The recent release of an RSPB analysis titled ‘A lost decade for nature’ showed that the UK has failed to reach 17 out of 20 UN biodiversity targets agreed on 10 years ago. The other side of the scale holds the news that sales of organic food and drink hit a record high during lockdown, indicating that consumers are becoming increasingly aware of the benefits of choosing organic produce.
Organic farming has a number of potent and well-documented benefits: reduced exposure to chemicals in food; higher standards of animal welfare; climate-change mitigation through increased carbon sequestration of soil (organic soils are around 25% more effective at storing carbon in the long-term). If Europe’s farmland all followed organic principles, agricultural emissions could drop by 40-50% by 2050*.
Underpinning all of these is one of the key benefits of organic agriculture: curtailing and reversing biodiversity loss. This is the driver that inspires our work on a day-to-day basis, and Scotland The Bread’s approach is two-fold.
Firstly, there is the general improvement to wildlife biodiversity that organic farming methods bring about. 41% of Britain’s wildlife species have declined since 1970, and more than 1 in 10 are currently facing extinction. Earth has lost half its wildlife in the past 40 years. Intensive farming practices, especially pesticide use, have been identified as the main driver of these declines, but organic farming offers an alternative. On average, plant, insect and bird life is 50% more abundant on organic farms, and there are around 75% more wild bees due to reduced pesticide usage.
Beyond this, Scotland The Bread focuses on increasing diversity within the crops we grow. Our Balcaskie Landrace grain is the edible, ongoing showcase of our ambitions to create an increasingly diverse population of plants that adapt to the local soils and climate. It is a mixture of long-strawed wheat varieties grown together, harvested and re-sown in order to harness the adaptive power of natural selection in a particular landscape, in this case the Balcaskie Estate in Fife, Scotland.
Balcaskie Landrace started out as three separate historic wheat varieties: Hunter’s, Rouge d’Ecosse and Golden Drop. For our first two years of trading these were sold individually as different flours. For the 2019 harvest, they were mixed in equal quantities, then the resultant mixture sown and harvested. The aim is gradually to increase the genetic diversity of this crop while carefully monitoring its nutrient density, breadmaking quality and yield. This year (2020) we sowed a Danish evolutionary ‘population’ wheat next to our Balcaskie Landrace. It performed well and will now become part of our Balcaskie Landrace when they are mixed and sown again shortly. Each year we will make selections from the crop to try to improve its quality for breadmaking, always balancing that with attention to its nutrient density and its yield. In this way our landrace will, in turn, become a diverse population wheat.
A landrace is a domesticated species (plant or animal) that has adapted over time to the local environment. We are perhaps more familiar with its closest French equivalent: the concept of terroir. A population is a mixture of many different landraces, sown, grown and harvested together. As the seasons pass, the influence of the local growing conditions will impact the resultant mix of grains as some fare better than others, creating a population unique to the landscape which formed it.
As Tara Wight wrote recently: ‘Many of Scotland’s locally adapted, traditional grain varieties have been lost forever. However, projects such as Scotland The Bread are working to restore diversity to our grain systems. Through participatory growing and selecting of Scottish heritage varieties, as well as genetically diverse populations from Europe, Scotland The Bread hopes to be able to develop resilient landraces of wheat and rye which are particularly suited to the local conditions on Scottish farms.‘ See her full article on the biodiversity benefits of participatory plant breeding here.
Our Chairman Andrew Whitley explained the importance of biodiversity within the field during an audio tour of his plots at Macbiehill Agroforestry, where Scotland The Bread was based until we moved to the Balcaskie Estate in 2018:
‘The idea of population breeding is to provide a diversity within a field of wheat, rye, barley or whatever, a diversity which is capable of resisting any challenge that is thrown at it. It is not saying: ‘It will be a disaster if I don’t get 10 tonnes a hectare’; it’s saying: ‘I want to get a crop year in, year out’, which is allowing the crop to do some of the work in terms of choosing which is going to grow well this year and which is going to grow next year, in a way which is adapting, which is harnessing the ability of Darwinian evolution if you like, to provide an adaptability over time, wherein lies resilience.
‘What we’re trying to show here is that by harnessing everything from the extraordinary ability of molecular biologists to analyse what’s in grain to the efforts of smallholders and small farmers to grow grain in a way more in harmony with the environment to get the best out of soils in which they grow, and to pass those on for bakers who actually care how much they leave in and bring out of the grains they’re working with, then we can actually end up with a healthier, happier population which is engaged with the whole food system in a way that it currently is not.’
It would seem senseless to us to commit to this work without placing it in the wider frame of organic farming. To recognize the importance of biodiversity is to appreciate the interconnectedness of our actions on the natural world. What good are expanded ‘wild’ borders around fields if they’re soaked in a fine spray of pesticide drift with each application to the field? Nature doesn’t recognise the boundary between tamed field and wild space and our farming methods must reflect this reality before meaningful improvement can be made.
* Stats from the Soil Association