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Farming in the UK began approximately 6,000 years ago with the gradual clearance of forest land to make way for fields for the growing of crops.
Over the ensuing centuries, and until the industrial revolution of the late eighteenth century, farming methods and techniques evolved at a gradual pace and remained relatively simple, relying upon sustainable practices and techniques handed down from generation to generation.
The introduction of mechanisation, which began to replace much human and animal labour, led to economies of scale which in turn led to improved levels of food production. Even then, our system of agriculture remained relatively simple and sustainable.
The next big step change arrived in the form of the so-called “green revolution” of the mid 20th century: the advent of agrochemicals. Suddenly, farmers were being encouraged by industry and government to use artificial fertilisers, pesticides, herbicides and fungicides, with the promise of greater yields.
This claim proved true, initially at least: yields of crops increased dramatically, but they did so at a cost.
Farming had ceased to be a sustainable industry. Smaller farms had started to disappear, replaced by larger corporate owned farms, a change that had been encouraged by government subsidies linked to land size. As part of this transition, the boundaries of smaller fields were removed as they became merged together into vast fields of single monoculture crops.
This loss of hedgerows, combined with excessive use of so many chemicals, began to impact on wildlife. Chemical-based farming also impacted on human health, and played a growing role in global warming, contributing around 10% of all greenhouse gas emissions.
Soils began to die, depleted of natural nutrients and sustenance. In turn, those once high yields promised under the “green revolution” began to fall.
And so here we are. Most of our agriculture is unsustainable and our soils are dying. The UK is now less self-sufficient for food than it has ever been, relying on imports for nearly half of the food it consumes.
Is it too late to try to repair some of the damage caused by large-scale unsustainable chemical-dependent farming practices?
May be not.
There is a very interesting experiment currently being conducted by the UK’s National Trust at Rhossili Bay on the Gower Peninsula in South Wales.
There, ancient field boundaries are being restored. Large fields are being broken up into smaller fields in a return to the medieval “strip farming” of centuries ago. Each of these smaller fields houses a different crop, including barley, millet, oats and sunflowers. The project is in its early stages, but the restoration of some 5.5 kilometres of perimeter boundaries has already led to increased numbers of nesting birds, toads, slow worms, bees, butterflies and other wildlife.
Losses of other species as a result of vast-scale agriculture is surely a price we should not be prepared to accept in exchange for the food we eat.
If you are reading this you are probably not one of those who needs to be persuaded that we must find a more sustainable way to feed ourselves, but it is incumbent on each of us to source our food in a way which encourages good farming practices. The more of us that demand sustainably produced, organic food, the more farmers will be persuaded to consider making the switch.
I love this salad, which takes just five minutes to put together. The simple combination of ingredients is given added oomph by the fabulous smoked paprika and garlic dressing. Once you’ve tried this dressing there will be no going back.
If you can’t source frisée, a member of the endive family, try this salad using chicory, radicchio or torn lettuce leaves.
frisée, canellini bean and avocado salad
1 whole organic frisée,
1 can organic canellini beans, rinsed and drained
2 avocado pears
½ red onion, thinly sliced
for the dressing
100 ml extra virgin olive oil
juice of 1 lemon
2 cloves garlic, finely chopped
1 tsp smoked paprika
1 tsp Dijon mustard
1. For the dressing, mix together the olive oil, lemon juice, garlic, smoked paprika and Dijon mustard until emulsified.
2. Wash the frisée and separate the leaves. Halve and stone the peeled avocados, and cut each half in half again lengthways, and once more, so you end up with sixteen long thin slices of avocado. Place these in a bowl with the frisée leaves, canellini beans and red onion.
3. Pour over the dressing and carefully toss to combine.