Climate change and the farming sector: recognising our responsibilities as leaders
Written by Helen Browning OBE | December 2021
I am Helen Browning, a Windsor Leadership alumna with two interconnected lives: one as a farmer and the other as CEO of the Soil Association.
In my farming life, I’ve tried to do the right things for wildlife, people and animal welfare especially, largely through 35 years of organic husbandry. But as the focus on climate gets ever more intense, and the role that livestock have, I need to re-evaluate how we are doing things, and accept that even for us, the ‘good guys’ as we see ourselves of the farming world, there are significant challenges ahead.
Joining the dots
The Soil Association is a membership charity established 75 years ago, to explore and communicate the understanding that the health of soil, plants, animals and humanity are ‘one and indivisible’. We were instrumental in the development of organic standards, in the UK and globally, and founder members of the Forestry Stewardship Council (FSC). Today we set out our stall as supporting the two transitions that the world needs now: to agroecology and sustainable forestry management, and to healthy and sustainable diets. We also own a business which audits against our organic standards, and also on FSC standards for forestry and chain of custody in over 65 countries across the globe, and develops the markets for these products.
At the Soil Association (SA), we seek to ‘join the dots’ between the climate, nature depletion and human health and wellbeing challenges. There is a danger that if we only concentrate on one of these, we will bring about unwanted outcomes. We plant fast growing trees, for instance, which are terrible for biodiversity. We need to understand the tensions and trade-offs, and to minimise these as far as possible. And we need to be working on consumption as well as production; for example, we cannot move to a nature friendly, low carbon future without reducing the consumption of meat fed on grains and proteins which we could eat ourselves, and which often drive deforestation in regions which are both the lungs of the planet and the home to much of our remaining wildlife.
Finding nature-based solutions
There’s been much talk (though possibly not enough) about ‘nature based solutions’ at COP 26. For many people and corporates, this still seems to be mostly about tree planting, but peatland restoration, the potential of marine solutions from mangroves to seaweed, and the role of soils are equally important. One challenge is that the rules of the carbon accounting game are not clear and so companies may be offsetting in inappropriate ways, effectively ‘greenwashing’ while land managers may be selling carbon credits without having yet achieved net zero themselves. So we are developing a balanced set of metrics including carbon, biodiversity, animal welfare and antibiotic use, water, soils and social aspects, with agreed methodologies for measuring and reporting these. Lots of organisations have similar ambitions, so we are negotiating and convening around how to agree ‘inter-operable’ standards, so that we can compare apples with apples, drive rapid learning…especially among the farming community…and ensure that progress is rewarded. This initiative, Soil Association Exchange, is currently being piloted on farms, including my own, and it’s certainly throwing into sharp relief the challenges we have as a farming business, to move from rhetoric into reality.
At the same time, the SA works to normalise good food, everywhere. Our main focus is schools, so that children from all backgrounds have at least one healthy meal a day, and are given the opportunity to experience the veg, fruits, pulses and whole grains that parents may be reluctant to offer in case they are rejected. We know too, that when kids have the chance to grow these plants themselves, they are much more likely to want to eat them! Our Food for Life Served Here standard is now used in over half of England’s primary schools, and by over half of Scotland’s local authorities; that’s over 2 million meals/day.
It’s hard to know how to feel about the long awaited and much-hyped COP 26. The voices that have had the biggest impact on me are those from the less developed world, or from the island states, whose future is being decimated by the mess industrialised and thereby rich nations have wrought. I feel the same outrage that I first felt as a teenager, when I failed to comprehend how it was possible to enjoy our relatively comfortable lives, knowing that people in many parts of the world were starving. I despair of our humanity, and therefore for humanity.
The need for alternative business and economic models
I despair too, of politicians and business leaders who cannot lead beyond their self-interest. But then, they have no alternative model for their businesses or their economies. How does an oil-producing nation maintain its way of life beyond oil? What can cattle-producing nations do without ruminant livestock? How does an oil production company thrive in a world without fossil fuels? And how unfair is it to expect countries still at the beginning of their development to give up the cheap fuel that has allowed us to become wealthy, without adequate help and compensation?
The transition to the future we need will be tough for many countries, businesses and individuals, and yet we have to make that transition, and fast. Are we really up for that? That’s an ‘us’ question, not a ‘them’ one. For states and businesses to act, they need to know that their citizens and consumers will back them, that we will accept the privations and disturbance to our current way of life. We must signal that, loud and clear.
A challenge for us all
What the Soil Association, with our many partners, can show is a way of living that puts the organic values of care, health, ecology and fairness at the core of our decision-making process, at the heart of our food system. We cannot have everything, but we can have enough. There is joy in constraint, of living within our means, of making things last, of moving away from the fast food, disposable fashion, single use world. And we must maintain the joy we experience of this extraordinary world, with its extraordinary people, alongside the anger and frustration. Relentless urgency, bold ambition, brilliant execution from a place of calm detachment and compassion.
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