The Carbon Fields


The Carbon Fields by Graham HarveyFull Title: The Carbon Fields: How Our Countryside Can Save Britain
Author: Graham Harvey
Publisher: Grass Roots (2008)
Number of Pages: 228 (including directory of suppliers)
How long it took me to read: about a week
Where I bought this book: Borrowed from a friend
ISBN: 978-0-9560707-0-8

Like a Moth to a Flame

Several years ago, a good friend infected me with her obsession with environmental issues and sustainability. Since then, she’s been a fount of knowledge on the subject, introducing me to books, films and shops that might feed this obsession.  On a recent visit to her flat, she told me about both The Carbon Fields and a neighbourhood butcher’s shop, which, intriguingly, sources only as-local-as-possible free-range meat.  My stomach, always quicker to respond than my brain, was more interested in the meat than in the book, and I agreed that we should pay the butcher a visit.  While I waited for her to get ready, I prodded my way through a mire of dismal Saturday morning television programmes, before noticing her copy of The Carbon Fields nestled on the sofa beside me.  I picked it up and began to read.  When I returned home later that day, the book was safely tucked away in my bag, right next to a succulent chicken and several strings of shop-made sausages.

Favorite Five

After discarding 7 others, my favorite 5 quotes from this book are:

5. “Tragically Britain betrayed these heroic food producers.  The first attack came during the war – at the very time when they were doing their utmost to help the nation.  The government committees who controlled farming made farmers plough up many of their most productive grasslands and sow the land with cereals.” (p.92)

4. “Why, she wondered, were Indian peasants being pushed into debt and penury by a system of agriculture that was supposed to bring prosperity to rural communities? And why did monocultures, which were intrinsically of low productivity, come to be accepted as highly productive though they required huge inputs of chemicals and fossil fuels, and then produced less food than traditional, diverse farming systems?” (p.100)

3. “At Wester Lawrenceton Farm the Bride Day Feast is eagerly awaited, says Pam Rodway, especially by the children.  ‘There’s great excitement when the butter and bannocks are brought in.  The children think of them as party food – they treat them almost with reverence.  It comes from their close connection with the farm and with the animals.  It springs from that same deep relationship indigenous peoples have with their livestock, peoples such as the Masai in Africa.’ ” (p.187)

2. “Organic milk, for example, is a blend of the good and not so good.  Organic standards require that at least 60 per cent of the ratio must be in the form of grass and forage.  In terms of its nutrient content, milk produced to this minimum standard won’t compare in quality with milk of cows getting 80 per cent of their feed in the form of grazed pasture, organic or not.  And, as on conventional farms, milk produced to higher standards will be diluted with milk produced to the bare minimum standard.” (p.136)

…and my pick for the No.1 quote is…

1. “ ‘Do you know a handful of soil contains more living things than there are people on earth?’ he asked me as he sat across the desk outlining the farming system.  Well no, I didn’t, though I knew it was an awful lot.” (p.172)

Conversation with the Reader

While I read, I write, and as I write, I read. Here’s some of what I wrote while I read this book:

The Carbon Fields sets out to prove one point: that using pasture land for animal feed is more beneficial in every way – economically, environmentally, sustainably, socially, nutritionally and even in terms of taste – than the modern system of dependence on industrially-farmed grain.”

“Over the past five years, I’ve read quite a few books and seen various films on the subject of food production and the detrimental effects of intensive farming. I have come to believe that all of us, as consumers, have a significant impact on how our food is produced. Every time we make a choice about which products to buy and which products not to buy, we decide how to invest in the future of the industry. But making that choice, totalling up the ethical values of different rearing/growing practices, transport costs, packaging methods, not to mention value for money, is so often a formula that results in utter frustration.

“What immediately grabbed me about this book was that, from the outset, it courageously extended a single, elegant solution to all the problems faced, or caused, by the meat and dairy industries: a return to the use of grassland. For such an accessible resource to represent a cure-all for so many issues in our over-complicated industrial world seems akin to someone finally inventing the perpetual motion machine that science-fiction and over-optimistic entrepreneurs have been banging on about for centuries. Grasses (when humans elect not to interfere with them) are extremely prevalent and tenacious organisms, while pasturing sounds like a relatively simple and inexpensive (economically and environmentally) practice compared to the annual sowing, harvesting and maintenance of cereal crops.  My immediate thought, having read the blurb on the back of the book and the first few pages, was: “If the solution is really so simple, why did we ever abandon it?”  This question set the author, Graham Harvey, to face a dual challenge: to not only show me evidence of the benefits of pasturing over industrial cropland, but also to explain the history behind its demise.

“Over the following chapters, Harvey rises unfalteringly to this challenge, detailing (in an accessible, non-technical language) the potential effects of his proposed system on perennial issues such as climate change, food security and community, while incorporating careful reference to the political and commercial decisions that have shaped our farming landscape.  Where necessary, his claims are supported by data from well-referenced scientific research, providing evidence for such arguments as the carbon-capturing qualities of clover-rich grassland or, more controversially, the nutritional value of traditional ‘fatty’ dairy produce.

The Carbon Fields predominantly focuses on Britain but food production is, of course, a global issue – particularly with the incalculable amount that is shipped or flown around the planet nowadays.  Harvey recognises this, including examples of practice, both beneficial and detrimental, from countries such as the US, India, New Zealand, China and Scandinavia.  Perhaps more importantly, he uses the experiences and words of individuals involved with the industry to great effect, pulling us into their lifestyles, celebrating their achievements and troubling us with their dilemmas. Towards the end of the book, these personal examples become relentless, speeding the reader through a non-stop tour of grass-fed farms around the British Isles.  The sheer number of fruitful results for landowners who have taken this brave step was almost enough to convince me of Harvey’s argument in itself.  When I then began to consider his determination in tracking down these farmers, along with the attention he gives to their methods and the effect that these have on the surrounding community, the depth of his commitment really struck home.”

“Confronted with two opposing arguments that clash as stubbornly as traditional farming and mechanised farming, it’s always useful to ask what the petitioners on each side stand to gain should they win. As far as I can tell from his biography and online profile, Graham Harvey is not a businessman. He does not have a controlling interest in British Grasses plc. He is an agricultural graduate and a journalist but, above all, he appears to be someone who cares about the future of the food industry, of the communities it upholds and the quality of life of those invested in it (i.e. all of us – farmers, consumers and animals alike).  He has undoubtedly expended a great deal of time and energy researching this work – unlike those advocates of industrial farming who consistently rely on technological fixers to do their work for them, only to find, ten or twenty years later, they need another new marvel to fix their last invention.

“This doesn’t mean he slavishly adheres to popular labels on what is or is not beneficial for humans and the rest of the planet. From the Green Revolution of the 1960s and ‘70s, to the current clamor for ‘organic’ certification, this is a book that scrutinizes such labels carefully, and asks its readers to do the same before making their decisions as consumers.  Harvey is clearly a realist and, contrary to my fanciful suggestion of a perpetual motion machine for farming, understands that no system can ever be an instant cure-all.  They will all have their detrimental effects but, as with any decision, what we must do is identify and support the choice whose benefits most outweigh its detriments.  In The Carbon Fields, Graham Harvey has laid down a convincing argument for that choice being the widespread reintroduction of pasture land.

“If you’re a human and you eat food, then you have a responsibility to read this book. There’s even a directory of British pasture-based farms included for anyone who wants to do more to support them.  If you’re not human, and you manage to get your hoofs/paws/trotters on a suitable translation, I’m sure you will find it equally enlightening.”

Gareth Long

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