For several decades following the end of the Second World War we really believed that the challenge of feeding a growing population would be solved by chemicals and technology.
Now a new report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has laid bare how catastrophic this belief has proved to be.
The IPCC is the United Nations body for assessing the science related to climate change, and in the report it reveals the extent to which the soil – which should be part of the solution in combating climate change – has in fact turned into part of the problem.
Stable soils naturally absorb carbon, and can contain up to three times as much carbon as the atmosphere. When it is in the soil, carbon provides nutrients for plants and helps provide a resilient soil structure.
However, practices such as intensive chemical use, excessive tillage and lack of crop rotation actually cause billions of tonnes of carbon dioxide to be released annually from the soil into the atmosphere, in the form of greenhouse gas.
Our demand for red meat puts additional stresses upon the land, as well as creating an additional problem through the emission of methane (the meat industry is the single biggest contributor to global warming and is responsible for half of all methane emissions).
This problem is potentially reversible, if we make two huge changes.
The first requires us to adopt a sustainable approach to agriculture. This would mean nourishing the soil with compost and manure, reducing tillage, direct drilling seeds into the soil, diversifying the crops we grow and planting more trees.
The second would require us to change our diet. At an individual level this would mean stopping or at least vastly reducing our consumption of meat, and red meat in particular.
It is one of the great paradoxes of the current climate emergency.
The soil could be our greatest ally in stabilising and even reversing the damage that has been caused by intensive agricultural practices since the mid twentieth century. But while those practices persist, the soil has instead become one of the greatest sources of global warming.
Once the ingredients have been prepared this delicious dish takes just minutes to cook but it is seriously good food.
Indian-style vegetable and paneer stir fry
225 g block of paneer, cut into 1-2 cm cubes
1 onion, sliced lengthways into thin wedges
1 red pepper, cut into 2 cm wide strips
1 green pepper, cut into 2 cm wide strips
1 small head broccoli, cut into 1-2 cml florets
2 large tomatoes, each cut into eight wedges
1 red chilli, seeds in, roughly chopped
2 cloves garlic, roughly chopped
3 cm piece ginger, peeled and finely chopped
1 tsp cumin seeds
1 tsp ground turmeric
1 tsp ground coriander
1 tsp garam masala
1 tsp sea salt
2 tbsp fresh coriander, chopped.
2 tbsp groundnut oil
1. Place the ginger, garlic and chilli in a blender or pestle and mortar and grind to a paste.
2. Place a wok over a high heat and add the groundnut oil. As soon as the oil begins to shimmer, add the cumin seeds. After a few seconds they will sizzle and give off an aroma. Add the onions, chopped pepper and broccoli florets. Stir-fry for 5 minutes, or until the vegetables are beginning to catch at the edges. Add the garlic, chilli and ginger paste and the tomato wedges and continue to stir-fry for a further three minutes. Add the cubed paneer, turmeric, coriander, sea salt, garam masala and two thirds of the chopped coriander. Cook for a further two minutes, or until the tomatoes have softened a little. Remove from the heat.
3. Serve alongside some basmati rice, with the reserved coriander scattered over the stir-fried paneer and vegetables.