Wilder labels, better farming

Tim Martin, Founder, Farm Wilder

Published in JHH16.3 – The Real Food Issue

My whole life has been shaped by wildlife. As a child I was a keen naturalist and wildlife photographer, and this led to a zoology degree and over 20 wonderful years as a director then executive producer in the BBC Natural History Unit. But against a backdrop of rapidly declining biodiversity I felt that just filming wildlife wasn’t enough – I wanted to get more directly involved in the fight to protect and restore nature.And that’s meant immersing myself in the world of farming.

Last year I was delighted to finally see a Marsh Fritillary, a very rare and stunningly beautiful butterfly. Once widespread, it is one of our fastest declining species, and for me it’s become symbolic of the biodiversity we have lost as farming has intensified. I was in the middle of a damp Dartmoor meadow, known as a Rhos
pasture, and looking out past the orchids, buttercups and forget-me-nots I could see dozens of these exquisite little orange and black checkered creatures flitting from flower to flower, energised by the strong June sunshine. I’d come for the butterflies, but my senses were being bombarded with natural wonders in the way that normally only happens in a rainforest. A cuckoo called higher up the valley, soaring buzzards mewed, and from the hedgerows came the constant bubbling song of willow warblers and blackcaps. As I crossed the meadow I inhaled scores of scents – wild mint, the coconut aroma of warm gorse flowers and the herby compost of marsh soil. It was a poignant reminder of just how bursting with life our countryside can be.

Sadly, very little of our farmland is like this now. We might survey the patchwork of fields full of crops and livestock and remark on how green and beautiful it looks – but up close most of it is a green desert. Birdsong and the buzz of insects has given way to eerily quiet monocultures of rye grass, wheat, barley, oats and oil-seed rape. A whole generation has grown up deprived of the joy of experiencing a healthy vibrant countryside. I’ve watched this impoverishing of our land unfold in slow motion over several decades. As a BBC wildlife film-maker I’ve been fortunate to visit some of the world’s great wildlife hot spots, but I’ve also been aware of the sad irony that wildlife has been rapidly dying out in my own back yard. It’s been abundantly clear that the root of the problem is intensive farming. Over 70% of Britain is farmed, so most of our wildlife relies on farmland for its survival. The widespread use of chemicals, along with the loss of flower
meadows, hedges, ponds and scrub has been catastrophic. Once common creatures like hedgehogs, turtle doves and tree sparrows have declined by 95%, and Britain is now one of the least biodiverse countries in the world. The situation had become so desperate that I decided to find out for myself what was going so wrong, and what I could do to help put it right.

There are plenty of conventional farms that are very wildlife friendly thanks to special measures to protect habitat Click To Tweet

What I found out was shocking – Britain’s whole farming system is utterly broken. It isn’t just failing wildlife, it’s failing human health through the declining nutrient quality and chemical residues in intensively produced food; it’s failing farmers, many of whom struggle to make ends meet; it’s threatening our homes by increasing flooding; it’s poisoning waterways through the runoff of toxic chemicals; and it’s gambling with all our futures through high emissions of greenhouse gases, and because of the way soil is being mistreated. Not only has the carbon content of soil declined, but the soil itself is being depleted at an alarming rate – farmers are effectively mining it rather than nurturing and replenishing it, with the result that some of our best land could be unfarmable in a few decades. Most of our farming is about as sustainable as a coal-fired power station. But it’s wrong to blame farmers for this – they’ve been led down this route by government and EU policy, and by us consumers wanting to buy the cheapest food we can. The good news is that many farmers desperately want to change course, they just need our support in doing so.

So how do we help farmers to farm more sustainably? The problem is that as consumers we have very little power to influence how our food is being produced.
There’s so little information on the labels that when we shop we can’t separate food that’s been farmed in a wildlife friendly and sustainable way, from intensively produced food from green desert. The only widely available labelling option is organic, but does that mean rare wildlife is being supported? Sadly not – organic farms may have more worms and bugs, and more of the most common wildlife, but there’s no guarantee of anything with more specialized needs like a Marsh Fritillary or a Cuckoo. At least I thought that organic would guarantee better soil, but even that’s not always the case. Organic farms have to plough to control weeds, and ploughing is bad for soil health: a poorly managed organic farm can actually end up with less carbon stored in the soil than a well-run conventional min-till or no-till farm that uses a small amount of herbicide so they don’t have to plough. To add to the confusion, there are plenty of conventional farms that are very wildlife friendly, thanks to special measures to protect habitat, while some organic farms can be surprisingly devoid of life. It was clear that we needed much better labelling to support wildlife-friendly regenerative farming, and to educate consumers about why it’s so badly needed. So I left my job at
the BBC and set out to try and create it.

In January I launched a social enterprise, Farm Wilder CIC, together with journalist and Farming and Wildlife Advisory Group (FWAG) farm and policy advisor Luke Dale-Harris. We select food exclusively from groups of farms who are farming regeneratively, and who look after rare wildlife. We’ve started with beef and lamb, because many of our most endangered species need sensitively grazed meadows to survive, although in the longer term we are also looking into cheese, beer and cereals. We’ve named the meat after the Dartmoor wildlife that’s being nurtured by our farmers: Cuckoo Beef, Cuckoo Lamb and Fritillary Butterfly Beef. Beautifully illustrated and informative labels tell the story of the wonderful work these farmers are doing, and the meat is now on sale in several butchers in Bristol and Totnes, and online across England and Wales from ethical retailer www.fresh-range.com. Currently we are funded by grants, donations and a lot of goodwill, but over the next couple of years, as our sales volume grows, we will be increasingly self-sufficient through a small levy on the meat sold.

By buying our meat, consumers are helping farmers do two things – conserve rare wildlife and farm in a more holistic and regenerative manner. We work with charities including Butterfly Conservation, RSPB, FWAG and Devon Wildlife Trust to provide advice on managing habitat for Marsh Fritillaries and Cuckoos. And we partner with the Pasture for Life certification scheme, encouraging and training farmers to transition to their more regenerative 100% pasture-fed system, where artificial inputs are massively reduced or eliminated, animal health and wellbeing is improved, and biodiversity boosted. It’s more profitable for farmers, even before we pay farmers the Farm Wilder premium of an extra 45p per kilogram. Just as important is that this system produces extremely tasty and
healthy meat from native breeds that thrive on relatively poor upland pastures: beef connoisseurs say you can actually taste the herbs from the flower-rich meadows, and research points to an improved nutrient density compared to grain-fed meat, including up to five times more omega3s, and twice as much conjugated linoleic acid (CLA).

The greater mass and length of roots adds organic matter and carbon to the soil, building soil rather than depleting it

The most critical aspect of this pasturefed system is that it radically improves soil health – and there are few things more important to human health than the future of our soil. Shallow rooted rye-grass is replaced by a mix of over a dozen grasses, herbs and legumes, all of which have a different role to play. Some fix nitrogen from the air (instead of applying expensive fossil fuel-derived fertilisers), while others bring up different minerals from deep underground. The greater mass and length of roots adds organic matter and carbon to the soil, building soil rather than depleting it, and sequestering carbon which helps to combat climate change. This healthier soil is more permeable, so that water soaks in and is retained, rather than running off into rivers taking the soil with it. It’s a beautiful system, making farms much more resilient in the face of floods and droughts, and it has the built-in benefit that the greater variety of flowers and grasses provides food for many more insects than ryegrass can ever sustain. It’s an interesting time to be promoting meat, as more and more people turn vegan, but that makes Farm Wilder’s educational work all the more important, as we involved in British agriculture. Farming holds a special role in the future of humanity, far beyond just providing food. It is both a major cause of the greatest problems of our time, collapsing biodiversity and mushrooming greenhouse gasses; but it also has the potential to provide solutions, if only we can fully embrace farming that regenerates the soil, sequesters carbon, and restores lost biodiversity. The scale of this challenge can be daunting, but I’m more optimistic than ever that we will make this change, and I’m pleased that in its own small way Farm Wilder’s innovative labelling scheme is already starting to contribute towards this transformation.

Farming … has the potential to provide solutions, if only we can fully embrace farming that regenerates the soil, sequesters carbon, and restores lost biodiversity