Contribution by Anna Jones - Part 2
In my first post I talked about the wildflower meadows of Transylvania, and how seeing them stirred something deep in my soul: eco grief – my longing for something lost. But how was it lost? And how do we get it back? And how did we get so angry and divided about something so universally loved - nature? I’m a great believer in understanding the past, and where we’ve been, to help us understand where we’re going.
Since the 1930s we have lost 97% of wildflower meadows in the UK. Most were drained, reseeded and fertilised as part of a huge food production drive during and after the Second World War. One ancient meadow after another disappeared under the plough in a matter of hours, as farmers answered the government’s call to grow more grain – replacing messy meadows of riotous colour with neat, golden rows wheat and barley. And they ploughed with zeal, these farming families who had struggled to feed themselves, let alone the rest of the country, throughout the Great Agricultural Depression which had dragged on from the 1870s. The slump had lasted so long – well over half a century – that Britain’s farmers, many of them poor tenants like my ancestors, just got used to their irrelevance. They despondently plugged away on their little farms as dazzlingly cheap and plentiful grain poured into the docks from the newly planted virgin prairies of the American Midwest. It kept the ballooning urban population fed – an industrial food system for an industrial workforce – and that kept the government happy. Job done.
A brief reprieve for the neglected farmers came in 1914 with the outbreak of the First World War when millions of meals ended up at the bottom of the Atlantic, as German U-boats sank every ship they could. Fearing food shortages, British politicians suddenly remembered they had farmers who could grow things, which came in very handy for four years of war, but they were predictably dropped like hot potatoes in peacetime when grain shipments resumed.
With a second war came a second chance. This time, united under an emboldened lobbying force in the form of the National Farmers Union, landowners and tenants alike were ready to do what was needed. They ploughed for pride and profit and were ignored no longer. Post-1945, with the country still hungry and rationing in place for another nine years, far from being dropped, farmers became the focus of new science and engineering innovation – agrochemicals to protect crops and boost yields and heavier tractors for faster work across bigger areas. Farmers were restored to a position of prominence, influence and, for some, even wealth. Government subsidies incentivised production and big business clamoured to work with this growing market, developing more and more chemicals, pharmaceuticals, machines and gadgets. They were joining the Boys of Big Ag in North America – the industrial food producing giants that had pummelled Britain into agricultural insignificance for decades. Finally, British farmers had a seat at the table. They felt relevant again.
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Photo by Jed Owen on Unsplash
The rich biodiversity that quietly sat in the background was suddenly catapulted into a new era of chemical and mechanical progress. Wildlife had flourished during British agriculture’s long sleep. Overgrown hedgerows, boggy fields of tufty grass, dilapidated buildings and general weedy, brambly untidiness was a big ‘ole biodiversity party. Not that anyone called it ‘biodiversity’ – they were just the birds, insects and animals, the flowers, trees and hedgerows that every farmer and labourer knew by name or, at least, had their own names for. As children, Dad would tell us the trees are our streets. Just as urban dwellers navigate towns and cities by road names, we should read and understand nature’s signposts. I’ve never been particularly good at it though and still resort to random guesses whenever he skewers a fallen autumn leaf on the end of a stick and holds it up for inspection: “What’s this Anna? Well, come on, you know what this is! Beech!”
As lovely as the meadows and hedgerows were, they hadn’t put money in the bank through those decades of hardship and struggle. Their economic value was hidden. Landowners just saw outdated, backward farms being left behind in a changing world. There wasn’t room for sentimentality. The meadows were ploughed, and hedges ripped out. Farms and fields got bigger as biodiversity ever so gradually dwindled.
Only an insane person would set out to ‘kill nature’ but, equally, back then, very few farmers and land managers considered protecting it. Why should they? Nature was an omnipresent, insuppressible force. Like God Himself. It gave rain and sunshine and made the crops and animals grow, but it also brought floods and drought and deadly diseases which made their crops and animals die. Nature could not be dominated or extinguished – despite their best efforts at times to catch an industrious mole ruining a hayfield or a wily fox killing their chickens. No, nature can look after herself – we have a job to do.
a vital role to play. But how do we hold our shape in a world of fast debate?
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Photo by Bob Brewer on Unsplash
I’ve spoken to many older farmers who remember those days of agricultural transformation in the second half of the 20th Century. An East Anglian arable farmer in his eighties told me wildlife was “adversarial” and remembers when skylarks were a “terrible nuisance” pecking at newly sown crops and flying about the tractors. He vigorously embraced the new era, draining and planting wetlands and even hired an aeroplane to spray the farm with chemicals in the 1970s, which also killed all the plants in his wife’s garden.
Farming and nature have been bedfellows since the dawn of the agricultural age 10,000 years ago. They have evolved to coexist in a delicate balance, but by the 1960s and 1970s cracks in their relationship were starting to show, like an old married couple drifting apart. It was barely discernible at first. Out in the fields, farmers were still seeing the birds, insects and animals, the flowers, trees and hedgerows every day. Okay, maybe not as many as there used to be – but they seemed to be doing fine. They couldn’t see, or perhaps chose not to see, their delicate power balance was tipping dangerously. Old Macdonald had become a busy and successful career man while the wife he took for granted, Mother Nature, found it harder and harder to thrive.
As with so many broken relationships, outsiders could see it - and they started making noise about it. The modern environmental movement gathered pace in the 1960s, spurred by Rachel Carson’s book Silent Spring, published in 1962, which pointed the finger at agricultural chemicals for the decline in bird populations.
The politically influential farming unions and the increasingly well-funded conservation organisations locked horns, like love rivals.
“I know what’s best for my wife!” hollered the farmers.
“You don’t appreciate her!” cried the conversationists.
Frustrated at the inaction from government and the lack of engagement from farmers, the environmentalists went directly to the public and soon figured out that an emotional crisis narrative caught the attention of the media. For decades, farm groups and green groups have waged war on two fronts – in private, through traditional political lobbying, and in public, through the media.
In 2017, as part of my Nuffield Farming Scholarship research, which looked at the disconnect between farmers and the mainstream media, I visited the Brussels office of Friends of the Earth Europe and met with biodiversity campaigner Robbie Blake. He told me, rather pointedly, that the farming unions are hard to beat in the corridors of power: “There is a saying in Brussels that the farming lobby is the most powerful in the city.”
Not to be thwarted, the green groups choose a different weapon - and wield it like public relations Samurais:
“There’s very much a sense that the bad news story or the big threat is always the thing that’s effective at getting a response in the media,” Robbie told me. “What would induce someone to write a letter, or sign a petition if it’s not pressing and urgent? And we do that in good conscience - these are issues that need to be addressed and need to be part of public debate.”
And farmers take it very, very personally.
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Even now, more than 75 years after VE Day, there remains a tangible sense of betrayal. After everything farmers had done to feed the nation through two world wars and rationing? Their sweat and labour, eye-watering levels of investment and debt, all to produce affordable food for the consumers who’d ignored them for centuries and were now stabbing them in the back? A deep bitterness runs through the bones of farmers all over the world. I’ve seen it for myself in the US, New Zealand, Australia, South Africa, Denmark, the Netherlands, Ireland, France, Belgium. In fact, the only place I can’t find it is in the developing world – countries like Kenya where most people live rurally, and three quarters of the population still make some part of their living from agriculture.
Here in the UK, there’s been competitive rivalry between the ‘Fergs’ and the ‘Greenies’ for as long as I can remember. Townies, tree huggers, hippies, bunny lovers, veggies, greenies – we’d bandy these terms around as kids and it never occurred to me it was a symptom of a much wider, cultural divide. It was just how people spoke in our community. Often, it was meant affectionately. I’d listen to the old farmers chatting in the market: “Aye, he’s a nice ‘owd lad; bit of a townie type but nice enough.” Sometimes it was an expression of frustration. I remember Dad reaching for the remote whenever a Linda McCartney ready meal advert came on in the 1990s: “What are these bloody veggies on about now?” he’d grump before switching the channel.
And, of course, there were all the usual nicknames for us farm kids at school: sheep shaggers, straw-chewers, Fergs, inbreds. At university people asked if Dad chased people off his land with his gun. My best mates still call him ‘The Cowboy’ picturing Dad, a lifelong John Wayne fan, going round his sheep on horseback. But the teasing always made me smile. I’ve never felt a moment of real malice or aggression – even the old classic about Welsh farmers sticking their favourite sheep’s back legs in their wellies to hold them still.
This has changed in recent years. Both sides are consumed with rage, even hatred. Fergs have become ‘factory farmers’; the Greenies ‘militant activists’.
On the face of it, this is not an urban/rural issue – it’s more about the hardening of a decades-long conflict between agriculture and conservation, which transcends geography and demographics. But urban/rural cultural tensions are there, simmering beneath the surface of the environmental debate. Agriculture is still, overwhelmingly, a rural, land-based industry, embedded in a politically and socially conservative culture and, along with its large migrant workforce, employs a lot of rural, working class people. The green lifestyle choices that are so readily available to us in an urban environment, such as switching to an electric car or ditching your car altogether and cycling everywhere, are simply not an option for isolated communities. Employment opportunities are thin on the ground in many rural areas – to the point going down the pit in a new Cumbrian coal mine, in the same year Glasgow hosts the UN Climate Change Conference, COP26, is seen by some as an attractive economic option.
The new wave of ‘militant’ environmentalism, in the form of climate action groups like Extinction Rebellion and the political activist wing of the vegan movement, has risen out of our cities. It is embedded in left-wing, socialist, anarchist culture, and has mobilised the urban youth. As I write these words, as if on cue, Johnny Rotten’s on the radio belting out: “I want to be anarchy…In the city.”
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Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash
What we’re talking about here is tribes and I’ve felt it on both sides.
One of my closest and dearest friends puts the ‘active’ into activist. She’s a member of Extinction Rebellion, has set up two climate action groups in her local area on the edge of Bristol and loves to march. We marched together in the pouring rain with Greta Thunberg in February 2020. My friend, soaked to the skin, wet hair plastered across her face, looked so alive shouting slogans and punching the air. She has dedicated herself to the climate cause, commuting to work on an electric bike, investing in a hybrid family car and pursuing a plant-based diet as much as possible. Our mutual friend, also an XR activist, is managing a fully vegan diet. My friends are more than just believers in the climate cause - it has become part of their identity, a deeply held value. They are emotional, angry, motivated and determined to drive change.
At my friend’s 40th birthday party all the sausages were vegan. The only reason this inane fact sticks in my memory is because there was much fanfare about it as she pulled trays of hot food from the oven: “They’re vegan, that’s vegan, and so are they, that’s not vegan I’m afraid…”
For some reason I felt deeply, squirmingly self-conscious and conspicuous. Like there was a giant flashing neon sign above my head: “BEEF FARMER’S DAUGHTER!” I felt like I wreaked of carnivorism. Not that I have a problem with vegan food – I like vegan food – but it was such an overtly vegan buffet, as if the plant-based sausages themselves could smell the flesh of animals on me: “You don’t belong here. This is a vegan buffet for vegan people who care about the planet.”
I just stayed quiet. I am hyperaware of my personal attachment to livestock farming and worry that the slightest comment will come off as anti-vegan – which isn’t who I am. But equally, my instinct to defend my diet, and my Dad, is always there, beneath my silence, and I worry that if I start talking, I’ll struggle to stop. So, I sat mute in the corner waiting for the conversation to move on. Silenced by my own self-consciousness.
I’ve felt on the outside with farmers and rural folk too. At my parent’s ruby wedding anniversary party, my cousin wanders over for a chat. I can’t imagine him ever leaving the area where we grew up. He’s a young Millennial and already the ultimate local. He’s never been on a train and only flown abroad once for his honeymoon. He went to university in Shropshire and built a successful career as a livestock auctioneer in the county, met a local farmer’s daughter, got married, had children and built a house just two miles over the border in Wales. We catch up and he tells me the protesters have been back, making a noise outside the market.
“I hate vegans,” he says.
“You don’t mean that.”
“I do. I hate them. Don’t you?”
I’m on the outside again. I think of my vegan friends in Bristol. Good, kind people. I can’t imagine them saying they hate anyone (except, maybe, Donald Trump). They wouldn’t stand outside the livestock market screaming at lorry drivers and intimidating people - in my mind, that kind of behaviour has more to do with personal anger issues than being vegan. I try to explain but my cousin looks doubtful. He’s yet to meet a vegan who hasn’t shouted at him. So, again, I stay silent and the conversation moves on.
In 2016 I was on a large farm and game reserve in South Africa, shooting clays with a group of farmers on the edge of some maize fields. Our host was a brusque Afrikaner - a barn of a man with a mane of blonde curls. He didn’t say much but was enormously generous with beer and clays. I noticed his daughter’s t-shirt. It had a picture of a deer arching its back depositing a pile of faeces on some sort of crop. Below it said: “Hey Vegans! My food poops on your food!” She was only 12 or 13. Again, I didn’t say anything. Her dad had a gun.
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Photo by Warren Wong on Unsplash
I know I’m not the only one who feels on the outside of something, who sits awkwardly in the middle ground. Up and down the country, people like me stay quiet because we don’t belong in either tribe. It’s uncomfortable for us, up on the fence. And I believe the lack of challenge and dissention among peer groups, on both sides, is giving a louder voice to those pedalling extreme messages of intolerance and drivers of division.
I want to reclaim the centre ground. I want to move beyond the black and white and celebrate the glorious grey. But centrists are generally not activists. We don’t wave flags or shout slogans. We choose diplomacy over debate. It is hard to make our voices heard. It is why my heart filled with joy when Barbara Bray invited me to take part in this slow conversation, but it’s also why it’s taken me nearly three weeks to pluck up the courage to join in, and have my say.
In my view, we will fail in our fight against climate change if the centrists stay quiet. People like us, in this slow conversation, have a vital role to play. But how do we hold our shape in a world of fast debate?