Our oil-hungry food system, with its predilection for producing ultra-processed, long-life foods, is killing more people a year than smoking. It is also wrecking the environment because of its heavy dependence on pesticides, herbicides and fungicides that can wipe out critical insect populations, pollute waterways and destroy the topsoils where we grow 95 per cent of our food.
But there is another way. Regenerative farming can break this destructive cycle. We can use a combination of practices that progressively improve the topsoil and wider ecosystem. This innovative approach would move us away from current agricultural techniques, with their huge dependency on oil and gas, not least for the production of ammonia-rich fertilisers and ’cides.
Today, around one-quarter of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions come from food and agriculture, according to the University of Oxford’s Our World in Data publication. Regenerative farming has the potential to substantially reduce these through means like sequestering carbon back into the soil.
Today, around one-quarter of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions come from food and agriculture
To kickstart this shift in the UK I propose that, by 2035, half the roughly £2.4bn of publicly procured ingredients (for schools, hospitals and so on) should be grown through regenerative means. We need to recognise the importance of good food for health and education; this should be reflected in hospital and Ofsted inspections. We could also encourage skills training in kitchens, and introduce clearer labelling on food products.
In time, we will find that by combining technology and our growing knowledge of how soils—and the microbial networks within them—function, we can make huge innovations in this area, allowing the nation to eat better food. The success of regenerative agriculture is relatively easy to measure by testing soil for microbial activity and the presence of micronutrients.
Strategies to improve health and the environment through public food procurement look promising. A scheme in Denmark that encourages organic farming through public procurement has been shown to have the potential to improve health, reduce the cost of healthcare, help the environment and even strengthen workforce motivation.
Denmark shows what can be done. That scheme and its framework can provide us with a roadmap for the positive journey that can follow a shift to half of publicly procured food coming from regenerative farming. This is a proposal that should improve the country’s health while also producing a visionary and effective response to climate change.
This article first appeared in Minister for the future, a special report produced in association with Nesta.