The Plough’s Share

We won’t defend ourselves from the global food crisis by destroying what remains of our wildlife.

By George Monbiot, published in the Guardian 16th March 2022

Should we plough up Britain? Many people seem to think so. Even before the Russian invasion of Ukraine, food prices were rocketing. Now they have reached an all-time record. The National Farmers’ Union of Scotland has called for Scotland’s feeble environmental measures – paying farmers to plant hedges, cover crops and introduce beetle banks – to be rescinded, so that food production can be maximised. Others insist that rewilding is a luxury we can no longer afford.

It is true that the world now faces a major food crisis. Climate breakdown has begun to bite. Heat domes and droughts in North America and storms and floods in Europe and China last year damaged harvests and drove up prices. By February, the cost of food was 20% higher than a year earlier.

Meanwhile, Ukraine and Russia produce nearly 30% of the world’s wheat exports, 15% of the maize (corn) and 75% of the sunflower oil. Altogether, they generate about 12% of the calories traded internationally.

Ukrainian farmers are desperately short of fuel and fertiliser. Much of the labour force is now fighting the Russian army, or has been forced to flee. Anything Ukraine manages to produce will be consumed at home. Anyway, the ports are blockaded.

Russia might ban grain exports, as it did in 2010, helping to cause a major price spike in 2011. This threat has prompted other countries – Hungary, Turkey, Argentina and China – to restrict their own exports.

Even more ominously, just as European countries allowed themselves to become hooked on Russian gas and oil, they are also highly reliant on Russian and Belarusian fertilisers. About one-third of the nitrogen and two-thirds of the potassium imported by the UK and western Europe come from Russia and Belarus, and we can expect them to use this dependency as another economic weapon.

The war could raise global food prices by a further 20% this year, and that’s assuming no further climate or pandemic disasters. Every increment ensures that more people go hungry. The Middle East and north Africa are highly reliant on Ukrainian and Russian grain. Almost 40% of Yemen’s wheat is grown in Russia and Ukraine. Already, millions there are close to starvation. Egypt, the world’s largest wheat importer, relies on the warring countries for roughly 70% of its imports.

So does this mean we should plough our own furrow? About one-third of the UK’s agricultural land is “croppable”, and almost all of it is in use. The call to plant more land is similar to the call by rightwing Tory MPs to resume fracking: the environmental damage would greatly outweigh the tiny increment of production. And we do nothing to release ourselves from the vicissitudes of the global market if we reduce our imports of food by increasing imports of fertiliser.

As for rewilding, most advocates argue it should take place on a large scale only on unproductive land. There are vast areas in the uplands of Britain that produce remarkably little: the National Food Strategy reports that in England 20% of the farmland produces just 3% of our calories. The ratio is likely to be even starker in Wales and Scotland. If this land were rewilded, the contribution it would make to preventing climate and ecological breakdown, both of which severely threaten global food supply, would probably be far greater than the contribution it makes to feeding us directly. Rewilding is not a luxury we can’t afford. It’s an ecological necessity.

I’ve heard some people compare the current situation with the second world war, during which, they claim, the UK became self-sufficient. This, of course, is a myth. While, through intense and remarkable efforts, the UK raised its production to become 75% sufficient in food (today we are 62% sufficient, by value) wheat imports from Canada, to give just one example, rose from 20% to 83% of our supply, as exports from western Europe were cut off.

So is there something meaningful we could do? Yes: ensure that our scarce arable land is used to feed people rather than to fuel cars or power stations. Despite the global food crisis that has been developing now for seven years, the UK and other European countries have cheerfully been diverting some of their best arable land from food to fuel production. Between 2019 and 2021, farmers in England raised the area of land used to make biogas by an astonishing 19%. Now 120,000 hectares (300,000 acres) is ploughed to grow maize and hybrid rye for biogas, which is marketed, misleadingly, as a green alternative to fossil gas. The reopening of a bioethanol plant in Hull that will turn wheat into fuel for cars is likely to take another 130,000 hectares out of food production.

Between them, these energy crops demand 9% of the land used to grow cereals in England. This is an astonishingly destructive and inefficient business. About 450 hectares of land is needed to feed a biogas plant with a capacity of one megawatt. By contrast, a megawatt of wind turbine capacity requires only one-third of a hectare. When you include the impacts of soil erosion, for which maize in particular is notorious, the climate costs are likely to be worse than those of fossil gas.

This good land would make a far greater contribution to food production than it can to energy production. Needless to say, the National Farmers’ Union of Scotland, so keen to grub up hedges and beetle banks to grow more food, has for years been encouraging its members to produce crops for biogas plants, which inevitably means reducing the amount of food they grow.

If we were serious about reducing the pressure on global food supply, we would also switch to a plant-based diet. Were everyone to do so, the agricultural land needed to feed the world would decline by 75%. Even though our direct consumption of grain would rise, the total arable area would fall by 19%, because animals would no longer need to be fed on crops.

Food security and food nationalism are by no means the same thing, and in some cases polar opposites. But our global food system is fragile and highly vulnerable to shocks. It requires complete transformation, of the kind I propose in Regenesis, published in May. Ploughing the few small corners where wildlife persists is not the answer.