Cambridge regenerative farming film makers say ‘now is the time to restore soil quality in UK’
It’s just a question of time before global destabilisation impacts world food supply – and now is the time to accelerate farming self-sufficiency in the UK, said the producers of the Six Inches of Soil film at a meeting on Friday in Cambridge.
The meeting was organised to raise awareness of a crowdfunding campaign for the film, which is currently in production and scheduled to launch at Groundswell [agriculture show and conference] next year. The team has recently been boosted by the arrival of Mark Aldridge – whose credits credits include The 51st State and Utopia – as executive producer.
Claire Mackenzie, producer, Six Inches of Soil, said: “After a year of pre-production research, visiting farms, talking to agroecology experts and inspirational organisations throughout the UK, as well as creating partnerships with organisations including the Soil Association, Nature Friendly Farming Network and Sustain, we’re ready to move into the second stage of our documentary film journey.”
Five trailers were shown at OtherSyde by the Cam. They explore how close the soil is to depletion in East Anglia, and emphasise the nutritional and economic logic behind regenerative agriculture. The excerpts were introduced by Cambridge-based organisers, director Colin Ramsay and rewilding advocate James Murray-White.
Speaking to a crowd of around 20 people, which included soil scientists, farmers, environmentalists and a large contingent from Swavesey Sustainability Hub, Colin Ramsay stressed that the film is designed to be uplifting.
“We have a bias with this film,” he said, “and our bias is ‘we want to restore the land’. We don’t want to push the guilt button, we want to inspire people.”
James Murray-White said the film “helps root us in the bigger story of life on this planet”.
“It’s a British film about the UK farming system but it’s a global problem,” added Colin, “and East Anglia is the most intensively farmed area in Europe.”
“With the international situation as it is, there will be other problems further down the line,” added James.
The audience heard that three-quarters of the world’s food supply comes from just four crops – wheat, rice, maize and soybean. Together, Russia and Ukraine export one third of the world’s wheat. Ukraine, sometimes called ‘the breadbasket of Europe’, is a significant exporter of maize (providing 15 per cent of the world market) and corn (17 per cent of the world’s market). It is also a significant global producer of soya beans and sunflower oils. The tragedy unfolding in Ukraine, already so costly in human lives and suffering, will inevitably impact global food production and therefore prices in the longer term.
At the same time, the assumption that the soil will carry on delivering the food volumes expected of it is no longer realistic, remarked Natalie Bennett in one of the trailers. The former leader of the Green Party, now a Baroness, said: “Our diet is terrible, our crops are being sprayed, the soil is overworked. It’s very interesting how myopic people have become and we’re looking to broaden out the perspective.”
Another trailer showed Stroud-based farmer Ian Wilkinson, who runs a centre for farming diversity in Stroud. The centre demonstrates how small family farms can use sustainable farming practices and maintain a respectable income.
“The single most important factor in achieving this goal is improving and maintaining soil quality,” says Ian of regenerative farming.
“I’m a regenerative agriculture advocate,” he said while being interviewed for Six Inches of Soil. “It’s about rebuilding the soil and the land, not continually depleting it. It’s about people, land access, the supply system – it’s a way of looking at the world.”
In the Q&A after the clips, Duncan Catchpole, managing director of the Cambridge Organic Food Company (COFCO), commented: “In the clip about regenerative farming, Ian describes rebuilding, but it’s also about the principles of cycles and recycling – it’s about the constant rebuilding of soil.”
Duncan said his farm produce business doubled during the first lockdown.
“A great example of resilience was during the first lockdown. We witnessed shelves running bare. Our demand almost doubled in six weeks. The industrial food system couldn’t adjust, but we could – and demand has only come down slightly since, it’s down less than 10 per cent from its absolute peak.”
“We’re disconnected from where our food comes and from nature in general,” noted Colin.
“And from farmers,” said Claire Mackenzie. “We need to get people to understand farming more.”
“Yes,” replied Colin. “And farmers want to connect.”
Other local organisations including CoFarm in Cambridge, CoVeg in Thriplow, Flourish Produce in Hildersham also operate in line with regenerative practices.
The discussion evolved to the interest being taken by McDonalds, Nestle and Danone in regenerative agriculture. Was this a good or a bad thing? Lizzie, from the Swavesey Sustainable Hub, and a food scientist, said: “Small changes in a big organisation can have more impact than big changes in smaller organisations.”
The team expects to meet with both conventional and regenerative farmers across the country, including Jake Fiennes, head of conservation at Holkham Estate in Norfolk and Stephen Briggs, a first-generation farmer who has been farming organically for 18 years at his 576-acre farm in Cambridgeshire. They’ll also have discussions with experts in the food and farming sector including Vicki Hird, Sustainable Farming Campaign coordinator and author of Rebugging the Planet and Henry Dimbleby, author of the government-commissioned National Food Strategy. Characters and additional nature friendly farming experts will be announced in the coming months.
Find out more about the crowdfunder here.