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Feeding 10 billion and Saving the Planet – The Story of James Rebanks

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The United Nations estimates that by the year 2100, the world population will be 10.9 billion humans. In 1900 there were less than 2 billion. To feed so many people, more and more forests are being cut down. National Geographic estimates each year, forests occupying more than the land area of Punjab are being destroyed. This is accelerating climate change. So, what do we do? Conventional thinking says more land is needed to feed an ever-growing population while at the same time cutting down forests for agriculture imperils our survival due to changes in the climate.

James Rebanks, whose family has been farmers on the same land plot in the English Lake Districts for over 600 years, demonstrates an alternative, sustainable way of farming and living.  

When he was 20 years old, Rebanks ran away from home and went to Australia. There he experienced first-hand how large industrial-sized farms are operated. Later he visited even larger farms in Iowa and Indiana in the US. Rebanks was told that farmers worldwide should learn the “future of farming” from these American and Australian farmers. 

What Rebanks found was that this was a mirage. He discovered that large industrial farms were “losing soil at a very rapid rate. The groundwater was poisoned with chemicals and needed to be cleaned before locals can drink it. [There were] giant dead-zones from all the fertilizer phosphates running off the farmland and the soil left behind was often as compacted and dead as concrete.” Rebanks found that it was not “uncommon for intensive crop fields to be sprayed seven times between planting and harvest, dousing the food [people eat] in chemicals.” 

Rebanks returned home to run the family farm after his father died. Rebanks loves working on his family farm and said that “There is nothing anyone can do to keep me from working here.” He completely reorganized how his farm was run. He planted 12,000 trees and made a wetland area on the farm creating a “wildlife corridor.” Rebanks uses minimal pesticides and rotates the farmland on which he cultivates crops. He also has sheep and cattle that provide much-needed manure. In this manner, he says he has rejuvenated the soil on his farm and made the farm sustainable. Rebanks says that he farms with, not against nature.

The second aspect of Rebanks’ advice is that farmers have to be advocates of change in how the rest of us buy and consume food. He says that most people are “strangers to the fields that feed us.” We are, he says, mindless consumers who are “addicted to cheap food” that is also unhealthy. 

In answer to the question, “So what should I eat?” Rebanks says that there is no one answer. He says that “there’s no such thing as a one-size-fits-all global sustainable diet.” What is required is for all of us to take “responsibility for our food and how it is grown.” Rebanks says that “What we choose to eat isn’t just a personal choice. 

The things we pick from the shelves as we shop (and how much we pay for them) add up to a world-shaping message that is broadcast across the fields and determines what farmers choose to grow and how they must do it. So, let us ask ourselves, and farmers, to produce food that makes ecological sense.”

Rebanks says that there are “sensible reasons to eat lots of fruit, nuts, and vegetables” but is not a vegetarian. However, he says people should be educated about where and exactly how they get their food and that the meats should be much more expensive. This will mean less consumption of cheap meats made in ecologically harmful ways.

Rebanks has four children and perhaps one or more of them will continue his farming approach when he passes on. Whether the millions of farmers worldwide will follow his advice is more uncertain. Rebanks says that “When we find ways to farm regeneratively and in ways that allow nature to thrive around us, then we will have a range of foodstuffs to choose from. We can then take our pick and eat what we each think is right and good.”

© Kaikhushru Taraporevala

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