A desire to improve productivity at all costs under the guise of feeding people cheaply has witnessed decades of industrialised farming. But at what expense?
Such intensive farming has long become divorced from the very land itself, the rhythms of the seasons, the needs of the environment, and the greater human requirement for nourishing/healthy food. Governments who give out farming subsidies are in hoc to the food industry and agrochemical companies. The wrong tail is wagging the dog.
Can farming become the solution to the problems that it has caused?
Farming thus has become the problem. For example, vast swathes of forest are chopped down every day in the Amazon to provide grazing for big herds of cattle. Marshes and peat bogs are drained to “reclaim the land” for housing but cause much greater environmental problems down the line. Crops are treated with toxic chemicals that leach into the soil and then into local water supplies. Plant, insect, bird, and animal species are dying out as their habitats are destroyed by industrial farming or are contaminated. Soil erosion and nutrient depletion has occurred on a global scale.
So, can farming become the solution to the problems that it has caused? In what ways can we reverse the tide and restore the delicate balance between humankind and the environment?
Suffice to say tackling problems caused by industrial farming will not have any material effect if the solutions only end up tinkering at the margins. What we need is a holistic approach that does more than mitigate problems, it materially improves outcomes.
We’re familiar with such terms as organics, biodynamic agriculture, and sustainability. A relatively new term is being used more often, and that is regenerative farming. “Regenerative” covers many different progressive ideas – soil management, mixed farming methods, reduction of chemical inputs, increasing biodiversity, reducing energy and waste, as well as health and nutrition and community education. It is a holistic approach rather a straight menu of treatments.
The soil is both the macrocosm and the microcosm in the regenerative agriculture scenario. Continued soil erosion and depletion, as mentioned, is the inevitable result of conventional agricultural practice. Soil compaction from heavy machinery is also detrimental to plant and soil health and affects drainage/water storage capacity.
Healthy soil is alive teeming with bacteria, interacts with plants and animals, sequesters CO2/organic matter, stores water and supports plant vitality and immunity, meaning fewer chemical inputs are required. Healthy soil supports a biodiversity pyramid.
It is a holistic approach rather a straight menu of treatments.
Regenerative farming leaves the depleted farmland in a better place that it was found. Biodiversity, carbon and soil health are all improved through the proactive agricultural practices. These practices include the following: mixed arable/animal systems, no till, cover crops, mulches, zero herbicide, minimal pesticide, circular farming practices, inter-cropping and “nature restoration”.
Regenerative farming employs organic / biodynamic principles in plant sprays/tisanes to restore the living matter in the soil. Another comparatively recent development is the planting of PIWIs (hybrid vines) which have been bred over the years to reduce the requirement for pesticides and other chemical interventions. All are integral in maintaining vitality and guarding against sterilisation the soil, plants, or animals…maintaining nutritional value and native microflora. As King Lear says: Nothing can come of nothing! Accordingly, Woodfine vineyards have been planted to PIWIs such as Cab Noir, Cab Blanc, Sauvignac, Voltis and these vines have not been sprayed for three years.
Restoring natural ecosystems around the farm and incorporating them within quotidian farming routines is a positive form of land management. Examples include nesting boxes for birds of prey, traditional hay management, encouraging wildflowers to proliferate, widening hedgerows, leaving areas uncultivated, planting trees, building wood piles, the use of cover crops, and traditional orchard management.
Since WW2, there has been a reduction in nutritional density of food. Industrial food production and processing to increase shelf life, negates seasonality, and values consistency and homogeneity over flavour. This is more to do with food engineering than feeding people.
Industrial winemaking practices include bactericides, preservatives (sulphites), commercial yeasts, fining agents, mass filtration, sweetening agents, acidification/deacidification, colourants, reverse osmosis. Various studies have shown the presence of herbicides and pesticides in our food and wine. Working in industrial vineyards with chemicals has proved to highly injurious to the health of the workers.
This is more to do with food engineering than feeding people.
Dr Lucy Williamson, nutrition consultant and ambassador for Real Food was on the panel to talk about the conventional agriculture (chemical spraying) that is damaging the nutritional value of the food and drink that we consume, which in turn causes reduction in immunity to certain conditions and diseases. She described the “gut microbiome” and the fact that 80% of immunity is in our gut lining and relies on intact, diverse and healthy microbiome to function.
The microflora in the soils, the yeasts, all that gives vitality and nourishment to our food and wines is being eliminated by systemic spraying. The diseases we see today are part of our lifestyle and our diets and the composition of what we eat and drink determines how healthy (or otherwise) those diets are.
Few people talk or write about how wine is made or even what is in it, meaning discriminating consumer choices that evaluate climate impact, pollution, carbon emissions, biodiversity, human health, and community cannot be made. It is easy to say that people don’t care about these issues, but they are not in the foreground of education or political discourse. The vast majority of people live in cities and are divorced from farming and food supply.
Whether better labelling is the answer is not clear. Real information can be hidden on the label, but is the answer to introduce more bureaucracy in the hope of arriving at some sort of transparency? Richard Woodfine observes that not being able to even find out what is in your wine (on label, website, from the producer) is arguably close-to-criminal in today’s world, given its near-ubiquitous consumption in one form or other, significant healthcare-related and environmental costs and material generation of tax revenues. Up to 70 different chemical additions to wine are approved for use in the winery. Governments can legislate and even tax, but it is unlikely that any agreement will be reached that describes what is an allowable additive.
The vast majority of people live in cities and are divorced from farming and food supply.
Questions remain. Can we effect real change through education in schools and the involvement of communities? Is there a political will? Do journalists care? Do consumers care? Regen farming is a beautiful idea, but it needs political teeth. Or do we accept that every revolutionary march starts with a small step?
One might describe the philosophy of Woodfine wines using E.M. Forster’s phrase “only connect.” Many of the connections are visible, others occur beyond the visible world. Great wine is created in the entanglement of soil, vine, weather and ecosystem – that is a rough definition, after all, of terroir.
The Woodfine labels allude to this: “Curling and flowing across our labels are mycelium threads, the fungal network in the soil that nourishes our vines and keeps this whole system connected – pulsing, communicating.”
This chimes with much of what we believe in at Les Caves: That small is beautiful; that it is important to put back into the community; that the transactional part of the wine trade is less important than its sustainability; that working towards a green agenda is paramount, and, engaging at all levels in as ethical a manner as possible is vital.
As Richard himself observes the soil, vine, grape and wine quality are all critically dependent on these fungal networks, and so he believes they need to nourish the soil to enhance the life, ecosystem, and products dependent on the land. This was evident, and even more so in the wild meadow which one walks through before one reaches the vineyard. Within a very short period, this piece of land has become a rich wildlife haven and one that has established its unique eco-system. In terms of drainage and water retention, in terms of fostering micro-flora and beneficial bacteria, in terms of giving sustenance and resistance to the vines, this is the most ethical way to farm as well as the best way.
One aspect of terroir that we only tangentially allude to is the human element. The interactions of the farm, vineyard, and wine business with its community, and with all of the stakeholders, are a similarly entangled network that is exploratory, self-supporting, resilient and nourishing for those it connects. A winery gives employment to local people and businesses; it brings nature into the heart of the community, and it provides an education for local people.
All this chimes with much of what we believe in at Les Caves: That small is beautiful; that it is important to put back into the community; that the transactional part of the wine trade (making and selling wine) is less important than its sustainability; that working towards a green agenda is paramount, and, engaging at all levels in as ethical a manner as possible is vital. Regeneration involves building resilient structures in each and every aspect of our lives, from the food and drink that we grow and ingest, to the way we interact with our environment and with each other.
The masterclass at Real Wine in the Vines: Regenerative Farming: Agriculture, Community & Health
Featured guest speakers (pictured above left to right):
Dr Jamie Goode (journalist, blogger, author)
Dr Richard Woodfine (Woodfine Wine & Rebel Restoration)
Dr Lucy Williamson, nutrition consultant & ambassador for Real Food Campaign