The recent State of Nature report paints a bleak picture of modern Britain. One in which wildlife populations tumble and wild spaces are hemmed in, degraded and destroyed. Unfortunately, most of us will recognise this as the norm and at a relatively youthful 26-years old, it worries me that this is all I have ever known.
I do not remember the halcyon days of old when verdant meadows buzzed with insect life; nor when the haunting cry of the Curlew was commonplace over farmland and hedgerows chimed with the song of countless farmland birds. These things are alien to me: a factor of life before my time. Truly, I wish I could recall such sights and sounds but the reality is that I have grown-up in a landscape denuded of its wildlife. A countryside in crisis, altered beyond recognition.
A whopping 72% of land in the UK is managed for agriculture, and changing agricultural practice is regarded as having the ‘single biggest impact upon nature in recent decades’. Changes which have seen meadows ripped up, root and stem, invertebrates annihilated with odious pesticides and larger fauna left bereft of habitat or adequate food supply. The blame for the demise of Britain’s natural heritage often falling squarely on farmers – those who alter the land, plant, plough and, if you listen to some commentators, continue to pillage what remains of our ‘wild’ land until this day.
It is very easy to blame farmers for the woes afflicting our countryside. To many, those of us dwelling contently in towns and cities, they are an alien race: found in the far-flung reaches of our land, seldom encountered yet responsible for providing the food we demand. They are easily stereotyped and, as the hands that tend the land, are easy to label public enemy number one in times of crisis. They are, after all, those whom do the dirty, so to speak, and transform the landscape. Often to the detriment of wildlife.
Scouring social media in the wake of the aforementioned report, I noted a large number of people openly criticising the farming community. Not everyone, of course – and it was nice to observe some positive examples of cooperation between conservation bodies and farmers – but a fair few. I was tempted to join in, I confess; although upon further thought, I have come to realise that the issue is not so black and white.
The reality for farmers is that they are slaves to demand. They run businesses, large and small, which must compete and yield a profit in order to survive. When we demand cheap food in large volumes, farmers must comply or risk someone else filling the void. Our supermarkets play a sizeable role too, with rival brands competing to launch the latest ‘hot deal’ as a way to entice thrifty consumers. A cycle with knock-on effects for farmers who must then produce intensively to meet demand and ultimately, stay afloat.
It is wholly appropriate to say that it is our own shopping choices that have lead to the intensification of agriculture in the UK, and by default, our demand that directly drives the use of pesticides, the removal of hedgerows and replacement of wildlife-friendly meadows with miles upon miles of sterile crops. Looking inward, it is clear that I, as an irresponsible consumer, have played a part in the ecological crisis facing this country. And doubtless, some of you will have too.
Like a great many people I suspect, I am guilty of treating food as an afterthought. I buy what I can with what I have left, my weekly budget determined by the amount of spare money left over from the purchase of a whole manner of trivial goods – things I could likely go without. I buy as much as I can with what I have, which often means buying cheap and in bulk: meat, vegetables, fruit and grain-products all included.
Part of me would like to claim that my stingy shopping habitats are born of necessity and that I simply cannot afford to pay extra for quality or ethics. It would be all-too-easy to use a modest wage in defence of my choices, as I suspect many others would too. Whether that line would hold up under scrutiny, however, is another story entirely.
Whilst I possess only a modest sum of money each month on which to ‘get by’ it is what I spend it on that really counts. Like many people my age, I splash out on leisure – nights out, restaurants, cinema trips and ridiculous, frothy coffee – and, without doubt, spend way too much on odds and ends I could really go without. Books and homeware, jeans and magazine subscriptions, even takeaways, god forbid. Whilst I make little, if I were to cut down on these expenditures, it is clear that I would have a surprising sum leftover.
The average Briton spends a relatively small portion of their income on food, at least compared to their combined spend on culture, recreation and ‘treat’ items. A trend which simply does match up with our oft-stated desire to protect and conserve nature. It would be disingenuous, farcical even, for me to sit at a computer screen, tucking into the cheap ham and cheaper bread of my favourite sandwich, while lambasting those working the far off fields.
It is clear that farming practices (and some farmers) need to change in this country, and that change they must before what little biodiversity we have left is pushed further towards the brink. Equally, however, it is apparent that for this to happen we, the thrifty consumers of this country, must change too. We must place a growing emphasis on our food and in doing so, incentivise the change we wish to see from sellers and producers alike.
Will I change? It will be difficult, but I will try. For a part of me is ashamed of the role I have played in looming [some may say ongoing] environmental catastrophe. If forsaking the odd bottle of wine, trip abroad, hotel stay or concert is the price I must pay to contribute to the preservation of nature in this country, I am ready and willing. I may not be willing to go vegan, or even vegetarian in pursuit of a clean conscience just yet, but this represents a way for me to make a small yet real difference. It may not be much but regardless, it counts.
The State of Nature report has taught me that whilst it is easy for an economical Millenial content to snatch a three for £10.00 offer on cheap meat in Asda, to condemn those producing my food for the wrecking of nature, doing so would be dishonest. In reality, I should be looking inwards. And others should too.