IT IS not often I get a chance to have a quiet evening but the other night I did, and I decided to listen to a podcast featuring Gabe Brown, one of the 25 most influential figures in US agriculture. The podcast started off citing a study which found that in order to obtain the same Vitamin A levels that our grandparents would have gotten from eating one orange back in the day, we would need to eat eight oranges nowadays. I am yet to finish listening to the rest of that podcast as I immediately went on a hunt for the scientific evidence behind this statement. Apparently, a drive to produce more food through an increasing reliance on synthetic inputs has resulted in a progressive deterioration of the nutrient density contained within that very food. That’s quite a strong message to take home as an industry when guidance and science portrays this approach as the ‘proper’ way to farm. About a year ago I came across the concept of ‘empty calories’, not in the context of ‘junk food’ but unprocessed food in its raw form which has been grown using predominantly synthetic inputs to meet pH, N, P and K demands of the crop but within a soil environment that is completely devoid of any life. What this means is that although we are achieving good yields, the produce itself is deficient in many nutrients because the nutrient cycling that would usually occur in a healthy soil thanks to a thriving soil microbial community is limited. This is becoming more and more apparent in a society that has become ‘overfed and undernourished’. We think we are eating well, but we’re just consuming all these ‘empty calories’.

This is one of the big challenges of modern time that regenerative farming seeks to address by rebalancing agricultural practices with the very ecosystem functions that not only benefit the environment, biodiversity and climate, but offer a great opportunity to support the production of healthy, sustainable and nutritious food going forward.

Regenerative farming includes five key principles which are very simple and which coincidentally featured in an article by fellow Highland Cattle breeder Iain Graham a week ago. I won’t go into the details of these principles but would encourage readers of this column to read his article (and Gabe Brown’s book ‘Dirt to Soil’). What I would say is that the fifth principle, that of the integration of livestock, is perhaps the most interesting one given that cows have recently become the all-time villain of climate change. There are some who wish to blame Cattle & Co for an entirely man-made looming environmental apocalypse despite the fact that ruminants have roamed this planet for a very long time, minding their own business and helping to sustain healthy ecosystems without initiating the end of the world.

This accusation may baffle many a farmer looking at their cattle as they contently graze on a hillside where they fulfil an important ecosystem role. They maintain the vegetation in a good condition to support key habitats, animals and plant species, and draw down carbon through photosynthesis whilst fertilising the ground with free and guaranteed eco-friendly fertiliser (which in itself is an important food source for the humble dung beetle and many other creatures), all whilst producing a food source rich in Omega 3 fats.

But when that very cow is taken out of her natural environment and stuck into an isolation chamber where her methane emissions are measured without considering the carbon sequestration that could be enabled by her grazing activity, or the methane that is offset by so-called ‘methanotrophs’ that thrive in a healthy and grazed soil environment (you should read about them, they are formidable little creatures!), conclusions can quickly become mis-leading and potentially catastrophic if governments outline their policy on the basis of those non-contextual results. Thankfully we (currently) have an agricultural minister who can see the bigger picture and wants to engage with the industry to ensure that the right policy is developed for Scotland.

Which brings me onto a subject that has pretty much consumed the past 12 months of my life – in a positive way! I am privileged to be involved not just with one but with two of the farmer-led groups set up by Scottish Government. The Suckler Beef Climate Group was set up in February 2020 and submitted its final report several months ago, and the Hill, Upland and Crofting Group will have signed off a report on its initial findings by the time this column is published. Although this group has only been operational since mid-January, its members have shown an exceptional commitment to try and come up with meaningful proposals. Every week we’ve met up for a 2-hour session to discuss the future of LFASS, opportunities to further reduce livestock emissions and benefit from livestock grazing, and how to protect and enhance important habitats to support Scotland’s wildlife. And if that’s not a big enough undertaking in itself, we’ve had to review all these subjects within the context of peatlands, deer management, forestry targets, not to mention the often emotional subject of the difficulties that have been put in the way of new entrants that are desperate to enter the industry, or the ongoing challenges faced by so many tenants and graziers wishing to be able to remain in the industry but facing the risk of being pushed out because they cannot compete with government grants available to landowners for alternative land uses.

It is extremely difficult to find a balance between so many land use interests and subjects, but one of the key messages that has emerged from our weekly meetings is that we have to stop looking at systems and processes in isolation. Going back to Gabe Brown and the principles of regenerative agriculture, we have to think holistically, and we have to treat and view the farm as an ecosystem where livestock and trees and wildlife and arable crops and peatlands and everything else in-between can co-exist.

This will require mindset change at scale. But if we can take a holistic approach and embrace natural processes rather than fight against them, we can overcome the twin-challenges of climate change and biodiversity loss. Integration and diversity of agricultural enterprises and land uses will be key to this success.

Remember, it’s not the cow, it’s the how!