Growing support for a more sustainable agricultural industry, with small-scale farming a possible alternative

When it comes to food in the UK, we can count ourselves lucky. We are able to have food on our supermarket shelves of all varieties, in all seasons, for very little cost. But the global food industry might be under threat. There are concerns over how sustainable it really is, and the impact it has on local communities.

One answer to these issues is scaling things down, not up. Over the past few years, there has been increased support for “small farms”, also known as small-scale farming, that do not prioritise profit, but rather sustainable farming that positively impacts the local community.

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Chris Smaje is a sociologist turned small-scale farmer. In his book, A Small Farm Future, he argues that a number of issues with modern farming are down to the structure of the global economy. “It’s all based on cheap energy— which basically means fossil fuels. This is problematic on many levels, primarily climate change”, he explains.

Smaje describes the pressures that farms face to mechanise as “irrational”. “You realise labour is dear, fossil fuel is cheap – which pushes you to a larger scale”. As a result, environmental impact increases, a concern Chris says we often ignore.

Small farms are in many ways a look to the past— 80 years ago, the majority of farms in the UK were of the small scale Smaje supports. Currently, agriculture covers 69% of our island, yet produces less than 60% of what we consume. Water scarcity and extreme weather are likely to affect the “bread basket” regions of the world that we rely on if the climate worsens. This could have a serious impact on food supply and prices.

“We need to re-learn what our local ecosystem provides,” Chris argues. “Things like seasonable vegetables, parsnips and swedes… older generations know how to cook but a lot of people don’t… [and] there’s a lot of pleasure from re-connecting with this local seasonality.”

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A significant shift towards small-scale farming would require a radical re-structuring of the farming industry: not only in this country, but around the world. In the UK, the number of small farms is dwindling, as more and more are sold off to larger estates. However, they could be the change that the agricultural industry needs.

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