Episode #96 Regenerative Farming – the key to the Climate and Ecological emergency: with Ffinlo Costain (2 parts)
How can we reduce atmospheric carbon dioxide, build living soil from the chaos of industrial farming, while growing healthy nutritious food and restoring our devastated ecosystems? Regenerative farming has so many of the answers and this week we speak to the host of the FarmGate podcast, Ffinlo Costain.
We live in an era of empty food, vast food miles and a burgeoning ecosystem emergency that is largely pushed by a chemical-based agriculture system that is poisoning waterways, oceans, and soil, destroying the biodiversity of our land and waters and harming the health of humanity.
A regenerative farming system that works, in Ffinlo’s words ‘with nature rather than in spite of nature’ can do so much to improve our health, bring us back into relationship with the living earth, restore our devastated ecosystems, restore the water cycle – and draw down CO2 into the earth so that as we build soil, we heal our climate.
With so much to go right, why are we not doing this everywhere? That’s one of the questions I ask Ffinlo Costain, host of the FarmGate podcast and Founder and CEO of Farmwel, a company dedicated to helping generate momentum towards sustainable mainstream agriculture and aquaculture, focussing on the environment, people’s livelihoods, and farm animal health and welfare.
Ffinlo is in the almost-unique position of understanding the problems, having solutions and having the ear of people in power. So if anyone’s going to help us change, it’s him. Join us for a fascinating, detailed, inspiring pair of podcasts.
In Conversation – parts 1 & 2
Manda: My guest this week is the host of another podcast: Ffinlo Costain hosts the Farm Gate Podcast; and for any of you who are interested in farming, or the natural world, or the food that you eat, it’s essential listening. Ffinlo is also the founder and the CEO of FarmWel, which is a company that helps to generate momentum towards sustainable mainstream agriculture and aquaculture, focussing on the environment, on people’s livelihoods and farm animal health and welfare. Their priorities are to mitigate global warming, integrate agriculture with biodiversity and ensure that good, nutritious food is available for all. Which is, I am sure you’ll agree, an extremely laudable aim. But Ffinlo is so much more than this, because he is talking directly to people in and around government. He’s one of the few people I’ve spoken to who has actual agency; whose voice is actually listened to and who has a fantastically broad and deep understanding of the systemic issues around food and our ongoing climate and ecological emergency, and has ideas of what we can do to really make change. So we talked for a long time, Ffinlo and I. It turned out in the end to be two podcasts. We’re going to run them back to back. So if you listen to this one, the next thing that loads up on whatever is your favourite podcast medium, should be the second part. So, for the first time, people of the podcast, please welcome Ffinlo Costain.
Manda: So, Ffinlo Costain, what a great pleasure to invite you to Accidental Gods podcast. I have been a fan of Farm Gate pretty much since you started. So thank you for coming and how his life down there in Dorset?
Ffinlo: Well, it’s very good and Manda. Thanks so much for having me. It’s a very daunting thing because usually I’m the person doing the interviewing. And of course, here I’m in the spotlight. And just something I’m really curious about. How did you come across farm gate and why did you start listening to it?
Ffinlo: I’m a smallholder. We have Land. My passion is regenerative farming. I put ‘Regenerative farming podcast’ into Google or actually Ecosier because, hey, it plants trees. And I think yours was pretty much one of the top ones that came up. Can you give us the edited highlights of how you came to be the person doing Farm Gate and being the founder and chief executive director, the C-suite of Farmwel and all of the things that you do?
Ffinlo: Oh gosh, it’s I mean, how long do we have? I started in theatre and I dabbled in politics, and then I got to the point where I just really wanted to be able to make as much of a difference in a particular area as possible. And for me, land use and the way that we farm is kind of the Cinderella story in the whole climate and biodiversity thing. There’s been so much focus within climate change on things like transportation and energy; but for me, land use is the really big opportunity. It’s how we can solve these problems. But the trouble is, that so many people who are looking at climate policy or biodiversity policy or food policy are looking at one element rather than trying to put those things together. And in recent years, there are a lot more people starting to put these things together so that we start to get multi-functional Land use rather than just saying, Oh, this bit of land can do that, this bit of land can do that. And I think that’s really important. And that’s where regenerative agriculture comes in. That’s where the work that I’m doing comes in. And actually, it’s where the work that the UK has been involved in since the Brexit referendum has been positioned.
Manda: I’d like to drill down into a little bit of that before we start looking at land use, Farmwel, and what you just said about post-Brexit, which is fascinating, frankly. What politics did you dabble in? Because it was, from the conversations we’ve had before, it was interesting and I think it was relevant to what you’ve gone on and done.
Ffinlo: Yeah, it’s something I’m always very cagey about because I’m working with politicians from, you know, from all different walks of life. I don’t like to say, well, this is where I came from, but I tell you, because I like you Manda. I came from a family that was really active politically and at the time, you know, being active politically in the 70s meant that you were on CND demos that you were traipsing round American air bases, sitting in ditches, waiting for the police, finally to let the coach through to pick you up. And I have many memories of sitting in wet ditches in what felt like November. And so, you know, that was quite a sort of radical upbringing, I suppose, in that way. And as I got older and my parents got older, that sort of interest in nuclear disarmament then evolved into other things, like the environment. And my parents were not super active, but they were active in the local Labour Party. And then in the 80s, when the miner’s strike happened, you know, I was talking to my nine year old about this the other day. Because I thought it was, you know, an interesting thing for him to think about and the way that society pulls together and works together. But during the miners strike, you know, which from my perspective, as a 12 year old in nineteen eighty four-ish; it was something that was happening up in the north, but we were still going around the houses with cardboard boxes, collecting tins of beans and and other other foodstuffs that could be sent up because food was so important.
Ffinlo: Because if you didn’t have money, if you weren’t working, you couldn’t feed your family. And so, you know, that kind of links back, doesn’t it, really to to what we’re talking about here today. And so I grew up immersed in labour politics, flirted with the Green Party a bit later in life and became the first national party manager for the Green Party of England and Wales in around 2000. So, I did. I did two years from 1999 to 2001, trying to ‘New Green’ the Green Party. So, it was the idea that they had got a couple of members of the European Parliament, they’d got lots of councillors. They hadn’t yet got people in Westminster. So how do we take this party, that was very committed, had some really strong ideas, but was a fairly ragtag sort of group of people, because they hadn’t had the funding available to professionalise in that way. And how do we help start the process of professionalisation? So, I did that, then I went away and I kind of, you know, having gone through the general election with the Greens and having sort of helped write the manifesto… People were phoning up wanting to know how to vote for the Green Party and that sort of thing, and why they should vote for the Green Party. And all the time, I was just thinking, this is such a small party, they need to vote for the mainstream parties….
Ffinlo: They need to need to get that in. And obviously I couldn’t say actually get out and vote Labour because that’s how a change is going to happen. But I left the party fairly shortly after that general election; went back to Labour, stood as a Labour parliamentary candidate in 2005, worked incredibly hard, learnt an awful lot. Lost (came second), which was good because other Labour Party candidates in the region in the East were dropping from second to third. So, I maintained that second place, but there were no prizes for that. And then went off and got involved in farming and food and agriculture. And and over that sort of intervening decade, I became much less interested in individual political party, much more interested in pragmatism and actually how change happened. And I have felt incredibly comfortable working with the Conservative Party over the course of the last five years, to actually embed the changes that they have been talking about. They are in government, so there’s no point in talking to a party that’s not in government about how to make that change and working with them. Because actually, do you know what? It doesn’t matter which political party you’re part of. There are people… There are people who are a waste of space…but there are people who are genuinely committed, have some genuinely quite revolutionary ideas and who really want to create that change. And you know what, if we could somehow extract the competitiveness, the aggression from politics, boy, we’d make some progress a bit faster.
Manda: I’m writing that down so that I don’t forget to come back to that because I think that’s a really interesting concept and something I’d like to explore. But before we get to that: You’ve set up Farmwel and you are the amazing host of the Farm Gate podcast. Farming, food, agriculture and biodiversity, (and you always say those two together) are the core of what you’re doing professionally just now. So, can you outline for people why agriculture and biodiversity are for you one of the key planks of what we need, as we move into the transition time of the global emergency?
Ffinlo: We’re about to release a report about soil health. It may even be released when this goes out. And the concept of this report is that Soil Health is a national security issue. It’s an issue that we need to be thinking about globally in terms of maintaining peace and stability. And you know, you’re a writer. You spend your life thinking of narratives, explaining narratives, telling, explaining the way the world works through stories. And for me, an entry point five years or so ago, maybe even even longer than that… My eldest is nine, my youngest is seven…I became really aware of the fact that by the time they were my age (So I’m 49, about to be 50), by the time my kids are my age, it’s going to be 2060.
Ffinlo: Now, 2060 is the point of dystopia in many people’s minds. If we think ahead to what’s going to happen in terms of climate change; you know, we’re kind of thinking to 2040 and we’re thinking, well, is it going to be two degrees by 2040? If we get to twenty one hundred, there’s the danger that we’re going to be over four degrees if we don’t get our act together. Or even more; four to six degrees. And so what is it in 2060? And we look at the incredible catastrophes that we’ve had around the world over the course of just this last year, at a point at which you know, the world has hit one degree.
Ffinlo: So 6.4 million acres on fire in America. Forty five million acres of forest fire happening in Russia, which we don’t hear about. In Zhengzhou in China, (I’ve pronounced that incorrectly); Twenty-four inches of rain over three to four days; that’s a year’s worth of rain in three to four days. Australia has just had in New South Wales there have been floods this year, which is on the back of one of the worst bushfire seasons that just went on and on and on. And in Europe, you know, we’ve seen those incredible pictures in Germany, in the Rhine Valley of that Land collapsing. I mean, this is all happening when the world’s reach one degree. What happens by the time my kids are my age? And my fear is that that we’re really going to be inside somebody’s vision of dystopia. And so I want to stop that! You know, that’s my motivation. I don’t want them to grow up and to be struggling in a world which is really falling apart. And so the question is, well, how can we get there? And the low hanging fruit of energy and transport and to an extent, housing, is already being grappled with. But Land use just hasn’t been talked about, and I think it’s partly because it’s complicated. You know, there aren’t easy solutions with Land. You can’t just say, Well, we’re going to shift from fossil fuel based this to wind based that. It’s really complex. And at the same time, you have politicians and NGOs sort of vying for Land to be used for one thing or another thing.
Ffinlo: And that’s sort of just created even more complexity into the conversation. So what we’re trying to do in the work that we do is to reconnect those various different dots, so that we make a picture, make a vision, that people can start to deliver. And it’s a big change. I mean, you know, let’s not underestimate this. We’re talking about a food system that’s grown up over the last 70 years and got itself into an incredibly difficult and perverse situation. And we have to change that. And the challenge, you know, with climate change and biodiversity loss, you know, right he way through, is that humans are really good at evolving to deal with the changes that we face. We’re really good at seeing things and making a generational shift. We don’t have that time. We’ve got to do this evolving, we’ve got to do these generational shifts in a very, very short space of time. And that’s, you know, that’s why we’re having these conversations. That’s why you’ve got people from Extinction Rebellion, you know, on the streets of London, because people are finally waking up to the fact that there is some urgency about this. And you know, just, by the way, isn’t that fantastic! That we’re now having a conversation about how urgent it was? Because don’t forget, back in twenty fourteen – fifteen in the UK, the conversation was still about whether climate change existed or whether it didn’t. And we’ve got past that. And you know, Yay! Go us!
Manda: Yes, go us! Although I don’t have many Tory friends, but the one that I occasionally talk to, who is quite high up in the party, but not an MP; and the rhetoric that I get on every conversation, is there’s no point in us in the UK doing anything because ‘China’. Which, I guess, is what the Daily Mail is telling them to think. So leaving that aside, assuming that the people that you were talking to do think there is something worth doing; Can you outline for people listening how Farmwel, how the processes that you’re engaged in and are promoting, how it is in material and logistical terms, that moving towards regenerative agriculture can assist us in the climate and the ecological emergencies?
Ffinlo: Yes, I’ll absolutely try and do that in just a moment, but first, let’s go back to China because it is a really important point. You know, it’s a question that was raised at a kids party that I was at this weekend. That my lad was at; I was one of the dads. And one of the other dads said, “Oh, well, there’s no point in doing anything until China sorts itself out”. Well, OK. China is a newly emerged economy. It is still an emerging economy. Yes, they are absolutely industrialising, but they’re doing so in a context of a climate emergency and a pollution emergency, in particular in China. And the Chinese government is only too well aware of the challenges that they face. And although their strategy that they’re putting in place is for 2060 rather than for 2050 for net zero. Do you know what? Because it’s a planned economy, because China has a history of delivering on its strategies. I have much more faith that China might actually get there than we in a democracy where governments are changing every five years (and I’m not for one moment, suggesting that a planned economy is the way to go), but within a democracy, it is a challenge. Because, you know, we might go from something which is entirely Trumpian at one point, to something which is entirely progressive in another point. And one can unpick another, and you have society sort of changing the likelihood of success of these various different policies and strategies.
Ffinlo: We could discuss that. Because actually, that is what’s going to flatten us and that’s what’s going to lead to your kids and our grandkids not having a future. And maybe it isn’t that this is a good thing that we don’t have a planned economy. But anyway, sorry, I interrupted carry on.
Ffinlo: No, the only thing I was going to say was just on that. Was that, you know what I think is really important when people are thinking about what China needs to do is to think about legacy. And Britain was at the forefront of the industrial revolution. We have been pumping fossil fuels out for two hundred and fifty years. Our legacy is, if not the biggest in the world, almost the biggest. And there is some debate about whether the contribution from the USA is greater or less than the UK’s. But the UK has this huge legacy, and so I think that we have a tremendous responsibility to step up to the plate and make sure that we are showing global leadership and that we are recognising this historical impact that we have made. And helping other countries to see that because we are making the change and we’re leading that change; it becomes easier for them to follow. And to be fair on the UK, you know, we did have the very first Climate Change Act. We are doing pretty well on integrating renewables into our economy. But part of the challenge is that we’re no longer manufacturing. So actually, an awful lot of our emissions have now been sort of offshored. We have started decoupling our economy from fossil fuel emissions, but that’s because we leave these things to China. Exactly. Yeah, when my kids have stuff for Christmas, it’s stuff that you know, is coming from China as much as from other places. And it’s contributing to their emissions and it doesn’t show up in our inventory.
Ffinlo: So I have two questions because you’re obviously quite connected into the hierarchies that I’m not. I have never found that that argument of “we have a responsibility” has ever floated at all with any of my right-wing friends. They don’t care. They say, if we don’t have our nuclear submarines connected so that we really piss off China right before the climate conference… Or if we don’t open the oil field in the Shetlands that we’ve just given clearance to, then our economy will tank. And the Russians will or the Chinese or somebody else, will have an economic advantage. And what we did in the past is irrelevant. Do you find people who listen to the “we have a responsibility for what we did in the past” narrative of the people who are currently in power? Because my progressive friends all agree with that. But they’re not, as you pointed out, the ones making any difference to what happens.
Ffinlo: It’s a fair pushback. It’s a fair question. And I suspect I would probably agree. I don’t think I’d be going into a government minister’s office and saying, Look, you’ve got to do this because three generations ago, our grandfathers were shovelling coal into a factory furnace. No, I mean, I think people, generally speaking, don’t change what they do because of one bit of information. You’ve got to build a jigsaw. And that’s part of the argument. But I think, you know, when you’re talking to people, people who are not just on the right, but people who are actually currently in control and responsible for the way things are going; there’s got to be a balance and no government of whatever complexion is going to implement policies that it thinks is going to lead the economy into, you know, into the doldrums. We’ve got to find solutions that work economically, that work socially. You know, there were challenges around agriculture where, you know, if we start to produce food suddenly, in the way that I want to produce food, i.e. through regenerative agriculture, through agro-ecology. Then if everybody did that at once, we would see, you know, perhaps quite sudden price increases and there would be a real challenge there for the poorest people and to be able to feed themselves. We’ve got to do these things gradually and we’ve got to sort of identify that particular threat and work out ways to mitigate it. So that we can get food to people more cheaply, so that we can make sure that people have the right nutritional balance, so that they understand how they can cook particular foods, so that they can produce really good meals. Even if individual ingredients, the prices of those have gone up, that they can produce really good meals for basically the same price.
Manda: I’d love to unpick that, because we’re heading into an economic field, which is one that I understand. But I still would like, for people who haven’t listened to past episodes of our podcast and don’t really know what regenerative agriculture is… Yeah, what is it? And also, you mentioned agroecology. So, on a farm scale, let’s assume we’ve got, I don’t know, a thousand acres in Suffolk. I was listening to a podcast with a guy who has exactly that and is farming it regeneratively. What does it do? How does it work? How is it different from what they’re doing before they became regenerative – within the industrial agriculture model?
Ffinlo: So, so in basic terms, you know, we’ve used the terms ‘agroecology’ and ‘regenerative agriculture’. To me, they’re pretty similar to each other. Agroecology is more of a scientific term, whereas regenerative agriculture is a process by which you deliver agroecology. And there are again, various different forms of re-gen. But essentially, they are looking at four key principles. So traditional agriculture, as we’ve understood it over the course of the last 50, 60, 70 years has been about simplifying food production. It has been about making things, stripping things down, making it as easy as possible. Using synthetic fertilisers, perhaps, synthetic chemicals of one kind or another to add here, to add there, to top up deficiencies in nature. The way that some people would describe it and I have done myself at times, is ‘farming despite nature’ where agroecology is ‘farming with nature’. In balance with nature. And this is what we’ve got to do now, we’ve got to restore that balance, because soil health is plummeting.
Manda: Can you talk a little bit about soil health? Just tell us, when you say soil health is plummeting, how do we measure it? What does it look like? What does it feel like?
Ffinlo: It’s a huge question just in itself, but if you’ve got soil that has no life in it, then it’s dead. There’s a book called Farmageddon by Philip Lymbery, who runs compassion in world farming. And he describes very beautifully the way that some of the orange groves and almond plantations are in California. Where he says, You know, frankly, they might as well be/the soil might as well be a field of polystyrene balls for all the good that they’re doing. It’s just everything is brought in. Every nutrient is synthetically applied. Pollination is often done, you know, if not by hand, then by by machine
Manda: Bees that you bring in. You bring in 20 hives of bees. You let them be there for a day and then you take them somewhere else the next day. And the bees don’t like this.
Ffinlo: Oh, absolutely. And so, it’s trying to get away from this artifice that we’ve that we’ve created for ourselves, which has inherent in it all kinds of Catch 22’s. So, farmers, you know, I mean that farmer with his thousand acres that you were talking about. I mean, I shudder to think. If he wasn’t agro-ecological, if he was just a traditional arable producer; how many tens of thousands of pounds a year he would be spending just in terms of those chemical inputs, when nature can do the job for us. You know, nature is fantastic at producing the nutrients that it needs if it’s given the chance to. So what we’re talking about with soil health is moving away from…and here’s an aside: When I was a student, I went through a period of going from washing and conditioning my hair every day, (which is maybe why so much of it is falling out now) and when I went to the point where I didn’t want to wash it at all. I wanted it to regulate itself. Now, if I left my hair for one day, then it was fine. If I left it for two days, it was greasy as anything. It was just awful because it had become dependent on those conditioners and shampoos.
Ffinlo: Now if I did that two or three times, then by the second day my hair was regulating itself quite happily. It wasn’t a problem. And gradually I could sort of build up. And that transition from conventional agriculture to organic takes between three years and seven years, depending on the Land, depending on the products. And what that’s about is trying to help the soil to relearn how to regulate itself, to allow those natural nutrients back in, to allow the various fungal membranes in there: the insects, the tiny microbes, to get back in there and start doing that work for you. With organic agriculture, one of the criticisms of organic has always been that versus mainstream agriculture, you might see a dip in yield. And so people have always said, well, you therefore can’t feed the world because we need so much more food to feed the world and organic won’t be able to do that well. I mean, a couple of things, though I’m going to keep getting diverted. Keep pulling me back Manda.
Manda: That’s good. It’s good. Keep going.
Ffinlo: And so first of all, we can already feed a world of nine billion people, even though we don’t yet have a world.
Manda: We just need to distribute the food better
Ffinlo: We need to distribute it better and stop wasting so much. And people talk in terms of wasting a third of the food that we have. But actually, I saw a report, you know, a few years ago that showed that if you include obesity as a type of food waste (more calories than individuals need), then actually half the food that’s currently produced is wasted, which is just madness. And so we can feed the world with a dip in yields. The question is what we’re producing and how it’s how it’s distributed.
Manda: I am having interesting conversations. I was spat at in a public meeting by a guy who’s an organic farmer because I was talking about regenerative, and he said, “You’re just renaming organic”. And my argument was “no, organic can be great big fields of monocultures, with pretty much dead soil. You’re just throwing different chemicals at it”. My friend, who’s a (was before he retired), an agricultural salesman for many companies, said he sold more products and inputs to the organic people, they just weren’t from Monsanto. So their Land, you know, they probably didn’t have quite such bad run off into the rivers that killed everything. But it probably, you know; copper sulphate on potatoes; probably wasn’t doing the rivers that much good. But regenerative, my understanding, is that it goes very much further into working with the Land, at least on a practical level, if not on an energetic and spiritual level. And actually quite a lot of the regenerative farmers that I listened to, talk in quite spiritual terms about their connexion to the land in ways that industrial farmers don’t. Can you talk a little bit about that?
Ffinlo: And you’ve helped me an awful lot there, because this was exactly the point that I was sort of trying to get to. That organic I’ve always seen as, and it may well be that I get spat at by an organic farmer for saying this, is not mainstream agriculture, but it’s a different kind of mainstream. It’s still about rules. It’s still about managing inputs as much as it is about outcomes. And so, it’s a kind of a lighter version of mainstream. And the reality is that an awful lot of organic farmers today are actually farming agro-cologically; they’re going much further than they have to within organic certification. And they, you know, they might be farming regeneratively or using adaptive multi-paddock grazing, which is one of the tools that’s used within regen with livestock. What regenerative agriculture is doing, it is, I mean, for some people, for many people, it does have that slightly spiritual element. But it’s getting back in there with nature, understanding nature’s processes in a way that you don’t have to if you’re effectively given a manual of how to produce something. And really thinking about how the hydrology works. Making sure that water flows properly in the soil that you have. Really focussing on photosynthesis, making sure that you are getting maximum energy from the sunlight. That you are encouraging and allowing, enabling, the nutrients to cycle from the top of the soil further down the soil, from the hedgerow into the middle of a field. And that you are encouraging complexity rather than managing simplicity to one extent or another. You’re encouraging complexity because it makes your farm healthier or makes your livestock healthier; makes your crops healthier. But it’s just good enough to be complex. You’ve got to be complex and connected. So, it’s encouraging that connectivity as well. And so what regen agriculture is doing, is helping farmers to understand those principles and then work individually on their farm in a bespoke way, to make sure that their farm is as productive as it possibly can be. And so, you know, from that perspective, there are a lot of, you know, regenerative purists, who would say, “Well, you can’t just sum up what regenerative agriculture is. You can’t just just pin it down”. Which I think is often unhelpful, because it doesn’t give people a vision and the way through to understand it on their land. But actually, it is about those principles. It’s about stepping away and taking a risk.
Ffinlo: And a lot of what the Farm Gate podcast is trying to do. Specifically, I mean. We tried this within Farmwel as well, but particularly the Farm Gate podcast. Is about de-risking regenerative agriculture, by having farmers come on and talk to me about some of the challenges they’ve had, some of the the risks that they’ve taken that haven’t worked, but also to talk about the things that have worked. So that farmers who are thinking of becoming regenerative, can feel much more confident that they’re doing the right thing. And farmers are fantastic rubberneckers. When I used to live in Scotland, you know, the farmer I lived next to dug a hole in the field. I didn’t know why he dug a hole in the field. I’m not sure anybody else knew why he’d dug a hole in the field. But lots of other farmers then dug holes in the field. I think he was trying to solve drainage because because he had a drainage problem, and so he was digging a hole in the field. I mean, goodness knows why, because it didn’t make any impact whatsoever. But the thing is that these days, you know, in the old days, you go back even just a generation, let alone a hundred years. The only type of farming that you could rubberneck around was what was going on near you
Manda: What you could ride to
Ffinlo: Exactly. Whereas Twitter, social media, Instagram means that people can rubberneck around the world, let alone just across the UK. And so, I mean, rubberneck is a pejorative sounding term. But actually, what it means is share ideas, knowledge; and there are huge burgeoning networks of fantastic farmers, regenerative farmers in the UK and elsewhere who are learning from each other, supporting each other, even selling products together, even if they’re at different ends of the country. And you know, it’s that kind of thing Manda that really makes me feel hopeful about the future, because there are so many people now who are recognising the challenges and the changes that need to be made and who are sharing information. And I can see the revolution beginning, if you like. The snowball is starting to roll.
Manda: Yes, brilliant. The thing that struck me most about a recent edition of Farm Gate, talking to Claire, where they’d won their award, was that she’s as focussed on the water retention of the soil, on water cycles. And watching the devastation in Germany, particularly when that mountain just basically washed away and even here in this, you know, our lovely Shropshire countryside… Last winter when we had big rain, there was pretty much an entire field that ended up on the road, beautiful, rich red soil gone. And I talked to local farmers and said, “we need to be planting more trees” and “oh no, can’t have trees, that reduces the grass and the grass….” And you think, no, actually, guys, listen, please…. We have to shift our focus on this. But listening to the regenerative farmers and the extent to which building soil health builds the water retention, changes its ability to act as a sponge. So that we’re not just solving climate change, because the soil holds more carbon, we’re increasing biodiversity, which if we increase soil biodiversity, we’re increasing plant biodiversity and therefore insect biodiversity, and therefore going all the way up to the many, many species that we are currently managing to extinguish. We’re also solving a lot of the problems of flooding that are heading our way. So it seems like it’s such an obvious multi win. My question then, is you’re working clearly at the higher echelons of the people in power who make the rules and regulations that define whether it is actually going to be competitive economically for farmers. Do they get, first, that this is necessary, and second, that this is happening?
Ffinlo: I think that they get that there are problems that they need to address, and I think that they get, generally, you know, some of the solutions that we’re talking about. The challenge is then how you reward, how you direct, how you use state levers to create change. And you know, if you if you want to sort of sum up the approach of different political parties in in a trite phrase, then when Labour gets in and has a great idea, they tend to tie things up with bureaucracy. And when the Tories get in and they have a great idea, they don’t fund it properly, so it doesn’t happen. And so it’s trying to sort of find a way through that. And actually, this government has done a very good job of having some really good ideas, but then wrapping them in bureaucracy and then not funding them properly, which is kind of a double whammy. And I think, you know, part of that challenge in terms of the U.K. is that Defra is a big department. I mean, there are 4000 odd staff and so inevitably issues get siloed. You’ve got, you know, a group of civil servants working on soil, a group of civil servants working on Farm Animal Welfare, a group of civil servants working on something else.
Ffinlo: And even, you know, when it comes to climate change, that’s managed by three different departments. I mean, or more, I mean, in terms of agriculture and land use, it’s three different departments. So you have the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, which is responsible for climate change policy. And so they want to drive down emissions. They therefore ask the Committee on Climate Change to come up with ways to reduce emissions, not warming, but emissions. And so the Committee on Climate Change does that, and it makes recommendations to DEFRA, that DEFRA then have to implement. And so it’s all very, very bitty. And so I think that they do get it. But at the same time, they have got to find ways of funding this, that fit within a spreadsheet, that fit within a strategic document, that the Treasury is going to approve. And so very often, Treasury is more interested in things like inputs. You know, pay farmers for putting a hedge in rather than understanding the outcome that’s trying to be delivered by putting that hedge in and rewarding that. Which might mean that a hedge goes into entirely the wrong place. I mean, that’s just a hypothetical.
Manda: It’s not joined up thinking. So, what we need to do is buy them all a copy of Mariana Mazzucato’s ‘Mission Economy’ and lock them in a small room till they read it, because she has got the ideas of how to create joined up thinking in government. But we also, I mean, basically, we just need to sack the Treasury, don’t we? Because we don’t have time. So, speaking as a regenerative economist; There was a fascinating study done by positive money, I think. It was a while back. So, a different cadre of MPs; but one in 10 MPs understood where money came from.
Ffinlo: Ok. Yeah.
Manda: And I would be surprised if it was that many in the current government. And you said earlier that one of the problems with regenerative agriculture is if we all start growing the food in the way that needs to be grown, we’ll have sudden price increases. We only have sudden price increases if the government decides that, that’s how they’re going to let things happen. Because they can quite easily change their series of funding to farmers so that food is free. You know, we could easily make food free if that’s what we wanted to do; because money is an agreement and how we use it is our choice.
Manda: But we have these people who still see government funding as if it were a household budget and don’t understand that governments… There’s this whole, you know, labour taxes and spends… And they don’t understand that what government does is it spends the money that it makes because it’s allowed to make money. If I as a household made money, you would lock me up. The government spends and then it taxes. And if it chose to spend on the things that mattered and tax the stuff that we don’t really want, then you don’t need to have the taxes to fund the spending, you make the money and then it goes out and then you take it back. And my question always for Tories, and they never answer it, you know, they go, “the NHS is this huge money sink”. But where do you think the money’s going? Is the NHS putting it in a field and burning it? No, they’re paying people who pay tax. The only way it slides out of the economy is when it goes to the people who don’t pay the tax, and that’s because you’re not taxing them, right? You know, if you taxed everybody and you wanted it back, you could get it back.
Ffinlo: And because you’re not addressing the, you know, the conditions that create ill health, that can be avoided. It’s obvious, you know, we’re starting to do that or we have been doing that with smoking. But but obesity is, you know, it’s a huge time bomb. And there was a report, I think it was a McKinsey report a few years back, that talked about the UK economy and reckoned that obesity was costing the NHS or costing the economy, 47 billion pounds a year. And I’m not quite sure how they came to that figure, but it was the impact on the NHS, the impact on days of work lost, the impact on a whole range of different factors. And you know, so as you say, we can we can make decisions around that. I want to go back if I may, and I’m not quite sure how to segway neatly to what soil should be doing. And to that work that’s going on the FAI Farm and Oxford and flooding and soil health. Because I think it’s really, really important. And you did ask me earlier on, to sort of explain why soil was important, and I never quite did. And you touched on it. But I’m just going to give you a list here of some of the things that soil does and why it’s so important.
Ffinlo: So in terms of climate change, soil can release carbon, for example, when we plough. Or it can absorb and sequester carbon. There’s a fantastic bit in the film, you know, which has its flaws… But at the same time, there was still some really exciting stuff that happens… In the film ‘Kiss the Ground’. And there’s this sort of wonderful moment when the soil scientist who goes out to talk to farmers is showing what happens in springtime, when all the farmers are ploughing, and shows the huge carbon plumes that are sort of rising across the USA and travelling around the world. But then shows what happens in summer when the plants are growing, and it just absorbs all that carbon. I mean, it’s just the most…I think it’s only a 30 or 40 second sequence that he’s sort of showing… but it’s just it’s fantastic. You know, a picture can tell the story of a thousand words, but it really does in that instance. But at the same time as sequestering carbon, you’re if you’re farming regeneratively, you’re rebuilding that organic matter. And so if you’ve got livestock in your rotation that are pooing and weeing and treading plants down into the ground, rebuilding those nutrient, cycling those nutrients. They’re actually building soil or building organic matter. And although there is a finite amount of the geology, the rock that’s broken up, that’s part of that soil, that organic matter can build and build and build because we stripped it down so much over decades.
Ffinlo: And so that’s helping to restore biodiversity as well. For me, soil is the bedrock of biodiversity. If you get your soil healthy under the ground, then everything aboveground starts to flourish as well, from the smallest species to the largest species, if they’re given that opportunity. But also, you know, as well as that biodiversity restoration and that carbon absorption, that sequestration, we’re seeing climate adaptation as well. And you touched on this. If you have soil that’s functioning properly, then it is absorbing water rather than having water just run off the land to flood. But it’s also holding that water, so that when there is a drought, that farm continues to produce grass or produce other crops and continues to be productive. So if you’ve got the hydrology working, not only are you holding back water, you stop estates on floodplains further down the river flooding, and going through the harrowing experience of that. You’re also making sure that that that land continues producing food even in long hot spells. And in Australia, you can see where you’ve got regenerative farmers, you know, in places that were having sort of 20 or 30 years of drought, where everything was just barren around and about, you have these little green oases where people have been farming that way for that length of time and nature was still working.
Ffinlo: At the same time, you know, if we think of in the UK, the way that most people interact with farmland is through public rights of way and through amenity value. And if you have land that is working really well, that is working in rotation, where biodiversity is thriving, people want to be in that land, they’re enjoying that land and they’re saying, “Oh, farmer, you’re doing a magnificent job!” And they resent the subsidies, the financial payments that are going to farmers much, much less. And at the same time is doing all of this, by the way, that Land’s producing fantastic food and nutrients that are coming out of that soil are going into the food in a way that doesn’t happen otherwise. So there’s so much stuff that soil can do. And one of the, you know, you mentioned what Claire was doing at FAI and the award that they won – it was the compassion in world farming, food farming sustainability award, or something like that. It was a big award that they’d won. But it was with McDonald’s. McDonald’s were funding the work that they were doing. Now a lot of people, if they hear the name McDonald’s in association with sustainable agriculture, will find that, you know, really counterintuitive. But actually, McDonald’s UK has been pushing McDonald’s Europe and McDonald’s Global to move in more sustainable directions for a long time. And so now you have a situation where the majority of the cows that they’re using in a standard beef burger are from the dairy industry. They’re cull cows, the cows that are at the end of their productive dairy life that are then being reused as a waste product into McDonald’s burgers. They’re using UK producers, and they’re building up those relationships with the UK producers for four other beef products. They’re using UK potatoes. It’s RSPCA assured pork that they’re using MSC certified fish. It’s free range eggs, organic milk. You know, there’s so much stuff that they’re doing. And so, you know, if I want to go for a sustainable meal, you know, aside from the packaging element and the processing element. Actually, McDonald’s isn’t a bad place to start, which is a really weird thing to say. Which is great. But it also shows that, you know, there are big companies out there that if they get it, they can make really big change, because they have that supply base and we want to see more companies doing that. And the other thing I just wanted to mention was in terms of that whole soil and losing the topsoil thing, because I can remember, you know, really evocative picture that I saw a satellite image of Britain after a big flood event. And Britain almost doubled in size because of the topsoil plumes that you were seeing coming out of the Bristol Channel, coming out of the Thames estuary and other rivers
Manda: And the Clyde and the Dee. Yeah.
Ffinlo: And what you what you do with regenerative agriculture is to make soil more resilient so you’re not losing huge amounts of topsoil every time it rains; you’re retaining that and growing it. You’re growing more soil. You know, what could be better than that?
Manda: You’re also not getting the huge algal blooms that we also see on satellite pictures coming out of those rivers at the times when everyone’s been spraying their fields and it’s been going into rivers and gone out into the sea and killed everything except the blue green algae. So, so brilliant.
Ffinlo: Absolutely. And sometimes, you know, especially, you know, when farmers are in transition from one form of agriculture to regenerative, you know, there may still be a need to use the odd chemical here and there. But the aim is not to use any of that. And and if all farmers were just using a little bit of synthetic chemical every now and then, we’d be in a very, very, very different position to the way we are now. Where, as you say, so many rivers are filled with nitrates and other pollutants, which then just get washed into the sea and then the impacts of land based agriculture has a big impact on our coastlines and our estuaries and on the health of the ocean more widely.
Manda: And that’s it for the first part of our conversation with Ffinlo. Our conversation was so fruitful and so inspiring and so, frankly, fascinating that I really didn’t want to stop. And so, rather than hit you with an hour and a half of our conversation, we have divided it into two. But the second part will be available, now. You can go and listen to the rest of the pearls of wisdom that Ffinlo was offering. And in the meantime, if there is any way that you can be involved in the regenerative agriculture of your area if there are a community supported agriculture projects, if there are small farms. If there are ways that you can contribute to crowdfunding to help young people buy a farm that can become a project for a community that can feed wider than the immediate local community, then please do whatever it takes to get involved. And for the rest, do whatever you can to ferment political change in your area. One conversation, one action, one movement at a time. So the second part of this podcast will follow on immediately.
Manda: So, in a minute, I want to head us towards looking to a future that is regenerative and that works. But just before we get there, you mentioned about the livestock aspect of regenerative farming and the faeces and the urine and trampling into the soil being an inherent part of building the organic matter. And I’d really like to just address that a little bit; that with your GWP metric, because so many people state that a plant-based diet or a vegan diet is the only way forward. And it worries me a lot. A lot of the statistics that have been generated about the devastating impact, particularly of beef cattle, are based on feedlot cattle in the states where they’re on concrete and they’re factoring in the carbon effect of mowing down bits of the Amazon to plant the soy to feed the feedlot cattle. And it’s a terrible abuse of statistics. So can you talk to us a little bit about why pasture fed livestock are an inherent part of what we’re doing? If they are, or if I’m wrong, tell me that I’m wrong?
Ffinlo: Yeah. And and just, you know, by the way, I saw an article this morning that was talking about the way in which so many of these plant based alternatives and alt meat products are actually owned by companies that are owned by, you know, the big meat corporations. Absolutely. So, if we’re talking about the difference between intensive agriculture and agro ecology, then to me, one of the really important things to understand is the role of methane. And you know, for a long time, we’ve been told, haven’t we, that methane is is a terribly bad thing and that cattle produce – they burp and fart methane – therefore, they are bad. And there’s been so much focus, you know, across the media on the role that cattle play in driving global warming. So, I think we have to understand the difference between fossil methane and naturally occurring methane, and I think that’s probably the best place to start. If we’re talking about methane that has been produced through millions of years worth of geological function and that is all coming out and being released very rapidly in the same way that we’ve done with oil; Yes, that’s a really bad thing. And so, you know, we need to be really careful to transition away from gas and towards wind and solar because fossil methane is a real challenge. However, when it comes to naturally cycling methane from cattle; No, it isn’t a problem in the same way. And and this is something that has confused farmers for four decades.
Ffinlo: You know, they’ve heard people telling them that that their cows are bad and they haven’t understood, you know, why. And I think this is one of the drivers actually of of climate change denial. When people don’t understand what it is that’s being challenged; where they think that they they they understand these processes and somebody’s telling them that black is white, then it doesn’t help people to believe in the problem that we have. So now, out of Oxford University, Professor Myles Allen and his team at Oxford Martin, who are at the forefront of of climate research ( Myles was one of the lead authors on the IPCC at 1.5 degrees report). Three years or so ago, they developed a new metric called GWP Star. And it was a revision on GWP one hundred. Now GWP one hundred is the standard metric. It’s not there in law – Nobody has to use that metric – but it’s become the standard metric for analysing people’s carbon footprints. And it measures carbon dioxide emissions very efficiently, very effectively. But it then tries to understand other major greenhouse gases, such as nitrous oxide, such as methane, as if it were carbon dioxide. But methane, particularly ruminant methane and terek methane from cows, operates in a very different way. Carbon dioxide has maybe a thousand-year half-life. It’s active in the atmosphere for a very long time.
Ffinlo: Nitrous oxide has an active life; five hundred years or so. The active life of methane is about 20 years. And so, if you’ve got a herd of cattle and it’s say one hundred cattle; and that herd of cattle has been more or less the same for the last hundred years or so, on that on that patch of land, certainly over the last generation. Then, although the methane emissions continue, because of this 20-year cycle, there’s no additional warming happening. The emissions continue, they hold warming up, but they don’t contribute new warming. And when we understand that, suddenly we have different land use choices. Because, if we think about the UK and the emissions from agriculture, I think about fifty seven percent of the emissions in 2018, related to agriculture, were from methane. Ok. So that looks like methane is the big problem. It looks like the thing that we have to fix. And if we’re going to fix methane, it means that we need to micro-manage what cows eat. To reduce the number of cows, micromanage what they eat. And so that becomes a justification for bringing them indoors and away from pasture, intensifying those systems. But the trouble is, that in intensifying those systems in order to address methane, we’re using more concrete to build more barns. We’re relying on intensive arable crops, with nitrates being put on them to produce the feed that then feeds the cattle.
Manda: And you’re losing the mob grazing effect.
Ffinlo: And you’re losing all these other effects as well. And so, GWP one hundred has been driving an intensification of agriculture. And it’s been doing it supported by all kinds of other different ideas that have been supporting that as well. So, there are many people in academia, in government, who support this idea of ‘Land Sparing’ where you intensify agriculture, you intensify feed production into ever smaller parcels and then you use other bits of land to grow trees to sequester carbon, then use other bits of land to rewild. What I want to see is is Land sharing; is agroecology. Where in terms of those individual outcomes, I mean, you know, pasture is never likely to sequester as much carbon as a Sitka spruce plantation. But actually, that pasture, if it’s managed regeneratively, with livestock in there, is going to do those things I was talking about earlier on. It’s actually, you know, if you’ve got maybe trees put in 10-15 percent, depending on that Land; then you’re going to sequester as much carbon in that system of pasture,better biodiversity, improved soil health, 10-15 percent of trees as your standard broad leaf woodland in the U.K. Which again, is counterintuitive. We think that a woodland is sequestering more carbon, but actually really well-managed pasture land with some trees integrated is absorbing as much carbon.
Ffinlo: And so, what GWP Star, (this new metric that accurately characterises methane) does, is to show us the opportunity to deliver agroecology. It shows us the inefficiency of the metric, which is commonly used, in order that we can better understand the way that livestock exist in a system. And the IPCC report that came out in August was really clear about this. Although governments across the world still shy away because they don’t know what to do with the information. It doesn’t fit the narrative. A narrative is terribly important in politics. But the report says really clearly that GWP one hundred overstates the value of existing methane by a factor of three to four, and it undervalues the importance of new sources of methane by a factor of four to five. In other words, it’s just a completely crap metric. So why on earth aren’t we using an accurate metric so that we can understand land use?
Manda: Brilliant. Brilliant. I did read a paper probably four or five years ago about methanotrophs in the soil. If you have living soil, there are methanotrophs that take in the methane that the cows are eructating and actually use it to build soil structure. And so even less of, you know… Because they do these studies on cows on concrete and they kind of put bags around their faces… And they don’t look at the systemic stuff that’s going on.
Ffinlo: One of the challenges of academia is, you know, people are extremely good at studying quite small things really deeply.
Manda: In isolation. Yeah…
Ffinlo: And what we need to do is to reconnect the dots. And politicians are really well placed to do that, because, you know, very few of them are expert in anything particular. What they are is fantastic generalists. You know, they have to understand an awful lot about an awful lot of things very rapidly. And so, we need to listen to the scientists who have fantastic knowledge about this one thing in isolation, but then listen to other scientists, and then listen to practitioners on the ground, so that we can draw these things together and get to where we want to be. And you ask me about the Global Metric that sustainable food trust have been working on. And you know, carbon is, of course part of that. But what they’re trying to do, and you know, we’ve worked on this as well, and we’ve contributed actually to the work the Sustainable Food Trust has been championing here. And FAI has been working on metrics. So, FAI Farms who I work alongside, and provide an awful lot of the veterinary and sustainability expertise that I draw on in the advocacy work that I do. You know, we’ve all been looking at different metrics, but what what they’ve been trying to do is to say, well, a metric that works well in the UK might not necessarily work well in the Yemen.
Ffinlo: So so let’s try and look at metrics that account for sustainability in the round; that look at the biodiversity elements, the climate change elements, look at the adaptation elements, the water elements, the farm animal welfare elements. Look at the social elements, for people, and the type of jobs that they have; whether they’re good jobs or just monotonous, repetitive jobs and whether people have a pension, you know, as part of that package, for example. And so, it’s a series of metrics, and I forget how many different categories there are. I think there are 14 categories; at least there were 14 at the point at which I last read through the the work. And then there are some sub-metrics. But what they’re trying to do is to say ‘these are the key metrics when you are measuring the impact of agriculture’. If you are wanting to deliver sustainability, you want to see progress; outcome progress against as many of these as possible. And so stop fixating on inputs, stop telling people what they need to do to achieve such and such. Put a bit of trust and a bit of faith in individual farmers and land managers to know their own Land and their own businesses; and also empower them to better understand their Land and businesses by saying “This is the outcome that we want: better water infiltration, more worms, more carbon”, for example. And then give them the opportunity to go and solve that problem and then reward that outcome, if at all possible, at the end of it.
Manda: Brilliant, beautiful. We might do an entire episode on that particular metric because it does look very interesting. It looks remarkably like Kate Raworth’s doughnut economic model when I look at it on the screen. I doubt it’s accidental, too. So, thank you. I would really like to see if we can build forward to a vision of how the future could be if everything that you are proposing is taken on board. And I want to do this in the context of a report that came out within the last couple of days, and I will need to go and find it and put it in, the show notes. But essentially, they looked at the commitments that governments have made towards their Paris Agreement goals. And three governments; Russia, Brazil and one that I can’t remember; their stated commitments would see their carbon emissions definitely increase. But the underlying nature of this and the way that the numbers panned out, was apparently that instead of getting to net zero by 2030, which is what we absolutely have to do for your children not to grow in something that is the equivalent of Handmaid’s Tale; we are heading towards a 16 percent increase.
Manda: One six percent. And Boris Johnson, also, bless his little cotton socks, apparently on the plane back from the states was asked how much he rated the chances of COP26 in Glasgow being quote ‘successful’, and nobody defined the metric of success, and he said 60 percent. Six zero. And given that he’s very well known for talking things up, my feeling is that that actually means zero, but he doesn’t want to say that yet. Which is deeply distressing on every level. So, let’s pretend that we could imagine the best outcome for COP. That the Chinese premier wasn’t massively pissed off by the nuclear shenanigans of the UK, the US and Australia. That the French prime minister wasn’t massively pissed off by the same unnecessary action two weeks before a cop, whatever. And that everybody was actually working together on this…everybody got the necessity of it. How could we restructure the global systems to work? I realise that’s a very, very big question. But I also think that you are in the realms of thinking about this and you’re one of the few people who might have some answers.
Ffinlo: I mean, it is a big question, and I think you’re going to have to help me through this a little bit Manda. I mean, I think, you know, part of the challenge around COP is that it’s all very well for people to make commitments; and as you say, we know that even just with the commitments that we have at the moment, that we’re not yet in the right ballpark by any means. But just making a commitment. So there’s a website called Climate Action Tracker, which is looking not just at where we would be with the commitments going into cop, but where we are currently with the policies that actually exist on the ground at the moment. And we, you know, we touched on this earlier, didn’t we, around the challenges of delivering rapid change in a democracy. And this is, you know, this is what most of the world is grappling with. Is how can we get to where we need to be without crashing the economy, without collapsing society and while retaining the permission of the citizens in any given nation to continue putting in place our plan of government. And so every government, every political party is wrestling with this. And I think, you know, if I’m completely honest with you, I think we’re going to get it wrong before we get it right. And we’re going to continue getting it wrong before we get it right.
Manda: We haven’t got time to get it wrong Ffinlo.
Ffinlo: No, we don’t. But I think that we are stuck in a cycle where we will start to see some degree of societal collapse before people then manage to accept that the radical change to their own individual lifestyle is necessary, to the point at which they keep voting for the people who are making their lives more difficult. And this is the challenge for government. I think governments understand this to an extent, which is why they keep kind of fudging the issue and why delivery is slow. Go on, Manda….
Manda: Yeah, because I have a question on this. So I went to a public meeting with our local parish council last Thursday night, and we had a lovely chap from some other parish council, or an agglutination of parish councils, coming to talk to us about how we were going to persuade everybody locally to change their behaviour. And my blood pressure was doing very bad things to my head. Because it seems to me: this is the Al Gore thing; that we all need to change our behaviour. And yes, we do. But I can change my behaviour as much as I like, and my government still thought it was fun to have a Red Arrows fly-past at the convention down in Cornwall in the summer that was supposed to be about climate change, which blew my entire carbon budget from my entire life in five minutes. They’re still opening an oil field in the Shetlands. They’re still pouring billions of pounds of our money, technically, into fossil fuel companies. I can change my behaviour. I can go and live in a strawbale hut on the west of Wales and eat stuff that I’ve grown on the land and all my family can do the same. And it will not matter at all if we still have a government that doesn’t get it. But the government could… People wouldn’t have to change their behaviour at all. They could tax fuel properly. They could stop their incentives to fossil fuels tomorrow. They could stop HS2 tomorrow. Apparently, you can’t get concrete anymore in this country because they’ve taken over the two major concrete producers in order to pour concrete into a train line that we are never going to need. That won’t be ready for another 50 years.
Manda: You know, if it’s ready in another 50 years… As you pointed out, the whole society will have collapsed. And my real fear is if we get to the point of societal collapse, well, it’s too late. We won’t have the infrastructure to make the changes that we need. We need to use the fossil fuels that we’ve got now to be building wind turbines; or to stop building stupid (expletive deleted) roads (because I like our podcast rating) and you know, we could put that money into fixing the roads that we’ve got and building electric vehicle infrastructure. If we think electric vehicles are the way forward (I’m not convinced about that, but that’s a separate conversation). I’m ranting at you and this is… I’m asking you the questions. But it’s not just about individual people changing their behaviour, it’s about the government joining up its thinking and not starting nuclear adventures. My understanding is that currently, our defence CO2 spending isn’t counted because that’s a political secret. Whatever we call security, national security secret. And I spent a short amount of time in the army. I’ve walked around barracks that were built in the 60s. Single skin brick kept hot enough that everybody is walking around in t shirts and shorts. And then we walk outside… And that’s nothing to what they spend…. You know, I live in a place where when the people in East Anglia get a little bit tired in the RAF, they come for a jaunt out to Wales and back in their jets. And we’re not counting that in our climate emissions budget. We have to stop.
Ffinlo: I mean, you’re completely right that it is governments that need to deliver the biggest change and that, you know, a few individuals, a small percentage of individuals can do everything under the Sun to change their own lifestyles; but if the government doesn’t legislate for change, it’s entirely meaningless. And so from that perspective, you know, the most powerful thing that an individual can do, you know, much as it’s really important to change your energy supplier to a to a green energy supplier…
Manda: To one that hasn’t gone bankrupt in the last week.
Ffinlo: Indeed. But the most powerful thing you can do is vote. And you know, at the last general election, I kind of said to as many people as I possibly could “I’ve stopped supporting Labour, Lib Dem, Tory, whoever it is. I don’t support any of you anymore”. What I support is the party that I believe is going to make the biggest difference in terms of climate change impact in terms of green policies. And if we all did that and we supported government when they made some of these really quite difficult decisions that they need to do in order to show leadership, then we’d be in a very different place. And the vote remains a very, a very powerful thing. But beyond that, I think, you know, it’s difficult for anybody. I mean, it’s frankly… Even a prime minister or a president to put in place every change that’s necessary. What we can do, is work with people who are actively making change despite government, despite other things that are going on. Which brings us back to Land, brings us back to the farmers, the agro-ecological farmers, who are doing fantastic things. And you know, as part of that, this is the system reform that I want to see and that I’m part of. You know, the NHS Education, Transport, those are things for other people, you know, to work on. But in terms of land use and food systems, we’ve talked a lot about farming, but the system itself needs to change because there’s a whole life for food. Once it leaves the farm gate, farmers only earn about nine or 10 percent of the retail price.
Ffinlo: So what’s happening in the rest of the food system? And we need to allow greater complexity in that food system as well. We need more small and medium sized farmers, rather than allowing and encouraging the aggregation of farms so that we just have fewer ever larger farms. We need shorter supply chains that aren’t reliant on great big global Just-In-Time processes. That we actually have much greater national independence, in terms of the food that we’re producing and eating. Increase seasonality, you know, brings seasonality back; so that, you know, we’re eating things that can actually be grown in a country at a particular time. And really reduce that food waste, which, you know, when you’ve got young kids, you know, it’s really difficult. But at the same time, you know, for most of us, we can do something around that. And that will require new infrastructure. As I was saying before, around methane and livestock. Livestock in and of themselves aren’t a problem. If those livestock are produced in fossil fuel hungry systems, that’s a problem. So let’s get back to pasture based agroecology.
Ffinlo: But we’re going to see, or we should see, a redistribution of livestock around the country. Which means that we’re going to need more small abattoirs, with really good welfare outcomes to achieve that. So we need to invest in our infrastructure. And you know, and it’s quite interesting looking at the difference between what Wales is doing post-Brexit and what England is doing post-Brexit. Because England had a fantastic conversation, you know, world leading conversation in those sorts of three years or so after the 2016 referendum that was led by Michael Gove. And it was a really exciting time, because we were genuinely talking about how we could transition farming from this sort of ‘working despite nature’ to a ‘farming working with nature’.
Ffinlo: And the conversation was fantastic. But the policy delivery, I think, is going to be significantly undermined in England specifically by this sort of Tory ideology. This commitment to market principles, which to an extent can work with water. Yes, there are water companies. There is a reason for people to invest in farms to hold back water so that there isn’t flooding. But I’m not quite sure how it works with other public goods that have been identified within the… How the market functions there. And so I think that what we’re doing gets undermined there. And it also gets undermined by that other thing that I said the Tories tend to do, which is to underfund. So, the single farm payment, the Basic Farm Payment was around 90 quid an acre. The Sustainable Farming Incentive, which is this bridge policy until we get to 2024, when the new funding structure is is properly fully unveiled and put in place; soil is the big key element in there. But farmers are going down from, you know, they’ve been asked to deliver soil improvement, which is fantastic, I mean, that’s absolutely the right thing to deliver… But instead of 90 quid an acre, which wasn’t enough, farmers are going to be paid in the region of between 10 and 30 pounds an acre, which is just crazy.
Ffinlo: And here’s a figure for you. Farmers in this country have been pilloried by the press because they get three point one billion pounds of taxpayer’s money. Just administering central government, not local councils, just central government costs eleven billion quid. Farmers manage more than 70 percent of the British Isles, and we are paying them per citizen less than a pound a week to do that. You know, we get the countryside that we pay for and we’re paying nothing for it. So it’s no wonder farmers are having to make really difficult decisions. To me, we need to at least double the amount of funding that’s going out there for farmers to deliver these public goods. And in Wales, what they’re doing is rather than creating these market mechanisms to deliver public goods; they seem to (they still haven’t delivered it. They still haven’t decided finally what they’re going to do) but there are two key pillars of funding. One is a fund which will be per farm, but it may well be a kind of an acreage payment like we used to have, paying farmers for managing Land better. And I don’t know, but there was certainly a conversation around having really strong entry points to have access to that funding. For example, something as simple as doing a carbon footprint on your farm. It is astonishing that this is not yet mandatory, but it would be mandatory to get that payment. But then there’s a second pillar of payment, which is investing in the marketing, in the infrastructure, in those new small abattoirs, et cetera. In those new cooperatives and distribution systems to make sure that food is available from local farmers to be distributed regionally.
Ffinlo: And so, you’ve got a very different approach in Wales. And to me, it sounds very much more hopeful that in five years’ time, Wales and Welsh farmers will be in a much better position to deliver that improved sustainability. And my chief worry and the worry of many people, especially with the trading arrangements that we have where the government keeps being told by its own MPs that it needs to have a level playing field, and that food coming into the UK needs to be produced to the same standard as food that’s produced in the UK itself; that we are likely to see more and more farms going out of production and more and more zoning of land for trees here, for farming there, ever more intensification. And so all of those big hopes and ambitions from that three or four years of conversation when Gove was the secretary of state at Defra, are going to be undermined by this failure to pay properly for the public goods that have been identified and by this obsession to deliver market mechanisms to pay farmers to do what they need to do. And that’s a big worry because what we need to be doing is to be paying farmers to deliver multiple outcomes around biodiversity, improve food and nutrition and climate change mitigation and adaptation.
Manda: That’s very distressing, but it’s a very astute. And I guess the difference with Wales is that they have a statutory requirement to make every decision with a view to what the impact will be for seven generations. Which was the astonishing thing that happened when Welsh independence was gathered. So, supposing a miracle happened and you were appointed adviser to a government that was listening. You know, let’s pretend that we had the brightest and the best in charge at this time of total species emergency and that they wanted to listen to people who had the best ideas and they came to Ffinlo Costain and said, “OK, we’ll do whatever you say”. What do we look like, when your kid’s are not necessarily our age, but are in their 20s? So by 2040, how does Britain, briefly, What does it look like in terms of the Land and the way that we produce and eat our food.
Ffinlo: In terms of land and agriculture, we will see a lot more of what people might call ‘messy’ farms. So Clare has talked a lot about this at FAI that she’s had, you know, farmers and other people coming onto the land at FAI, complaining about the fact that it now looks messy because some of the grasses are growing to four or five feet high, you know, because the sward is so diverse and because the land is becoming so productive. But actually, you know, that’s not waste, it’s not mess, it’s productivity. And it’s being used to to produce food and biodiversity and all these other things. And so we will see more messy hedgerows, bigger hedgerows, we will see more diversity in the sward. We will see livestock across more of the country out in the fields rather than indoors in sheds, certainly during the spring, summer and autumn. We will see in the east of England; livestock being introduced into those rotations with arable crops. We will stop just seeing monocultures. And if people are going out walking, they will expect to see something different happening year on year in the fields that they’re walking through. We’ll be able to see a patchwork re-emerging from this kind of large patchwork that Britain has become, to sort of smaller fields being put back in place. And and I don’t want to sound like I’m techno phobic, because you know robots and data can be used to help us with that. There’s no reason why when you have, you know, small electric tractors which are effectively drones, that can work quietly throughout the night, you know, following the guidance systems that they’re using, avoiding dykes and ditches and work in much smaller fields than they were before.
Ffinlo: When we see the bigger fields, we’ll see lines of fruit trees and another trees, sort of interspersed between the arable cropping. We’ll see, you know, much greater diversity on an individual farm. And hopefully we’ll be seeing many more sort of smaller shops, many more delivery systems that are focussed on local food. Bringing local food to local people and people themselves will have embraced seasonality, will have embraced diversity. You know, I went around a high school just to have a look at a high school with my lad because he’s, you know, he’s 18 months from that transition. And, you know, we went into the domestic science area of the cooking area. My goodness, it’s so different to when I went to school! You know, we made a cake and that was it. It didn’t really know why we were making a cake. We weren’t taught about the function of an egg or the nutritional content of that; but that’s what they’re all focussed around now. So my hope is, that people will have a much better understanding of food and how to make sure that that nutritional diversity is getting inside us and our families, and that we’re buying it and supporting local producers. Now that sounds, you know, that’s quite a generic answer. And, you know, it’s slightly utopian, but at the same time, I think it’s really important. And, you know, but at the same time, big companies need to be part of that change as well. We talked about McDonald’s before. Big companies have a lot of buying power and they can be part of that change.
Ffinlo: We are just now starting work with big companies across the world in a global dairy project looking at how the dairy industry, which is ever more intensive at the moment, (this is at Farmwel, rather than the Farm Gate Podcast) how they make that transition to being regenerative, how long it’s going to take to do that, where those chief barriers are, where the hits are that they’re going to have to take. If the prices are going to rise, how are they going to manage that relationship with customers? Or change portion sizes so that even if the cost of the raw material increases, that those portions are staying at a similar price? So there’s all kinds of challenges in there that need to be done. But big companies, small producers and customers all need to be part of that transition. But what will Britain look like? It’ll be beautiful! It’ll be a lovely, biodiversity rich place where you go out and you can hear insects around you, where you are walking through long grasses with a huge diversity of wildflowers and species amongst that sward; where the hedges are full of, you know, fruit and haws and blackberries and things like that in the autumn time. And where there are livestock and orchards and all these things, you know, smaller field sizes, all these things that to an extent we used to be, but managed in a modern, more futuristic economy. I realise I could just keep on that sentence because it was getting longer and longer. Can I just finish that sentence again?
Manda: Yes, it was lovely, though. But go on
Ffinlo: Looking at something that provides echoes of what the countryside used to look like, but using modern techniques, modern understandings, up to date science to make sure that that land is properly productive and that the food that’s produced from that land is getting to people through a whole multiplicity of different channels. So, through supermarkets, through restaurants, through direct sales between customer and farmer, but also a big growth in online and the distribution around the country as well. And perhaps most importantly, that we’ll be seeing much less food imported to Britain and much more of the food that we eat actually produced in this country. Because increasingly, it’s not just important for us, but it’s important for every nation to do that in order to avoid the kind of conflicts that may arise over the next 20, 30, 40 years over food scarcity if we don’t embed that independence as quickly as we possibly can now.
Ffinlo: Fantastic. Oh, Ffinlo that’s absolutely solid Podcast Gold. Thank you so much. We are going to have to stop there. I could talk to you forever, but maybe we will come back for a second go sometime. Thank you very, very much for coming on to Accidental Gods and to point everyone to listening in to Farm Gate because it’s always this inspiring. Thank you.
Ffinlo: Thank you, Manda. Pleasure to be here.
Manda: And that’s it for the second part of our conversation with Ffinlo Costain. Huge thanks to Ffinlo for the depth and breadth of his understanding. For the intellect that he brings to this, and for the huge passion that lies behind everything that he’s doing. This is one of the most inspiring conversations I could imagine because Ffinlo has answers. We just need to find ways to make them happen. So if you’re listening to this and you have any influence at all, even if you only send a link to the podcast to your MP and beg them to listen to it, then please do it because we are right on the edge of the cliff and we need to be at net zero by 2030, if not before. And the whole of our agroecology system, the whole of the way that we relate to the Land, the whole of the way that we feed ourselves and become integral parts of the web of life is so foundational to how we are going to step away from the edge of the cliff. So do what you can and do it today. And we will be back as ever next week with another conversation.
You may also like these recent podcasts
How can we be the best possible stewards of the future for our children? How can we meet their eco-anxiety and teach them resilience, adaptation and give them the skills of systemic thinking that will help them navigate the uncertainties to come?
What is Power? How do we use it: both power over each other, and the power that fuels the world? How could we use it better?
At the darkest night of the year, a time of introspection & assessment of the year just gone, Manda talks to Della Duncan & Natalie Nahai.
Winter Book Round up with Manda – Best of the Fiction, non-fiction – and podcasts – to share this season
What are the best, most readable, most inspiring and most give-able books this season? Manda’s solstice list of her favourite Fiction and non-Fiction books read in 2021. Plus a bonus handful of must-listen podcasts.
STAY IN TOUCH
For a regular supply of ideas about humanity's next evolutionary step, insights into the thinking behind some of the podcasts, early updates on the guests we'll be having on the show - AND a free Water visualisation that will guide you through a deep immersion in water connection...sign up here.
(NB: This is a free newsletter - it's not joining up to the Membership! That's a nice, subtle pink button on the 'Join Us' page...)