When the US Department of Agriculture established the National Organic Program (NOP) 21 years ago, in the year 2000—setting national standards for organic food products—many advocates of sustainable food systems hoped it would lead to the displacement of large corporate agricultural producers as the dominant players in US food production, and to the rise of sustainable agricultural practices (now often known as regenerative farming). But, while the NOP did lead to an increased use of agricultural methods that eschew synthetic fertilizers and pesticides, it did not prevent these large companies from continuing to use industrial techniques to raise and process food. Instead, many of them simply added organic production to their existing agribusiness practices.
After the founding of the NOP, public interest in sustainable agriculture practices and healthy eating increased dramatically, and several books that explored the ecological and ethical consequences of consumer dietary choices—such as Eric Schlosser’s Fast Food Nation (2001), Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma (2006) and Barbara Kingsolver’s Animal, Vegetable, Miracle (2007)—became best-sellers. Yet industrial agriculture remained entrenched. The changes to American food systems during this period, though real, were marginal. Perhaps nothing symbolizes this so well as the consolidation of regional natural food stores into a national chain—Whole Foods—and its acquisition in 2017 by Amazon.
The sustainable-agriculture genre of literature was rejuvenated in 2015 when James Rebanks, a sheep farmer in England’s Lake District, published The Shepherd’s Life, describing a year on his farm. His second book, English Pastoral: An Inheritance (published in the US as Pastoral Song: A Farmer’s Journey) was released in 2021. Although it’s replete with lyrical descriptions of rural English culture and landscape, it is also a polemic against industrial agriculture.
Unlike previous authors in this genre, Rebanks writes from bitter personal experience. In the first section of English Pastoral, he describes his boyhood exposure to old-fashioned rotational grazing methods in the company of his grandfather, who was an unreformed sceptic of modernity. “If he was like Sisyphus,” writes Rebanks, “then it was Sisyphus with a smile on his face. He thought, harshly, that modern people were like children, free to play, but bereft of meaning in their lives and disconnected from the things that mattered.” Later in the book, Rebanks relates how his father fell into debt and despondency in trying to emulate the fast-consolidating and intensifying farms of his neighbours on his own patchwork of lowland fields—land that he eventually lost. In the last section of the book, Rebanks describes how he has repudiated industrial agriculture and is reviving the old methods he learned from his grandfather.
In vivid prose, Rebanks tells us how his family came to recognise the devastation wrought by industrial methods. For example, in one memorable scene, he describes his father’s shock upon noticing that, after an industrial farmer used a heavy-duty industrial tractor to plough his fields, the sky was emptied of the usual seagulls and crows. (His shock is leavened by a sense of vindication, because he had long suspected that this kind of damage was being done.) And furthermore, the soil, having been bombarded by pesticides, is now so inhospitable to life that it no longer supports even earthworms.
The destruction of biodiversity that industrial agricultural methods inflict, both above and below ground, should give anyone pause about its methods. But there are many other concerns, including the huge amounts of energy needed to produce and transport crops; the abusive treatment of livestock; the exploitation of human workers; the over-reliance on antibiotics to suppress infection among animals living in crowded feedlots; the loss of nutrient-rich topsoil due to excessive ploughing; the contamination of waterways by fertilizer-laden runoff; the destruction of pollinators’ habitat; and the economic distortions produced by oligopolies. Industrial agriculture has proved an environmental catastrophe that is continuing to worsen—as regions such as the Amazon and Southeast Asia become deforested and are incorporated into global systems of production.
That said, industrial agriculture and agribusiness supply humanity with a relatively cheap and abundant food supply, and—thanks to mechanization—require remarkably little human labour. Despite the many harmful effects of industrial agriculture, it endures and grows, sustained by a robust infrastructure that serves the public’s demand for abundance, choice and low prices. And, while the commercialization and consolidation of farmland has forced many farmers off the land against their will, it has enabled other farmers to escape from a life of subsistence labour.
The key weakness of Rebanks’ book is his failure to reveal how expensive it was for him to get his grandfather’s farm working again. He acknowledges that he was able to afford it only because of income from his additional job as a consultant for UNESCO, and that other farmers can’t follow his example if they can’t make a profit. He is refreshingly impatient with starry-eyed dreamers who don’t consider the costs of switching to sustainable agriculture (“There is a very thin line between utopianism and bullshit,” he writes.) At the same time, he avoids a detailed evaluation of the economic challenges of his choice, and instead focuses on how successful his methods were at increasing his farm’s biodiversity and maintaining his family’s links to the land. As literature, English Pastoral has great resonance—but can Rebanks’ example be widely emulated?
In The Omnivore’s Dilemma, Michael Pollan recounts his visit to Virginian farmer, Joel Salatin, during which time he observes how Salatin moves animals from one pasture to another: a natural way of managing fertilization and pest control and minimising soil disturbance. As Salatin’s cattle graze, their hooves aerate the soil, and they leave behind manure that replaces the nutrients lost via the grass they eat. Moving them to fresh pastures at regular intervals allows them to continue to spread nutrients and prevents overgrazing, soil compaction and the excessive build-up of faeces. After the cattle have been moved to a new pasture, Salatin moves chickens onto the freshly grazed fields, which they can now navigate easily since the grass is less than 16 cm high. The chickens feed on fly larvae and pests growing in the cattle manure—thus lowering the risk of an infestation—while adding their own nutrients to the field via their droppings. This interplay between cattle and chickens approximates a symbiotic sequence between herbivores and birds that is typical in natural prairie ecosystems. It allows the farm to produce a greater volume of beef, chicken and eggs than if it were a monoculture. The bonanza harvest would not be possible, however, without Salatin’s careful regulation of the animals’ movements.
Salatin, who was an iconoclastic celebrity in the world of sustainable agriculture until recently, is an evangelist for the profitability of his approach. Indeed, farmers in many societies once raised multiple crops in the same field before exposure to world markets encouraged them to focus on maximizing a single crop’s yield, adopting the methods of industrial agriculture to do so. The multi-cropping approach is considerably more productive per acre than industrial farming techniques—but it requires a much more careful, contextualized approach to management and a great deal more human labour.
Although Salatin’s approach suggests that sustainable practices can become profitable, farmers who are used to conventional agricultural methods and unfamiliar with sustainable methods are understandably cautious about making a switch. Though agricultural training programmes increasingly teach innovative sustainable farming techniques, the influence agribusiness wields in many agricultural colleges and extension offices can nevertheless discourage farmers from embracing those techniques wholeheartedly.
Another obstacle to increasing sustainable farming practices is that current distribution systems can make it difficult to get sustainably raised products to consumers efficiently. While many supermarkets post feel-good signs touting their support for small producers, they also want to be able to order foodstuffs in large quantities, and to rely on receiving them consistently—and current distribution systems are set up to enable them to do that. The seasonality and perishability of most sustainably farmed produce—and the relatively small output of most sustainable farms—are a poor fit for this framework, as many farmers have discovered when they seek to make their operations larger in scale. Thus it would probably be more effective for sustainable farmers to avoid the use of conventional distribution systems and either join together to build new distribution systems, or create their own retail markets.
In the northeastern United States, where I live, farmers have done just that, with the help of local government, by offering weekly open-air farmers’ markets during the warmer months. This effort could be expanded by offering these markets multiple times a week and eventually even daily—for which they would need permanent indoor venues. More sales outlets would allow sustainable farmers to achieve more sales, opening up more space for competition among their number and allowing them to offer lower prices, which would enable such markets to compete more successfully with conventional grocers.
Another promising model is offered by Walden Local, a relatively new regional collective of sustainable animal farms, which delivers meat directly to consumers’ homes. As of April 2020, Walden Local had already served 18,000 customers. Although sustainable production standards make it much more costly for member farmers to raise animals, Walden pays them decently and by pooling their meat achieves efficiencies in its storage and distribution network that enable it to charge a price many consumers are willing to pay. Indeed, as it is a meat-based operation and meat is not a seasonal product, it is able to offer customers more control over which products they receive—unlike most farm delivery schemes, which offer prepared weekly boxes to customers, since such farms can only provide the produce that is in season. This suggests that sustainable livestock farmers may find it easier to appeal to customers than those who exclusively grow plant crops.
Farmers’ markets and consumer-supported agricultural groups like Walden will not completely supplant industrial agriculture, because they are best suited to farmers who live relatively close to consumers and who raise crops or produce meat that requires little refining before sale—but over time, such groups could thrive alongside agribusiness, and even partially replace it. The groups also offer a cultural benefit: they increase direct interactions between rural and urban residents. One of the saddest consequences of the industrialization of agriculture is that it has obscured the socioeconomic relationships that link producers with consumers. In societies that are plagued by rural–urban misunderstandings and mistrust, making these links more visible and personal could help ease this antagonism.
Unfortunately, the emerging movement known as rewilding aims to move society in the opposite direction. Advocates of rewilding, concerned about the loss of biodiversity and climate change, seek to restore wild ecosystems, particularly by reintroducing keystone species such as wolves, lynx and elephants to their former habitats. In Europe, rewilding projects have sprung up in remote areas of the continent. Rewilding Britain has called for “30% of land and sea to be restored for nature by 2030”—and this goal also seems to be endorsed in the Biden administration’s current conservation plan.
While it is imperative to increase planetary biodiversity—and reintroducing keystone species is a worthy goal in places where it is safe and feasible—many current rewilding proposals seem impracticable—and even if they could succeed, they could have significant negative effects. George Monbiot, environmental writer and cofounder of Rewilding Britain, has explained in an interview that he believes humans should have only a very small role as managers in rewilded landscapes: he claims that reducing human intervention is critical to restoring the dynamism of those areas. Rewilding Britain’s model would also prohibit active resource development—such as forestry or sheep farming—in vast swaths of the rural landscape. For example, Monbiot has called for the valleys of England’s Lake District—currently home to hundreds of sheep farms—to be given over to rewilding. Rather than directly forcing farmers off their land, he advocates ending current government farm subsidies, without which he says they would simply go out of business.
This approach would greatly reduce the number of people living in rural areas and would further concentrate industrial agriculture and resource extraction in urban-adjacent areas where those activities were still permitted—further weakening ties between rural and urban areas and intensifying the rural–urban cultural divide. It is also unclear how many keystone species could be successfully re-established without significant human management. The rewilding ideal is founded on a romantic vision of wilderness that perceives the human presence as corrupting. But leaving nature to its own purposes after hundreds or thousands of years of human management will not necessarily restore ecological balance. In my home region (as in much of the US), beavers have recently returned after a long absence, reinvigorating wetlands (sometimes to the detriment of landowners). On the other hand, our area has also been overrun by deer, whose numbers have vastly increased. They thrive in exurbia and gobble up a great deal of forest undergrowth, which dramatically changes the mix of species that thrive in the forest. Reintroducing wolves, the former keystone species, would help cull deer in remote areas, but wolves do not want to live in populated places—nor would most human residents tolerate them. Thus, there is no going back to a more balanced deer population without active human management.
It also seems unlikely that the idea of rewilding farmland will make much headway among people who work on the land. Since James Rebanks is a Lake District sheep farmer, it is not surprising that he opposes Rewilding Britain’s aggressive approach: it would destroy his livelihood and extinguish the rural culture he celebrates. While the idea of rewilding may serve as an inspiration, it should not keep us from looking to the example of farmers like Rebanks and Salatin for ways to promote ecological health in the arable regions of the world, where farms will continue to blanket the landscape. For example, where buffalo and other large ungulates once roamed, agriculturalists can raise herds of cattle that, if sustainably managed, have a similar impact on the land, thus helping to restore prairie ecosystems while also enabling their owners to make a decent living. The reality is that humans are now the dominant species in most places, and as such, we must continue to manage land—but also figure out how to do it more responsibly. In most places that are currently being farmed, the goal should be to do as much as possible to restore a biodiverse ecology while still maintaining agricultural productivity.
In the last section of English Pastoral, Rebanks describes a series of practical steps he has taken to diversify and enrich various species’ habitats on his farm. Though in the short term, these changes reduce the grazing acreage available to his herds, in the long term they are likely to increase livestock productivity by increasing the quality and volume of the grass on which his herds feed. For example, he has re-introduced curves into the course of a stream that had formerly been straightened to promote drainage—and this has restored a wetland that attracts a cornucopia of insects and birds. He has planted trees and restored hedgerows that provide shelter to songbirds. Meanwhile, his sheep and cattle thrive, supplying the wool and meat that produce income to help support his family and—if one of his children decides to follow his path—may enable him to maintain the farm long enough to pass it to the next generation. Nature thrives and the local human culture endures. It’s a realistic blueprint for making progress on our many environmental problems—and it stands a good chance of being widely supported, both by locals and by the wider public.