Food production will have to change to deliver the methane emissions reductions agreed at COP26. How will this work?
Last week, I interviewed a “regenerative farmer” in Fife who may have some answers. Claire Pollock has a mixed farm of animals and arable - she doesn’t plough but sows cereal straight onto harvest stubble. Cows eat only grass or silage and they move around regularly - so the farm produces a lot less methane per head.
Ardross farm has a shop, chefs who make food for it, seasonal vegetables, 125 cows and 1,000 acres of grain, some of which goes to Diageo for whisky production. They are not dependent on seasonal labour but employ 25 local people in permanent posts.
Winter is a busy time on the farm - once the tattie crop is in, the cows need to be brought in and there is essential maintenance to do. The farm shop has its busiest time in the run-up to Xmas and the farm’s chefs do a roaring trade in steak pies for Hogmanay.
Some argue that to reduce methane, we will all have to become vegan but as the regenerative farming slogan has it “it’s not the cow - it’s the how” . Cattle held in feedlots in the US eating pellets produce much more methane, and grasslands can sequester it, reducing the total emissions. The animals also make Claire’s arable farm more resilient to huge hikes in the cost of chemical fertiliser.
Why no ploughing? “If you sow straight into the stubble, it is better for the soil.” Deep roots protect against soil erosion and are good for the nutrients, soil organisms and wildlife. The downside is that this is also good for weeds, which have to be managed. Claire has been farming this way for ten years so she has developed some expertise in these techniques.
Claire says farmers in the area are interested in what she is doing. Ardross farm’s regenerative model is proving resilient to the vagaries of Brexit - because its staff are employed year-round they have not had to suffer the heart-breaking sight of seeing their crops left to rot because of a lack of seasonal workers. Some are looking enviously at Claire’s model.
“I am in a few organizations and I give talks about what we do. Farmers often come and sit at the back but they don’t usually say anything. I am lucky because my dad was always very open to the idea that we have to do things differently as farmers and adapt, but it can be a big deal to forget everything your dad and grandad taught you’ “
“Farmers get a hard time. We want to do the best for the land, but there are a lot of pressures.”
Farming in the post-war period in the UK was pushed towards producing large quantities of cheap food, but there has been a cost both in terms of environmental damage, production of greenhouse gases and also food quality.
Relying on natural methods means lower yields, less profit and more expensive food. But Claire believes the high quality of the product makes it worth it. “People say - how do you grow your carrots? They think they taste completely different - it is because they come fresh from the field to the farm shop, they don’t sit in cold storage for weeks, they don’t get washed in chemicals, and the soil they are grown in is very rich in nutrients”
Ardross farm food is not cheap - which may make this model challenging for the future of Scottish consumers, especially the poorest quadrant who already struggle to access nutritious food.
A food writer visited Ardross farm and wrote a piece comparing the Ardross chicken which cost £17 with a £3 one from a supermarket - the former won out in the end in price per meal as it was able to form the basis of several tasty dishes. But Claire herself points out that using a high-quality, high-welfare chicken in this thrifty way requires skill, a cupboard full of ingredients and a decent kitchen.
Claire is working with Fife Council on increasing the supply of local food to schools - but many schools in the area no longer have chefs or the kind of kitchens required to cook meals from scratch. There is no easy solution - but at least the conversation has begun about how to achieve a better result, hopefully one which will be better both for the children and the planet.