Watch | Minister for the Future: the potential of regenerative farming

Join us for the launch event in our Minister for the Future series, with Thomasina Miers

May 13, 2023
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Minister for the Future: the potential of regenerative farming—the launch event in the Prospect/Nesta Minister for the Future series—took place on 6th June 2023.

Introduced by Alexandra Burns, interim director of discovery at Nesta, and hosted by Prospect editor Alan Rusbridger, it featured three subject experts: proposer Thomasina Miers, food writer, chef, co-founder of Chefs in Schools, and co-founder of Wahaca; Tara Garnett, director of Table at University of Oxford, a platform for dialogue and debate about the future of food; and Tom Martin, a mixed sheep and arable farmer who writes a regular farming column for Prospect

Imagine for a moment that you have the opportunity to lift your head above daily concerns and explore long-term solutions to some of society’s knottiest problems. Imagine, too, that you have the ear of a senior government minister willing to hear your case. Someone singularly charged with future thinking and, potentially, able to champion your game-changing cause. 

That’s the idea behind “Minister for the Future”, a joint project from Prospect and Nesta. Last year the project formed the basis of a magazine supplement. This year it has been reimagined as a series of in-person debates, the first of which took place in early June and addressed the current food production and consumption crisis. Or, to put it another way, the challenges of the Anthropocene diet. 

Making the case for change was Thomasina Miers, food writer, chef, and co-founder of both the restaurant chain Wahaca and the charity Chefs in School. Listening to the case was the Minister for the Future, in this instance the collective wisdom of a live audience who ended the evening by voting on the proposition (the results are revealed at the end of this article).

The proposal can be simply expressed: that, by 2035, half the roughly £2.4bn of publicly procured ingredients (for schools, hospitals and so on) should be grown through regenerative means. 

The case for ‘nature-friendly’ farming

The motivation, explained Miers, is to use the powerful lever of public procurement “to help farmers opt for more nature-friendly farming” and to use that collective buying power to produce better food. “And when I say better food, I’m talking unequivocally about food that’s had less contact with chemicals,” she said. “If you look up the definition of food in the dictionary, you’ll find that it is nutritious by its own virtue. Arguably, a lot of the foods we are talking about have no nutritional value. And is it even safe? If it is causing so much ill health, can you deem it safe?  

Miers defined regenerative farming broadly as “farming with nature as against nature” and used agriculture’s green revolution as a counterpoint. Introduced in the second half of the 20th century with the “very noble idea” of feeding war-ravaged nations, the green revolution leaned into technological solutions— from synthetic fertilizers and pesticides to genetic modification. The remarkable explosion of crop yields came at a real cost, however, argued Miers. “Fifty-seven per cent of our shopping basket is ultra-processed. That’s the worst in Europe and largely comes from four main crops farmed in a mono-crop system: soy, corn, wheat, and rice. These are crops processed to within an inch of their lives and now our diet is killing us more than smoking, killing us more than alcohol.” It’s estimated that our poor diet costs the UK economy £74bn a year in costs to the NHS, lost productivity and reduced life expectancy. 

Warming to her case, Miers pointed out that beyond the health implications, the way we farm impacts the climate, too. “Species decline and biodiversity decimation—which we know is largely caused by food production—have alarmed many scientists.”

Miers, aware that ministers often seek out overseas exemplars, referenced Denmark which experimented by shifting 30 per cent of its publicly procured foods to organic. The motivation of the Danish experiment was, among other things, to address water contamination. “That scheme and its framework can provide us with a roadmap,” Miers noted. 

The limits of regenerative farming

Tara Garnett, director of Table at the University of Oxford—a platform for dialogue and debate about the future of food—offered a critique of the Miers proposal. Acknowledging first that there was much to recommend the proposition, Garnett nonetheless presented several challenges. 

First she suggested that the lack of a clear definition for regenerative farming is problematic. “The word regenerative is emotionally engaging,” Garnett noted. “The idea that we can restore, rebalance, reharmonise our relationship with the natural world has enormous appeal. But it hasn’t yet been defined as a concept. It’s a kind of galvanising mantra at the moment and everyone wants a piece of the regenerative pie because it looks good.” 

“On the one hand you have the small scale, alternative farmers who see regenerative farming as part of a wider and necessary transformation of the food system. On the other hand, you have some of the very large corporate players who are saying, ‘We can do everything that we already do but we are just going to do it regeneratively’. The risk is it becomes co-opted and perhaps greenwashed.” 

Garnett conceded the counterargument. Namely, that regenerative farming is both experimental and context-specific, making it difficult to confine it to a list of prescribed practices. Nevertheless, without a definition, “what you end up with is ‘regeneratively’-produced Oreos, Nesquik and KitKats”. Additionally, a lack of definition makes it difficult to create a reliable evidence base for purported benefits. “This leads to some really extravagant claims about, for example, drawing down carbon from the atmosphere.”

More broadly, a proposal centred on regenerative farming risks ignoring the equally significant challenge of food consumption, including the over-consumption of meat. “We are going to need to do difficult things,” argued Garnett. “If we farm in a nature-friendly way but don’t do anything about our consumption patterns, we’re simply going to export our problems overseas.” To bolster her argument, Garnett pointed to the fact that 40 per cent of the Earth’s land is used for food production—and three-quarters of that is used to rear animals. “We need to use the land to nourish people.”

What is regenerative farming, anyway?

Tom Martin insists he didn’t set out to be a regenerative farmer but—by way of offering a some defining principles—he shared five good practice pillars adopted on his own Peterborough farm. The first is to reduce, not eliminate, tilling. “When we stop tilling the earth,” Martin explained, “we preserve worm passages and we don’t lose nutrients. When we till we can cap the soil and end up with more flooding. When we churn up the soil we release carbon.”

The second pillar is about encouraging diversity in all areas. This means not only alternating crops year-on-year but encouraging “diverse rotation so our soils can feast on what we are growing”. In practice that might mean multiple crops in the same field in the same year. 

The third pillar: maintaining living roots in the ground. “Don’t leave bare ground,” said Martin. “The soil needs to be alive.” Related, pillar number four is what Martin calls “soil armour”. Fallow fields should neither be exposed to summer temperatures nor raindrops that result in micro-sorting that can inadvertently cap the soil.  

The final pillar dictates the incorporation of livestock. “Regenerative farming is about mimicking nature,” said Martin. “The passage of livestock and the movement of our megafauna helps build [a healthy] ecosystem. So when we are planting crops in the winter that protect the soil, instead of just spreading them off, we’ll graze sheep which will help convert that vegetation into manure… [and], as research shows, the saliva of our animals helps our grasses grow.”

Notwithstanding Martin’s extensive definition, Garnett remained sceptical. “Farmers tend to pick and mix,” she said. “I meet regenerative farmers who till because otherwise they get weed build up. Among some, herbicide usage goes up. We know tilling releases carbon into the atmosphere but what we don’t know is whether or not tilling leads to greater sequestration over time.” 

Public opinion and other challenges

Despite the concerns, is there enough here to convince the minister? Is there evidence, for example, that the public is ready to embrace such ideas? Tom Martin thinks there is—or will be soon with a little nudging. “The green revolution lobotomised our farmers into thinking, ‘We can get our answers from a can’. And easy food has lobotomised us as consumers into just going for the easy option. So for government, education and knowledge exchange is really important. And as people get closer to their food, consumption habits will change naturally.”

Similarly, Thomasina Miers noted: “Food that we are told is perfectly acceptable is making us sick. It’s making our children sick; it’s making our children obese and giving them shorter life outcomes. I think we’re beginning to feel radicalised about this.”

Other challenges remain. First, noted Martin, farmers need help overcoming the complexity of regenerative agriculture—“an ecosystem within an ecosystem”—which will require knowledge sharing. “Farmers like to look over the hedge. They want to know someone else has done it.”

Second, there needs to be a realistic conversation about yields. “If you are not ramming the earth with inputs it can lead to lower yield,” noted Tara Garnett. “But if you are doing it right it can lead to greater resilience over time which means less fluctuation.”

Finally, there is policy delivery. To make this proposal workable will require cross-departmental thinking. “Food is our life,” said Miers. “It’s public health. It’s mental and physical health. It’s pleasure, it’s education, it’s the economy. And yet none of our government departments wholly owns food. It’s very easy to pass the buck… What we need is an independent committee. The Food Standards Agency is the perfect body to assume cross-departmental, cross-party powers, just like the Independent Committee for Climate Change.” 

The results are in

With the case made—and objections expressed—what did the Minister for the Future (aka our audience) think?  

A quarter (23 per cent) of those who voted backed the original proposal in its stated form: that by 2035 half of publicly procured food should be delivered through regenerative means. A further 15 per cent believed that we should explore other means to address the food challenge. 

Which left an overwhelming majority (62 per cent) in favour of the original plan delivered not by 2035 but by 2030. 

As the event chair—Prospect editor Alan Rusbridger, channelling Sir Humphrey from the classic TV series Yes, Minister—put it: “Brave move, minister.”

Future events in the series are:

More information about these events, including how to register to attend in-person or online, will be available soon.