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24 August 2022

James Rebanks’s Diary: Drought in England, sweat in Italy, and what Liz Truss gets wrong about farming

Somehow we have to feed everyone without trashing the landscapes our food comes from.

By James Rebanks

The leaves on the oak trees are white with the dust from passing tractors. The hillsides are frazzled, but the fields themselves still green. Half a dozen buzzards are circling high up in the blue on the thermals. The ewes and lambs are grazing in stuttering waves across the fields. Hundreds of swallows hawk above our fields. It’s beautiful, and probably the hottest summer ever.

Our farm in the Lakeland Fells is 500 acres of rough ground, home to good traditional sheep and cattle. This far north and west we have had just enough of the wet stuff to be OK. But much of southern and eastern England looks like the Kalahari. If those conditions are anything like the norm of the future, then we are going to need better adapted landscapes to cope with it. We can’t waste the rain that falls; we need it to fall on healthy soils that will hold it. Climate change is real, burning up the fields that feed you. We need to start taking sustainable and resilient farming seriously. China and Russia are grabbing land everywhere for the coming days of hardship – we are going to have to do our work in the only fields we have.

A good first step would be to have a strategy for growing and protecting a truly sustainable and safe food system in the UK that also gives us the nature we need. Spoiler alert: you can’t do that while competing under “free trade” and without state support with the worst farming on Earth.

Farmers in the middle

The cost of living is all anyone I know can talk about. People don’t know how they are going to make ends meet. We’d all like food to be just a bit cheaper than it has become. But life is complicated, and somehow we have to feed everyone without trashing the landscapes our food comes from. Inflation is killing a lot of farms. The costs of “inputs” – the resources used in farm production – are rising while supermarkets drive product prices down, and farmers are caught in the middle. We’ve worked hard to reduce our use of inputs to survive, shifting to more natural practices, and it is paying off. I’m glad not to be reliant on synthetic fertiliser: it was £300 a tonne not long ago, but it’s now more than £1,000.

[See also: In drought-struck England, I have a moment of connection with another living creature]

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Truss’s barren thinking

Wow. They have found someone as stupid as, and potentially more dangerous than, Boris Johnson – assuming we will get Liz Truss as our dear leader. I’d hoped the long Brexit nightmare was over and people of reasonable competence would start running things again (even if I disagreed with them about lots of stuff). Let’s be honest, Truss can barely string two coherent sentences together.

There are endless sound reasons that Truss isn’t fit to be the next prime minister, but high among them is her frankly ridiculous and deeply dangerous ideology surrounding food, farming and the environment. Her apparent answer to our disastrous environmental problems is to “free” farmers from red tape, deregulate and encourage a growth in productivity through intensification. We saw this when she was a trade negotiator making trade ever more “free”. She was so dreadful in that role, signing away British interests, that the Australian diplomats are still sniggering into their sleeves.

It is a very good idea that we become more self-sufficient in food – the burning fields in Ukraine ought to wake everyone up to that – but we need to be grown-up enough to do it better than we have in the past. That’s going to mean supporting British farmers properly so they can get out of the race to the bottom and deliver food that is more than just cheap.

Truss is so historically and agriculturally illiterate that she seems to have completely missed what happened last time we pursued her methods in farming. Sterile fields. Collapses in biodiversity. Ruined soils. I could go on… and did, in my last book.

It has never been clearer what we need to do, and it’s never been less likely that our politicians will do it. This is truly the age of stupid.

Sweating the holiday stuff

Last week we were on a family holiday in Italy. You may think that sounds great – but for our two teenage daughters it’s a bit like a forced prisoner march chained to the two biggest losers you’ve ever met, your parents. We also have two boys, and the youngest, aged four, was only two minutes in to Italy’s searing heat when he declared to the whole airport terminal: “This country is full of sweat.”

I love Italy – perhaps my wife and I will go back in the future and actually enjoy it.

James Rebanks’s most recent book is “English Pastoral: An Inheritance” (Penguin)

[See also: The UK’s broken food system requires radical change]

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This article appears in the 24 Aug 2022 issue of the New Statesman, The Inflation Wars