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The Exmoor Society Blog – Notes from Down Under

The Exmoor Society looks to support local young people working in research into agriculture and the environment. One such is Rosalie Sanders who grew up in the Quarme Valley. Rosalie recently set off on a year (or maybe two…) of travel to continue her research into soil carbon and sustainable agriculture and has agreed to write a blog of her scientific journey as she explores this complex and interesting subject. 

Notes from Under Ground: 

Part 1 of 2: VEGANS v REGENS

Although I grew up farming on Exmoor, a career in agriculture was not the plan. I left school with a place at Newcastle University on the Mathematics with Management course and was all set to become an accountant or business consultant upon graduation. Then in the January of 2021, during my final year at Newcastle, a heated discussion with a friend about Veganuary changed everything.

I had put a post on Instagram about Veganuary’s opposing movement, Reganuary. This encourages consumers to source their food locally, from farms employing regenerative farming principles, on the basis that this is better for the environment than removing animal products from your diet entirely. Reading the post, my friend immediately sent me a message accusing me of being part of the problem.

Their argument was that the meat industry was the number one contributor to climate change, and that it was inherently cruel to animals to eat meat. Whilst I acknowledge that not everyone can rationalise the slaughter of animals for consumption, what irked me was my friend’s argument that the lamb we sell from our farm, produced using regenerative farming methods, would be worse for the environment than fruit and vegetables flown half way around the world. It didn’t make sense.

I tried to argue my case – fired by the pride I have in the way we farm at home, and using my own knowledge of the environmental benefits we see from grazing livestock. My vegan friend wasn’t convinced. So, I took a step back and thought, ‘Come on now Rosalie, what have you learnt at university? What you need is stats!’ After all, nothing is true unless there’s a statistic to back it up, and if there’s a statistic to back it up then it must be true…a sentiment you’ll read a little more about in a moment.

And so I searched for the statistics to prove my case. But it was more difficult than I had ever imagined it could be to find anything that proved the merits of eating locally produced, regeneratively farmed meat over a vegan diet. I later reflected that this may have been partly due to the huge volume of pro-vegan statistics in the media at that time.

Nonetheless, most of the global numbers came out in favour of veganism. However, what struck me the most was not the arguments for or against different food sources, but rather the huge, negative environmental impact of agriculture full stop. Arable production, whilst deemed less damaging than livestock, still had an overall negative impact. ‘Pot calling the kettle black’ was the thought that came to mind…

Now my parents are pretty forward-thinking farmers, and I was posting about Reganuary because I was already aware of the concept of regenerative agriculture – we use some of its principles on the farm at home. My father had read Allan Savory’s book Holistic Management and passed it around our family and onto friends (if you’re not aware of Savory’s work I highly recommend his TED talk: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vpTHi7O66pI)

Savory shows how grazing herds of herbivores (especially cattle) can regenerate desertified areas back into pasture using the trampling effect of their hooves to incorporate their nutrient rich excretions and dead plant matter into the soil. This feeds the soil microbiome which then decomposes these materials into carbon rich soil aggregates: improving soil health, increasing carbon sequestration, and helping to restoring natural water systems by improving soil structure which in turn increases soil’s water holding capacity. And all this while producing nutritious beef.

What fascinated me was how his work suggested that climate change could be stopped by the mass sequestration of atmospheric carbon into the soil. It amuses me that the one animal the media loves to blame for climate change might just be the one best suited to reversing it…

Savory’s work struck a chord – but it was when his profoundly counterintuitive argument met my desire to prove a point that I gave up my future as an accountant and instead decided to participate in the regenerative farming movement and work towards globally sustainable agriculture. I had a new goal: to feed the world and save it with cows.

Step one was more education. I was accepted onto Harper Adams University’s MSc Agroecology course – ‘Agroecology’ is the current term for the concept of farming in harmony with nature – and I graduated this year with a Distinction. I loved every module, and the more I learned, the more my interest in soil health, regeneration, and carbon grew. I began to understand the complex chemical side of soil, the huge role of soil microbes in the storage of carbon and the provision of nutrients to crops, and the effect of different management systems on overall soil health and environmental performance.

I visited farms trying out the latest ideas in improving soil health and protecting and enhancing biodiversity whilst still turning a profit and producing food. And, most excitingly, I visited farms that were using regenerative grazing to increase soil carbon. Seeing the principle in practice was so encouraging; it confirmed that it can work, and that the idea of feeding our ever-growing population without wrecking the environment is more than a pipe dream.

Part 2 of Rosalie’s blog will be released later this month.

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