophosphate, has been found in human urine and is a known human carcinogen according to the World Health Organisation, indeed it is chemically related to a nerve gas developed during World War II.
There is a remarkable interrelationship between soil health and human health, via the gut microbiome. 8Building a healthy microbiome can deliver numerous health benefits. In particular, studies show that growing up in microbe-rich environments such as farms and/or close to nature can have protective health effects, particularly for allergies, autoimmune diseases and inflammatory bowel disease such as colon cancer: streptomyces, a bacterium found in both soil and the human gut has been found to supress colon tumorigenesis.
A second revolution is evidently needed, that will encompass change in growing methods and consumption habits. The world is capable of resetting a sustainable course. Tools exist to avoid the worst of what is to come: a carbon tax, the political apparatus to aggressively phase out dirty energy, a new approach to agricultural practices, including a shift away from beef and dairy, public and private investment in green energy and carbon capture. What is missing is political will to act – along with overcoming a degree of 9societal inertia, but there is 10hope.
1There has been a huge increase in agricultural productivity over the past 100 years, but the world must increase its food production by a further 60% in the next 40 years to sustain a global population expected to top 10 billion by 2050. If food production increased along current lines, this would require additional landmass twice the area of India. This increased productivity is challenged by increasing shortage of water, the widespread decline in soil fertility, limited land remaining for cultivation, and unnecessary with food waste: it is estimated that 30%-50% of food produced in the UK is wasted.
2 “Climate change is a direct and existential threat, which will spare no country,” the EU statement warns, “and its impacts are already being felt across the globe, yet action to stem it remains insufficient,” it adds, urging all countries to “join in this necessary raising of ambition”.
3By factoring in environmental externalities in national balance sheets, governments and companies are encouraged to avoid incurring commercial loss, whilst maintaining natural capital. The media has a responsibility to accurately and effectively communicate powerful narratives to foster genuine public understanding of the environmental catastrophe, encouraging society to switch from the ‘take-make-dispose’ degenerative linear model to a more circular sustainable economy.
- Pesticide use has killed bees and myriad species of insects in very large numbers
- Fertilisers contribute directly to climate change through the greenhouse gas nitrous oxide and pollution through ammonia; including causing catastrophic consequences of run-off: the largest ever maritime ‘dead zone’ was discovered last year in the Gulf of Mexico – the result of fertiliser and manure from the meat industry.
Alternatively, organic/agroecological farming methods consist of:
- Using antibiotics on animals only when necessary
- Cutting out chemical fertilisers and pesticides almost completely in favour of natural alternatives such as manure and wood ash as fertilisers and plant-derived pesticides and managing land to provide habitats for wildlife.
5More than 90% of farms worldwide are run by an individual or family and rely primarily on family labour, and they produce about 80% of the world’s food. In the UK successive governments have pursued policies that have led to farm consolidation, a reduction in agricultural jobs, and rural to urban migration and have incentivised highly mechanised corporate farms as family farms are abandoned: in the UK 33,500 commercial holdings between 2005 and 2015 ceased operating, more than 9 farms per day.
6Conservation agriculture follows the following three principles:
- Minimal soil disturbance: through the use of no-till seeding to enhance populations and activity if soil macro-biota such as earthworms and reduce soil compaction; less use of tractors reduces farm fuel use
- Permanent soil cover improves water absorption and groundwater recharge which reduces run-off
- Crop rotation: as traditionally used to control weeds, pests and diseases and to enhance resilience against bio-stressors; uses less or NIL agrochemicals
7Over the last two decades, approximately 20% of the Earths vegetated surface has become less productive due to loss of soil and environmental biodiversity, in turn due to forests converted to fields, overuse of pesticides and herbicides, overreliance on a narrow range of crop species (monocultures), the urbanisation of land, and pollution – rendering a severe threat to the worlds food supply.
8We have up to a thousand different species of bacteria in a healthy microbiome, and the diversity of their functions and beneficial interplay with our physiology is vast. This diversity offers us numerous substances, particularly complex sugars such as oligosaccharides and polyphenols. The large sugars work to feed gut flora in a way that causes greater reproduction and diversity, plus they secrete by-products as they break them down that support gut health. Polyphenols again are biotransformed by gut flora in ways that benefit the colony and again offer a substrate for growth, replication, and diversity.
9There is a risk that talk of ‘crisis’ induces paralysis instead of action. Climate change is ‘really an economic and social problem with moral and political complexities – it’s about human rights and armed conflict and so many things’. Unlike single-use plastic and pollution, with climate change there is no direct immediate tangible impact: the notion that one’s behaviour affects climate change in the future is too complex and vague for most people. People have a very little ‘pool of worry’; issues are easily displaced other concerns – we only have certain mental capacity to worry about issues. Secondly, we have ‘single-action bias: the belief that we have resolved something big by taking on a single activity. Thirdly: ‘moral licence’; a bad activity is justified by adopting a behaviour one considers to be good (recycling behaviour is a common example). There is complacency over rising sea levels: a rise of between 4-8 feet is synonymous with the devastation coursed by an extended nuclear war. Furthermore, every return-flight from London to New York causes the Arctic to lose three square metres of ice. Global plastic production is expected to treble by 2050, by which point there will be more plastic than fish in the planet’s oceans. For every half-degree of warming, societies see between a 10 – 20% increase in the likelihood of armed conflict. “Humankind” as the bird is TS Eliots Foure Quartets points out, “cannot bear very much reality”.
10Phillip Hammonds ‘green’ spring statement covered aviation emissions, housing, energy efficiency and green gas, including the launch of a global and national review into the link between biodiversity and economic growth. A pioneering trial recently started in Norfolk to explore whether grazing sheep within crop rotations could bring mutual benefits to both arable and livestock farmer, such as improved health and weight gain of the sheep (including lower worm and parasite risk) whilst increasing yield with improved soil health and organic matter (from the sheep’s manure)