People are part of nature, meaning that human activity in ecosystems is natural. How do we make sure that humans are a beneficial influence in the world? In contrast to industrial food production, small-scale mixed farming can provide environmental benefits as well as social and economic advantages.
The position of Coetir Anian on ‘rewilding’ remains the same as that presented in 2019 on our website. The good aspect of rewilding as a movement is the positive outlook towards restoring nature at a meaningful scale across the world; and the hope this engenders for people in the context of the biodiversity crisis.
A problem with rewilding is that it remains poorly defined and therefore open to interpretation about what it entails, leaving it exposed to suspicion, or being diluted and broadened to a point of being meaningless. Another problem is when proponents of rewilding criticise other forms of land use, which detracts from its positive message.
Rewilding Europe’s definition ‘…..It’s about letting nature take care of itself…..’ – apparently excludes people from a management role in the landscape. This is not, in fact, characteristic of projects in the UK, which have demonstrated huge benefits for wildlife, see for example Knepp Estate or Trees for Life.
The goal of excluding human intervention comes from the narrative of humans being separate from nature, with consequent alienation from the land. It is a cultural artefact and a result of the clearances and enclosures that began in the UK during the 11th century that separated most people from the land and from the production of food.
Monbiot is a prominent advocate of the human-less landscape, arguing for grazing animals to be replaced by woodland in the uplands. In his article ‘The most damaging farm products? Organic, pasture-fed beef and lamb’ he argues the case for fake meat produced in factories to replace animal protein. This dystopian vision for society, where food production is increasingly industrialised and centralised, will make people even more dependent on large corporations, allowing wealth and power to be increasingly concentrated into the hands of an elite. It is no wonder that many of the other proponents of fake meat are, indeed, from super-wealthy individuals and corporations.
Monbiot’s article received a letter in response Demonising organic beef and lamb won’t help save the Earth’ from a number of organisations representing sustainable farming interests: Biodynamic Association, English Organic Forum, Food, Farming & Countryside Commission, Organic Farmers & Growers, Pasture for Life, Land Workers Alliance, and Sustainable Food Trust. In it, they criticise him for inaccuracies and for cherry picking evidence, ignoring research that undermines his position.
Another response, by the chef Thomasina Miers, ‘Eating meat isn’t a crime against the planet – if it’s done right’ draws attention to the health problems caused by highly processed food, and the concentration of food production into the hands of a few powerful players. She also mentions the benefits for soil and wildlife of small-scale mixed farming, which depends on animals to provide fertility to the soil.
The reliance on industrial-scale farming, with its use of ammonia fertilisers and chemical pesticides, has resulted in the devastation of wildlife, soil loss and water pollution. All this has undermined human health and the ecosystems that farming itself depends upon, and has created a society where humans are distanced from nature. The rationale for this is that it is more efficient to produce food as monocultures at a huge scale.
However the evidence shows that small-scale mixed farming produces more food per unit area: small-scale farms produce 30% of the world’s food on just 12% of agricultural land. Moreover, local small-scale production enables communities to be more connected to food production, by direct purchasing and by increased opportunities to work on the land. The Land Workers Alliance promotes agro-ecological farming and food sovereignty, which is defined as: “The right of peoples to healthy and culturally appropriate food produced through ecologically sound and sustainable methods, and their right to define their own food and agriculture systems. It puts those who produce, process and consume healthy and local food at the heart of our agriculture and food systems, instead of the demands of market and transnational companies”.
Agriculture is a problem if it makes the world less ecologically diverse and abundant. However, agro-ecological and regenerative farming practices show that it can be done in a way that helps other species. The Land Workers Alliance and writers such as Chris Smaje (A Small Farm Future) offer a hopeful view of societies with more self-reliance, direct involvement with producing for their needs, and a positive view of manual work. This is the only way we will evolve towards a society that can work in harmony with other species and provide a healthy and meaningful lifestyle for the majority of people.
It is important to embrace a non-dualistic view of humans and nature. Putting humans into a separate category from the rest of nature is nothing more than a cultural myth. Humans have always been dependent on the natural world and this is no less true today. We are undeniably part of nature. The myth inherent in our current political economy is driving the destructive behaviours that threaten our existence and that of many other species.
In ‘Braiding Sweet Grass’, Robin Wall Kimmerer describes how Native American cultures are based on respect for the natural world. These cultures perceive the role of humans in nature as helping ‘our cousins’ the other species to thrive, making the world a better place for all beings. This philosophy is promoted through religion and myth and is integrated into the economy. It is based on an attitude of abundance, whereby we take only what we need. There is no place for the greed and over-exploitation that comes from an attitude of scarcity. Sustainability is woven into all economic activity, with practices such as not taking more than half of the berries found in any patch growing in the wild, and planting nut trees around the landscape.
Including humans in our ecosystems provides a rationale for us to be ongoing drivers of positive change on the land. For example, we do this at Coetir Anian by planting trees to restore tree cover to the landscape. It also helps us recover our sense of connection to the rest of nature, which does not rule out producing food from the landscape, and restore meaning to human life through a sense of our place in the ecosystem.