Folder 6 Sustainability - how does farming fit in ?


A widely accepted definition of sustainable development is as follows: "Sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs". This definition was used as long ago as 1987 as explained in the following article :-

Sustainable development - historical roots of the concept

Jacobus A. Du Pisani Professor of History

Environmental Sciences

June 2006; 3(2): 83 - 96

Click here

This article shows that concerns about the way we live goes back a century or more but has become more urgent since the 1960's.

 An extract from page 89 of the article hightlights this fact:-

Scientific and technological progress was also causing terrible damage to the natural environment. During the period of unprecedented industrial and commercial expansion after World War II people became aware of the threats which rapid population growth, pollution and resource depletion posed to the environment and their own survival as humans. From the 1960s hair-raising scientific information about the damage caused to the natural environment by human activities was published in books such as Rachel Carson's The silent spring (1962), Paul Ehrlich's The population bomb (1968), Edward Goldsmith's A blueprint for survival (Goldsmith et al. 1972) and Fritz Schumacher's Small is beautiful (1973). Ecological disasters received much media publicity. Films, TV programmes and pop music popularized the idea of an imminent ecological crisis. Earth Day was celebrated for the first time in 1970. The Green Movement took off, the first environmental non-governmental organizations (ENGOs), Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth, were established, environmental groups became more outspoken, ecologism became an ideology of some importance and green political parties started making an impact. Environmental concern became more acute and radical because of the fear that economic growth might endanger the survival of the human race and the planet. Anxiety was expressed in a growing body of academic literature that 'if we continue our present practices we will face a steady deterioration of the conditions under which we live' - that is, there was percieved to be a real danger that humankind 'may destroy the ability of the earth to support life'. This alarmist mood, in expectation of an imminent ecological catastrophe, stimulated a new mode of thinking about development and prepared the way for sustainable development as an alternative to unlimited economic growth.

Paul Ehrlich, in 1968, felt that the population of close to 4 billion was then too large to feed itself ;     we must appreciate , sadly, the rise goes on  today( world ). 

Sustainability covers all aspects of life and extracting minerals and fossil fuels from the earth is clearly UNsustainable though the time scale over which total resource depletion will occur is subject to discussion  ( link ). Farming,  fishing, horticulture, and forestry, however, are intimately linked to the natural world and one would hope that these activities will not lead to the statement made above, namely-

that humankind 'may destroy the ability of the earth to support life'

Sustainability, therefore, must be at the heart of all human activities and unlimited economic growth cannot be condoned for our future way of living.

Since my early life was spent on a small hill farm in North Yorkshire , where we practiced SUBSISTENCE FARMING, I will consider only the sustainability aspects of farming over my lifetime (1938 .....)

Subsistence farming

Each year the Scientific American magazine used to offer specialized topics in their September issue. The 1980 issue was devoted to economic development and the article on Food ( page 74) was quite enlightening. Records were made over a year of a small farmer’s activities in Central America with input and output data being shown for this miniature “agribusiness”. A much simplified diagram is shown below:

As one can see, cash from both surplus food and man/ox power allowed the farmer on SIX hectares (15 acres) to support his family. The weather plays a crucial role in this type of farm. Sunshine for the growth of crops and major heating of the homestead although a little firewood for cooking would be needed and kerosene would be required for lighting. The crops also needed rainfall and, presumably, the storage of rainfall provided a water supply for the house. A combination of wind and sunshine would enable the crops to be dried thus allowing them to be stored until needed. Well, if we are looking for sustainability then this farm is near perfection as almost all the food is produced from a patch of land and energy comes from a combination of man/ox power. A relatively small number of items have to be purchased as external inputs and the vital requirements for living, FOOD AND WATER, are always there. The income to the farm, though small, will allow a little luxary.

The reader may well think that the above diagram  represents a simple life style - one plants various crops in the soil and harvests them at the appropriate time; indeed, land workers around the  world are usually referred to as peasants which rather diminishes their status.  Let me elaborate. Firstly. there is the complexity of working with the weather - just planting and harvesting crops at the "right" time needs skill and experience and a fair amount of luck .  In so many cases today there is a need for irrigation as the rainfall is insufficient or at the wrong time of the year.  The second point is the need to keep the soil in good order and to cultivate the soil before sowing the seeds; it is perhaps where the greatest skill lies. SOIL SCIENCE is a vast subject and our endeavours to leave planet earth in a fit condition to grow crops in the future is  presently, in my view,  severely lacking - deserts are now covering much of the globe and will continue to increase if our precious commodity, SOIL, is not cared for. The third point covers all those extras - there are fences/walls to keep animals away from crops and these have to be kept in order, weeds are a continuing problem and pests and crop diseases are always prevalent. Tackling such complex problems must elevate farmers to a higher status then "peasants"  and I would suggest that stewards of the countyside would be a more apt title.

 Now we may ask " would this type of farming in Central America ever mirror any farming activity in the UK?". The answer is YES, the author must assure the reader that he was brought up on a farm in North Yorkshire between 1938 and 1958 with many of the sustainable features of the above Central American farm.

The farm in North Yorkshire was 24 hectares (60 acres) but had moor grazing for sheep of about 18 hectares (45 acres). Mechanical power was provided by two horses and, again, person power was used for small tasks. Heating of the homestead was mainly by peat and waste wood but 5 tonnes of coal had to supplement these “free” fuels. Milk from twelve milking cows was sold to the newly formed Milk Marketing Board and this was our main monthly income. A mixture of bread and potatoes were our staple diet and the flour was an input to the farm as quality wheat, suitable for milling, was not grown in that part of England. The garden and orchard were the main source of fruit and vegetables although the hedgerows gave an abundant source of berries at autumn-time. The down-side of relying on horse power is that these animals have to be fed in winter-time when they are not providing a normal work load. Clearly, sustainable power has an unavoidable cost.

Seasonal work is listed below:

Constant work involved milking cows twice a day and feeding the animals which were kept indoors (pigs, and poultry, for instance). In the winter months the cows and horses had to be fed but in the summer months they fed themselves in pastures. As an additional supplement to the income we used to have paying visitors during the summer month. The conurbation of Tees-side was relatively close to the farm and families enjoyed coming for a change of scenery and lifestyle.

Not only was food production kept at a sustainable level but the processing and distribution of this food was close to home. Much as I love the TV series "Inside the factory":-

this kind of food processing and distribution is extremely wasteful in resources and energy. Much of the packaging has had to be adopted purely to satisfy our SUPERMARKETS. All the frozen foods neatly arranged on shelves and perfectly shaped fruit and vegetable wrapped in polythene with clear SELL-BY labels. The WWII years weren't like this; we bought flour by the sackful and used this for cooking for the next few months. Tinned beans and "the much loved SPAM" were, of course, part of our staple diet but food processing was largely carried out in the family kitchen and refridgerators were just beginning to appears in the UK . An interesting account of these times are given in a TV Series "Wartime Farm" and short videos are avalaible for some of the programs ( click here ). A huge increase in food production did occur as a result of the WAR EFFORT to feed Britain  and this continues today but, as the Legacy chapter of the book  ponders (page 246) , are we now destroying our precious natural ecology just in the interests of profit.

Wartime Farm ---   Peter Ginn, Ruth Goodman and Alex Langlands

The amount of waste created in the modern kitchen is an obscenity but this will continue into the foreseable future if we continue with our SUPERMARKET culture!

A fully illustrated description of this kind of life is given in the text:

“Life in the Moorlands of North East Yorkshire” by Marie Hartley and Joan Ingilby (Dent and Sons Ltd 1972)

I would like to suggest that both of the farms described above have a very high level of sustainability. In each case there is no “mains” water, gas or electricity as input into either farm. Pests are kept at bay by using the well established technique of crop rotation and only modest inputs, lime to adjust the acidity of the soil and DDT for pest control, were needed for the land and clothes, food and treats for the family. The Amish and Mennonite communities may well be farming in this sustainable way and their lifestyle could well be a lesson to us all. A recent conference describes some of the interesting features of Mennonite agriculture.

If we step forward 100 years in time then this mode of farming in either locality, North Yorkshire, UK, or Central America, could still be carried out

(a) if the land is still available and

(b) if the weather does not changed significantly.

Alas, in the UK, the farming scene has changed alarmingly; even farming on the North Yorkshire Moors we see that mechanization has taken over. Most of the small family farms have been turned into holiday cottages and now farming has become an industry and not a way of life. This industry is so reliant on petrochemicals either for fertilizers, pesticides, herbicides, anti-fungal dressings etc or for fuel driving a multitude of mechanical devices needed to carry out the varied tasks in farming. The insatiable appetite for hydro-carbons will not be easily stopped mainly because the workforce has been so drastically reduced. In the early1940’s manual farm workers were at the 1 million mark, about 60% of the working population.This has now dropped to about 0.15 million and represents about 8% of the working population. A recent briefing paper to the House of Commons ( number 03339, 21 Jan. 2016) gives a detailed account of the historical changes over the years but doesn’t give any strategy for how farming will fare a 100 years from now. In the UK, farming is so wedded to petrochemicals which are bound to be depleted by the end of the century so the industry is totally unsustainable. In other parts of the world a more sustainable farming strategy may prevail and their food supply will be assured. Our future food supply will be much more uncertain as present mechanized farming will not be possible in the next century.

It is worth listening to a sound track about a past farmer George Henderson click here and his book,  "The Farming Ladder" can still be purchased on the web

A very good book describing how farming changed during the 20th century is "Seventy Summers" by Tony Harman. and another interesting glimse of farming on a small mixed farm is given in "Forty shades of Green" by Dave Welford ( York Publishing Services 2018). 

A pictorial view of the changes in UK farming over the last 60/70 years has been given in a BBC  TV series - Mud, Sweat and Tractors


There is little doubt that immense benefits have been accured from the advances in farming. For instance, if wheat yealds from the old  (1950's) to the new (2020's) have increased by a factor of FOUR  then the land is being used with much greater efficiency and this must be a PLUS.  As a scientist I applaud new materials  and new ways of conduction our lives; I did early work on Light Emitting Diodes  and these are so efficient compared to incandescent bulbs- it would be foolish to deny their modern day use. However, the larger environment must always be in our thoughts. Rachel Carson's "Silent Spring" will keep echoing down the decades to remind us that progress may not be progress at all. if the environment is destroyed.

 All I can conclude is that the my families' way of life on a small hill farm in the 1950's was a way of life that had permeated  the land for centuries previously - IT WAS TRIED AND TESTED  - it could well be classed as subsistentce farming but it had attractive features-

(a) it did little damage to the environment - the family worked with nature rather than against it.

(b) soil nutrients and essential elements were not lost from the farm as a cyclic process was followed.

(c) in general animal welfare was of a high standard as animals were often treated "as one of the family".

(d) the food  delivery from FARM to FAMILY was immediate, and gave the most wholesome food possible, any food processing was in the kitchen and any "waste" went for composting. Packaging was non-existing.

(e) the soil fertility and structure was maintained by the use of farmyard manure and compost material

(f) pests were largely avoided by crop rotation

(g) food was stored by bottling or canning and, in the case of crops, these were dried by sunshine and wind. Potatoes could be stored in frost free sheds throughout the winter. ( During the scarity of the war years there was always some food available from the farm . The saddness of  families moving to urban living is that there is no safety net so that people must rely on soup kitchens, food-banks or the generosity of neighbours.

(h) money outflow was kept to a minimum so that making sufficient money from the farm, for essential purposes ,was not an onerous task.

There were also many "down" sides to this way of life and only a few are listed below:-

(i) land was used inefficiently so that crop yealds were low

(ii) a large labour force was needed. Many families were quite large in the pre-war years so that sufficient people could be gathered from the whole family; today this would not be possible

(iii) although the diagram at the top of the page shows that the anticipated weather, sun, rain and wind would harmonize with crop growth there is no certainty about this. Climate change is giving rise to drought, flooding and devastating storms that can destroy crops in an instant. Adverse weather can wipe out the families' livelihood.

(iv) it is a system which relies on a large rural and small urban population and presently this is not the case for almost all countries as Urbanization has  taken root - see countries .  

Hill farming is probably one aspect of farming that has changed the least over the past years and James Rebanks has written several books and articles about his  life as a shepherd in the Lakes click -- it is a way of life that continues from one generation to the next and his interview on BBC Hardtalk was inspiring to both town and countryfolk.

A good "read" about sustainability is given in the attached .pdf  file.

There are many articles available "on-line" that survey the current use (miss-use ?) of land today in the following publication  ,  Land     :-

and an article from the National Geographic magazine highlights the urgency with which humankind should act ( N_G ) .

Another useful article is given in the following link  link .  One has to scroll down the page to see the article "pathways out of poverty". Yet another important document to read is the briefing for a new Bill which discusses the future of UK farming ( click here ). This Bill stresses the importance of caring for the countryside but says little about how to achieve sustainable farming.

The adoption of mechanization and crop monocultures has occured in all parts of the globe and have replaced the sustainable farming methods that were in use for centuries before. Two texts out of many are given below:-

Jocelyn C. Zuckerman in "Planet Palm" , 2021, Hurst & Co, London, shows how our desire for palm oil is endangering our world. On page 259 she laments "how collosally we've screwed up our relationship with the natural world".

James Kunstler in "The Long Emergency" 2005, Atlantic Books, London, states (page 240) that in the 1800's the balence between calories expended (work) to produce foods was almost in balance  with the colories farming produced as food. With current "industrial" farming it takes 16 (sixteen) calories of INPUT to produce one calorie of grain and  70 (seventy) calories to produce one calorie of meat.

Of the countless books and articles that one may read it is clear that farming must be in harmony with nature and that soil stewardship will be pre-eminant as it was in the days of horse-powered farming.

Our choice is clear.

                                                               top of page