Courtesy of Alamy

If a cow farts, everyone says it’s to blame for climate change”

Georgie Lane-Godfrey goes to the frontlines of the climate emergency with the XR Farmers.

Crusties”, ego warriors”, a primeval, anti-capitalist cult” – it’s fair to say that Extinction Rebellion has been suffering from a wee bit of an image problem, and one that’s primarily down to class. Derided as being too white and too populated by the privileged few who can afford to get arrested, XR has since changed tactic, embarking on an everyman” inclusivity drive. 

The result? The emergence of multiple subgroups as the movement opens up its ranks to professionals from all walks of life, spawning the likes of XR Doctors, XR Lawyers and, of course, XR Farmers.

You might have seen the latter during October’s International Rebellion – the XR Farmers ensured they caught people’s attention by driving a pink bio-diesel-powered John Deere tractor around London, complete with a collection of collies in tow. But an eye-catching statement was needed – farmers are truly on the frontline of the climate emergency. 

The reason for that is simple. Farmers produce our food, which experts believe is set to run out fast. According to the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization, the world’s population will pass 9.1 billion in 2050, at which point agricultural systems will not be able to produce enough food to feed everyone. 

That growing population will result in great carbon emissions too, which left unchecked, will only hasten this food crisis. The latest report from the UN’s IPCC (International Panel on Climate Change) found that rising temperatures may reduce the nutritional value of crops, while extreme weather conditions caused by climate change will significantly reduce yields. That means that the food we do produce is going to be seriously expensive and there won’t be much of it. Turns out that extinction” in XR’s name is referring to starvation…

  • Large scale farming is physically and biologically unsustainable.”  Large scale farming is physically and biologically unsustainable.”  Large scale farming is physically and biologically unsustainable.”  Large scale farming is physically and biologically unsustainable.”  Large scale farming is physically and biologically unsustainable.”  Large scale farming is physically and biologically unsustainable.”  Large scale farming is physically and biologically unsustainable.”  Large scale farming is physically and biologically unsustainable.”  Large scale farming is physically and biologically unsustainable.”  Large scale farming is physically and biologically unsustainable.”  Large scale farming is physically and biologically unsustainable.”  Large scale farming is physically and biologically unsustainable.”  Large scale farming is physically and biologically unsustainable.”  Large scale farming is physically and biologically unsustainable.”  Large scale farming is physically and biologically unsustainable.”  Large scale farming is physically and biologically unsustainable.”  Large scale farming is physically and biologically unsustainable.”  Large scale farming is physically and biologically unsustainable.”  Large scale farming is physically and biologically unsustainable.”  Large scale farming is physically and biologically unsustainable.” 

No wonder, then, that farmers across the world are concerned. As for the XR Farmers here in the UK, a quick glimpse at their manifesto explains how they intend to tackle the impending crisis by reducing dependency on fossil fuel, building biodiversity and working with nature to support the natural systems we all depend on.

It’s nature-friendly farming,” explains Sarah Shuffell, 52, a sheep farmer and one of XR Farmers original founders. The current system of food production is not working in tandem with a healthy land and environment so we’re promoting regenerative agriculture, which aims to restore rather than deplete our natural resources. It’s essentially a return to pre-industrial farming practices, before the obsession with fossil fuels started. In the aftermath of WW2, farmers were pressed to grow more produce, more cost-effectively to ensure food security. That’s when the emergence of fertilisers and chemical sprays came into play, but people weren’t aware of the damage they were doing. Regenerative agriculture is about taking a step back to a time when farming was smaller scale and organic, when hedgerows and trees were everywhere and our soil was healthy.”

Soil is one of the key issues for XR Farmers. An underestimated weapon in the fight against greenhouse gases, soil has the capacity to sequester carbon, absorbing it from the atmosphere and locking it into the soil, where it will stay unless it is ploughed up. Soils treated, corrected and returned to their healthy natural state have huge capacities to absorb carbon,” explains Shuffell. Research is being done into how to improve this as pastures actually sequester twice as much carbon as trees.”

Courtesy of Getty Images

Yet it’s estimated that currently 33% of our soils are degraded. Some people say we have 100 years of harvests left, some people say 20 – the truth is, no one really knows,” says Shuffell. Regardless, we have got to restore our soils if we want these harvests to continue, they are the living breathing lungs of the world. Regenerative farming helps restore those depleted soils.”

But poor soils also mean poor biodiversity too – a factor essential for farming. We underestimate the importance of pollinators, without them, the repercussions on our food production will be huge,” says Kris Fowler, 32, an agro-ecological market gardener in Somerset. This is why we need hedgerows, which have been lost as fields have expanded, as they offer appealing habitats for these pollinators.”

Some of this might sound familiar – you’ve probably read about the rough time everyone’s favourite furry black and yellow bugs have been having. People seem to know about the plight of bees – they’re the charismatic megafauna of the insect world,” says Fowler. But its not only bees which are in trouble, a recent German study found that the number of flying insects has fallen by three quarters in recent years, resulting in warnings about a resulting ecological Armageddon”.

Fowler grows vegetables on his 18 acres, rotating 80 different crops dependent on the season. Supplying farm shops in the surrounding area so that his produce mains a sustainably low carbon footprint, he hopes his goods will help educate locals about what can be grown in Somerset and when – something which he believes becomes alien to consumers who only shop in supermarkets. 

Large scale farming is physically and biologically unsustainable,” he says, explaining his decision to pursue horticulture rather than agriculture – the difference between which all comes down to scale. Nature cannot facilitate growing in the way long term, so even if its economically viable its not ecologically viable. But at the moment, small scale growing doesn’t feature at all in governmental policy.” 

  • Importing animal alternative products from abroad is not part of the climate emergency solution.”  Importing animal alternative products from abroad is not part of the climate emergency solution.”  Importing animal alternative products from abroad is not part of the climate emergency solution.”  Importing animal alternative products from abroad is not part of the climate emergency solution.”  Importing animal alternative products from abroad is not part of the climate emergency solution.”  Importing animal alternative products from abroad is not part of the climate emergency solution.”  Importing animal alternative products from abroad is not part of the climate emergency solution.”  Importing animal alternative products from abroad is not part of the climate emergency solution.”  Importing animal alternative products from abroad is not part of the climate emergency solution.”  Importing animal alternative products from abroad is not part of the climate emergency solution.”  Importing animal alternative products from abroad is not part of the climate emergency solution.”  Importing animal alternative products from abroad is not part of the climate emergency solution.”  Importing animal alternative products from abroad is not part of the climate emergency solution.”  Importing animal alternative products from abroad is not part of the climate emergency solution.”  Importing animal alternative products from abroad is not part of the climate emergency solution.”  Importing animal alternative products from abroad is not part of the climate emergency solution.”  Importing animal alternative products from abroad is not part of the climate emergency solution.”  Importing animal alternative products from abroad is not part of the climate emergency solution.”  Importing animal alternative products from abroad is not part of the climate emergency solution.”  Importing animal alternative products from abroad is not part of the climate emergency solution.” 

Despite being a small-scale sustainable grower himself, Fowler can still sympathise with the larger industrial farmers and the challenges they face: It’s important to have a grasp of the nuance and struggle involved in farming. We live in an economic system which shapes our agriculture, which means for a lot of farmers, their methods are a case of survival. So while these farmers might be lambasted by environmentalists, they’re also screwed over by the government’s shifting agricultural policy.”

Farmers have come under a lot of criticism,” agrees Shuffell. Agriculture currently contributes to 9% of the UK’s greenhouse gases, so now, if a cow farts, everyone says it’s to blame for climate change. But economies of scale mean farmers can’t make a living with a few small fields or a herd of 40 cows.”

It’s this kind of understanding between the traditionally warring factions which gives XR Farmers it’s appeal. Everyone in XR Farmers is behind the idea of regenerative agriculture and agro-ecological farming,” says Fowler, so it’s moved beyond the binary positions on farming animals.”

My partner and I are vegans and we’ve definitely slipped in the past into blaming animal agriculture for all the environmental damage that is happening,” he continues. But being part of XR Farmers has definitely broadened my perspective and introduced a lot of nuance into that discussion about what a resilient and sustainable food system actually involves. Importing animal alternative products from abroad, that are grown by slave labour in greenhouses and have a higher carbon footprint from being flown over, is not part of the climate emergency solution.”

  • We need to become more sustainable if our dream of independence is to survive.”  We need to become more sustainable if our dream of independence is to survive.”  We need to become more sustainable if our dream of independence is to survive.”  We need to become more sustainable if our dream of independence is to survive.”  We need to become more sustainable if our dream of independence is to survive.”  We need to become more sustainable if our dream of independence is to survive.”  We need to become more sustainable if our dream of independence is to survive.”  We need to become more sustainable if our dream of independence is to survive.”  We need to become more sustainable if our dream of independence is to survive.”  We need to become more sustainable if our dream of independence is to survive.”  We need to become more sustainable if our dream of independence is to survive.”  We need to become more sustainable if our dream of independence is to survive.”  We need to become more sustainable if our dream of independence is to survive.”  We need to become more sustainable if our dream of independence is to survive.”  We need to become more sustainable if our dream of independence is to survive.”  We need to become more sustainable if our dream of independence is to survive.”  We need to become more sustainable if our dream of independence is to survive.”  We need to become more sustainable if our dream of independence is to survive.”  We need to become more sustainable if our dream of independence is to survive.”  We need to become more sustainable if our dream of independence is to survive.” 

It’s this kind of understanding and shift in approach which has brought new farmers to the table, says 23-year-old Welsh farmer Osian Hedd. Previously I’d just seen farmers being demonised by environmentalists in the media, but since XR farmers started, I’ve felt more involved in Extinction Rebellion.”

I know Animal Rebellion don’t want to see animal farming in the UK, but what they don’t see is that arable farming can actually be quite dangerous to the environment as well, in terms of extreme tilling releasing carbon from the soil. Besides, our grass fed system in the UK is amazing – we’re brilliant at turning our grass in protein. I think the problem is that with animal farming, ethical issues come into it as well, which are emotional; rather than environmental.”

Osian’s family have farmed on the same land in Pembrokeshire for over 300 years, producing beef and lamb on their small-scale farm which is typical of the region. The average farm size in Wales is much smaller – just 48 hectares, compared with 107 hectares in Scotland and 88 hectares in England,” he says. What’s more, of those Welsh farms, 54% are smaller than 20 hectares. There’s a big opportunity for us to be an example of sustainable small scale farming for the rest for the world.”

Protecting and promoting these small, sustainable farms was what drew Osian to XR Farmers in the first place. I was politicised by the Welsh Independence Movement, and a lot of its supporters are involved with XR in one way or another. Agriculture is the backbone of Wales, so we need to protect it to realise the dream of Welsh independence. If we lose it, our language, our culture and our economy also go out the window. We need to become more sustainable if our dream of independence is to survive.”

  • Everyone needs to come along on this journey to make a difference. It’s not just about the few.”  Everyone needs to come along on this journey to make a difference. It’s not just about the few.”  Everyone needs to come along on this journey to make a difference. It’s not just about the few.”  Everyone needs to come along on this journey to make a difference. It’s not just about the few.”  Everyone needs to come along on this journey to make a difference. It’s not just about the few.”  Everyone needs to come along on this journey to make a difference. It’s not just about the few.”  Everyone needs to come along on this journey to make a difference. It’s not just about the few.”  Everyone needs to come along on this journey to make a difference. It’s not just about the few.”  Everyone needs to come along on this journey to make a difference. It’s not just about the few.”  Everyone needs to come along on this journey to make a difference. It’s not just about the few.”  Everyone needs to come along on this journey to make a difference. It’s not just about the few.”  Everyone needs to come along on this journey to make a difference. It’s not just about the few.”  Everyone needs to come along on this journey to make a difference. It’s not just about the few.”  Everyone needs to come along on this journey to make a difference. It’s not just about the few.”  Everyone needs to come along on this journey to make a difference. It’s not just about the few.”  Everyone needs to come along on this journey to make a difference. It’s not just about the few.”  Everyone needs to come along on this journey to make a difference. It’s not just about the few.”  Everyone needs to come along on this journey to make a difference. It’s not just about the few.”  Everyone needs to come along on this journey to make a difference. It’s not just about the few.”  Everyone needs to come along on this journey to make a difference. It’s not just about the few.” 

He points out that in Wales, 80% of the land is unsuitable for arable farming meaning those wanting to make a livelihood from agriculture are limited as to what they can farm. In fact, it’s a similar story across the whole of the UK, where 70% of the land is in grass due to the wet climate,” says Shuffell. Yet according to the UN’s IPCC report, when produced sustainably in low greenhouse gas emission systems, animal products can actually be part of the solution to climate change by increasing pastureland and providing manure to fertilise and restore soils. 

Obviously, there is always room for us to improve,” concedes Osian, but what people don’t realise is that farmers do want to change and become more sustainable. We’re looking to make changes as well – research is being done into the means of reducing methane production in cows by adding charcoal to their diet which looks really promising.”

Instead, Osian suggests we need to take a more holistic look at emissions instead of scapegoating one sector. There’s a lot of misunderstanding around farming, which means it’s unfairly vilified,” he says. In Pembrokeshire, we have one of the biggest oil refineries in Europe, but there’s more in the news about our agriculture than about this massive factory where you can actually see the pollution coming out from it. Reduced dependency on fossil fuels is something everyone needs to look at, both on an industrial level and a personal one. Everyone needs to come along on this journey to make a difference. It’s not just about the few.”


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