By Graham Harvey
I’m reading a terrifying book about the nightmare future we face as a result of climate change. It’s called The Uninhabitable Earth and, as the title suggests, author David Wallace-Wells offers precious little by way of comfort.
We all know what’s heading our way, of course – rising sea levels, flooded cities, wildfires, mass movements of people. We recognise all of them as theoretical possibilities but we quickly push them from our minds. Well Mr Wallace-Wells won’t let us off the hook. “It is,” he says, “worse, much worse, than you think.”
In search of crumbs of comfort I started thinking of the place that inspired the BBC radio drama the The Archers. If it exists anywhere it’s the part of Worcestershire that lies south of Birmingham and east of the M5 motorway. It reaches down as far as Evesham and the Cotswolds, and in the east as far as the River Arrow and Shakespeare’s Arden Forest.
This was the countryside Archers’ creator Godfrey Baseley got to know intimately as a boy while delivering meat from his father’s butchery business. Historically it’s a fascinating area. In the Middle Ages it was mostly a Royal hunting forest known as Feckenham Forest. With the ending of Forest Law early in 17th century, a good deal of timber was felled to fire the salt-pans in nearby Droitwich, a producer of salt since Roman times.
Even so the countryside remained well wooded as the locals began enclosing land for their farms. By the middle of the 20th century it had become a land of small, mixed farms with an emphasis on grazing and livestock. It was a landscape of small fields and hedges, of orchards, copses and market gardens. Though there were arable fields, the land was heavy and best suited to grazing and livestock.
It’s no great surprise that BBC programme assistant Baseley should have drawn on his memories of this countryside for his radio drama set in an English village. Because of a preponderance of small farms, it was a heavily populated countryside with thriving villages. What Baseley wouldn’t have realised was that it was also a landscape that stored vast amounts of carbon.
Biomass is the term used by scientists for the sum total of living organisms on the land surface or in the soil. It includes animals, birds and insects along with plants, shrubs and trees. It also includes organisms living in the soil, as well as the decaying residues of plants and animals. In that countryside of the early Archers that biomass was huge. And since living things contain carbon, it was a landscape that locked up massive amounts of carbon.
The farming revolution that’s taken place since then has released a good deal of that carbon into the atmosphere. Hedges and orchards have been bulldozed out and the small fields replaced by large, hedge-less expanses of arable. What we now have in place of those small, war-time farms is a prairie-style landscape growing crops that need constant dosing with chemical fertilisers and sprays.
We were led to believe this mechanised farming was efficient and productive. But it turns out this isn’t true. Where I live in west Somerset a few hours of rain is enough to turn the River Tone in Taunton from its normal grey-green to the colour of a cappuccino. This is soil washing away, the result of all the chemicals that have gone onto the surrounding farmland over decades.
It’s not just the soils that are eroding. Our wonderful wildlife is crashing too. Insect populations have collapsed, so have the numbers of farmland birds. Many everyday foods are now contaminated with pesticides, and towns and villages have been made more vulnerable to flooding. All because the post-war policy-makers were foolish enough to demolish the treasure that was Archers Country.
With climate change now threatening catastrophe, will today’s policy-makers be brave enough to re-create those carbon-capturing countryside features, I wonder. Will the storms, floods and wildfires make them think again? Will we see a government-backed scheme to plant hedges, trees and meadow-lands across the West Country and elsewhere in Britain?
Rebuilding the biomass bequeathed to us by earlier generations of farmers would do much to mitigate the imminent climate crisis. And though it’s counter intuitive, it would also give us better food and a more secure food supply.
Along with my depressing new book on the natural disasters that threaten us, I’ve been reading an inspirational book called How To Nourish The World. It’s by a scientist called Hans Herren who led the biggest-ever study of global agriculture. He reaches the surprising conclusion that small farms are far more productive than large farms.
Across the planet, small-scale farmers produce 70 percent of the world’s food, he reports, on less than 50 percent of the farmland. They are more than capable of feeding a projected world population of 9 billion people. That’s as long as we don’t allow the chemicals of the biotech companies to go on destroying our soils, of course.
Are you listening, Mr Gove? Now we’re about to be free of the EU’s common agricultural policy, it’s time to think re-creating the landscapes of the post-war years. We need a countryside of thriving village communities and new hope for the future. Just like The Archers, in fact.