Soil, Stomachs and Livestock: The Foundations of a Sustainable Food System

Chair: Lucy Siegle (The Guardian)

Speakers: Patrick Holden (Sustainable Food Trust), Richard Young (Sustainable Food Trust), George Monbiot (The Guardian)


Patrick Holden

Patrick farms in West Wales with a 150 head Ayrshire dairy herd.

We need to look at the role of mixed farming in connection with the role of soil and ruminants.

Need to ask what is the higher purpose of our relationship with the land as farmers?

We are facing the issues of mass extinction and biodiversity loss.

There is also the question of re-wilding (that will be specifically addressed by George Monbiot).

To preserve biodiversity alongside the production of food, we need a large-scale return to mixed farming and using crop rotation. Most importantly, we need livestock.

The soil is the stomach of the plant. We need to look at the connection between the soil and the human microbiome. Soil is an organ of digestion.

In order to build a healthy soil we need ruminants as a central feature of our farming.

There is a need to reposition the ruminant as a central part of our food system.


Richard Young

We face challenges to our food security.

Civilizations collapsed because they could not look after the soil. We are still making the same mistakes today as past civilizations. We are abusing soils.

In the delta areas of the world’s major rivers, soils are being swept away and we are losing fertility. 52% of soils in the world show signs of degradation and 23 hectares of soil are lost every minute.

Degradation occurs on arable land in the UK in areas such as Suffolk.

In South America, Russia, and the US Prairies, the process of soil degradation has already started.

We have lost 40% of organic matter from the soil since World War II.

We need stability in organic matter. Higher organic matter gives us higher yields.

It is important to note that adding organic matter is not the answer and does not build stability.

It is hard for UK farmers to maintain mixed cropping and livestock due to the climate.

We need to move to deeper rooting plants (and away from those such as rye) in order to stabilize soils.

Livestock systems based on nitrogen fertilizer are adding to the problem, while those on pasture are not.

Methane is responsible for 7.2% of global warming. Ruminants are responsible for 14% of methane production (the same as rice). This is 1% of emissions in total.

73% of the UK is grass and it makes sense to use this for livestock.


George Monbiot

There are far too many livestock – ridiculous numbers.

In some places, livestock are completely inappropriate.

There cannot be a mixed farming system in the uplands.

It is the supplementary feeding that is problematic i.e. soy that is diverted from the human food supply.

Wales has 76% of land devoted to livestock farming but imports a lot of meat.

The uplands have been turned over to a sheep ‘mono-culture’. This is a failed model of livestock production and cannot work in the long-term.

It is unsustainable to have a high density of livestock on steep slopes.

There are some places where farming is just not appropriate.

It is amazing the extent of the wreckage.

An economy based around wildlife can employ more people than the farming system.

Some land should just not be used for farming otherwise what chance does diversity have?


PH: the problem on the uplands is that systems are inefficient. They need an integrated approach with some re-wilding but also intelligently farmed livestock, Food production and biodiversity are possible.

Chris Jones (PFLA): we used to have a mixed arable farm around 6 years ago but converted the whole farm to grass. We have gone from a net emitter of carbon to net sequestration. We need to look at the facts!

There was also discussion regarding mixed agro-forestry systems and how they can be integrated with mixed grazing.

Richard Young started an interesting discussion regarding the importance of fat in the diet and the health benefits of pasture fed livestock.

GM: We have to look at the system as a whole. The problem is we have far too many animals. Because of the rising population, we cannot continue to eat meat.

PH agreed that we are eating too much meat.

GM: the idea that there were many millions of livestock roaming the earth in the inter-glacial period is a myth. Grazing elephants created the ecosystem that we have now.

GM was then asked by the Landworkers Alliance if he would work with them and he agreed to do so.


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