Something quietly radical has just happened in the Dart valley. With Lower Sharpham Farm and Home Farm now fully converted to organic status, certified by the Soil Association, the Sharpham Estate is now top-to-toe, beetle-to-bat organic. Why does this matter? And by how much? Organic is one of those words that’s settled comfortably into the mainstream as a ‘nice thing’, better than not, good for your health (if a bit). It’s easy to forget that it exists, not as a bonus for the middle class, but as a solution to a very real crisis. Ecosystems, which we absolutely still rely on for food even with all our amazing agri-wizardry, don’t stand still – they flourish or diminish. And as many different experts have been shouting themselves hoarse about since at least the 1960s, biodiversity – the life right outside our windows – is in freefall.
There are many reasons for this, but of course how we grow food and manage the land is central. We need healthy wildlife to help us grow crops – pollinators for plants, organisms that keep the soil alive etc – so it stands to reason that we shouldn’t be annihilating that same wildlife while we, er, grow crops. Organic farming offers benefits too numerous and complex to explore in one blog – more nutritiously dense food, excellent animal welfare, resilience in the face of climate change to name a few, and key to all: – the ability to work in harmony with nature to safeguard our human needs and at the same time encourage biodiversity. So, let’s dive down into Sharpham to take a look at one micro-detail among many. I mean right down to the ground. See that cow pat? – get your face in it.
Chances are, fingers crossed, you’ll be eyeballing a dung beetle. Many species of this insect are in decline, due in part to the use of livestock worming products that kill them. If organic methods are in place, however, these little kings of the brown have been shown to improve soil health and grass growth and even to reduce the abundance of livestock parasites present in pasture to begin with. At Sharpham, their existence is particularly crucial as they form a large part of the diet of the rare greater horseshoe bat. Like all bats, this one is an important indicator species, meaning that when their populations decline, we know we have a serious biodiversity problem. Needless to say, we have a problem. But with internationally important populations of the bats clinging on at either end of the Dart, Sharpham’s dung beetles are punching well above their weight – a telling lesson in how losing a single tiny thread in the tapestry of an ecosystem can have far-reaching consequences.
Beetle-killing wormers are just one of our miracle-turned-disaster agricultural products that organic farming is trying to turn the tide on, and they are by no means the worst. The damage done by neonicotinoid pesticides on global bee populations – vital pollinators – and rivers, is so great, the EU and UK banned their use completely in 2018. Except for, sorry, in a few countries, including the UK, ‘emergency authorisations’. These are for when aphid populations are predicted to be high enough to pose a danger to yields, as they are this year – which sounds less like an emergency and more like the everyday reasons pesticides were used in the first place. Is the stuff unacceptably toxic or not? And is the environmental emergency more or less greater than the short-term economic emergency? The government’s own scientific advisors say the damage to the environment is too great, even with restrictions in place, and too little is known about the long-term effects. But sugar beet is a significant crop already suffering from post-Brexit price falls and changing weather, so the government is simply choosing to put its fingers in its ears and ignore the bigger picture.
I grew up amongst farmers, and it seems to me they have been getting it in the neck for decades. Pushed to produce sky-high yields, scorned for receiving subsidies and now villainised in some quarters for ruining nature. Change is being urged on them again, but this time the stakes today are higher even than during post-war food shortages when farming changed so rapidly – the present danger is just far less obvious. Most people don’t stare at cowpats worrying about dung beetles, and I’m sure if I grew sugar beet I’d mostly be staring at my bottom line.
But out of this crisis is the opportunity for the same people who work the earth now, who know it best, who feed us, to reclaim their rightful place as true authorities – learning to work with nature again as our great grandparents did while also making the most of scientific research and advances. It’s hoped that by next year, a breeding programme will have produced virus-resistant varieties of sugar beet. But what if it doesn’t, or the year after that? We need to commit fully to finding solutions that make farming truly sustainable and embrace the changes that brings – instead of myopically sticking on poisoned plasters.
‘Emergency authorisations’ begin to look even more suspect when you consider the UK, along with some other EU countries, has been allowing the export of thousands o f tonnes of neonicotinoids to poorer countries since the ban on its own . This from a government that claims to take global biodiversity loss seriously. That’s why places like Sharpham are so important, no matter their size. Change will happen quite literally from the ground up as more and more growers see the bigger picture and their own extraordinary, potential-filled, life-saving role in it. The law-makers will be forced to catch up eventually, but in the meantime, if I were a bee – or bat – or beetle, I’d be heading to Sharpham.
Blog by Hester Musson – Ambios alumni, novelist, and nature lover