The super-cow v the old-fashioned plough

Furrowly sensible: Farming in a French manuscript, Les Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry.

Was farming better 1,000 years ago? Scientists believe they have discovered how to breed “super-cows”. But others argue that agriculture was far more sustainable in medieval times.

Professor Jon Oatley was beside himself with excitement. He was announcing to the world a breakthrough that could transform animal breeding. With the help of gene editing, sperm-producing cells from the best of the breed can now be injected into sterile animals. Now, an ordinary bull can father offspring with the characteristics of a champion.

But for some experts, this is another example of scientists tampering with nature. In his new book English Pastoral, James Rebanks argues that abandoning traditional farming practices in favour of advanced ones has been disastrous.

The key to farming, he says, lies in the fertility of the soil. He points to the solution embraced by medieval farmers: rotation. A field might be used for growing first oats and then wheat, then given over to grazing for sheep or cows. Finally, it would be left fallow so that it could recover.

Farming changed dramatically with the introduction of modern machinery. But the greatest revolution came with the spread of artificial fertilisers in the second half of the 20th century, first in the US and then elsewhere. By adding these to the soil, farmers could grow a single crop repeatedly.

But the fertilisers have proved to be a quick-fix solution. Meanwhile, the ecosystems that rotation farming maintained are being destroyed.

Was farming better 1,000 years ago?

Ploughing ahead

Some say, no. The world’s population in the 13th century was vastly smaller than today: around 400 million as opposed to 7.8 billion. Only by using intensive farming methods can so many people be fed.

Others argue that there is a delicate balance in the natural world that modern farming disrupts. It ruins not only the soil, but the habitats of many wild creatures, threatening the biodiversity on which our survival depends.

You Decide

  1. Is it ethical to try to create new types of animals – and perhaps humans as well – by gene editing?

Activities

  1. Paint a modern farming scene in the style of Les Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry. In some parts of the world, farmers still rely on working animals, such as bullocks that pull ploughs.

Some People Say...

“To forget how to dig the earth and to tend the soil is to forget ourselves.”

Mahatma Gandhi (1869-1948), Indian political activist

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
It is generally agreed that people today spend far less money on food than they once did. It used to account for about 60% of a French family’s expenditure, and 35% of a British family’s; both now spend 10%. Many farmers say that they would like to produce more organic food but cannot afford to. It is a relatively expensive process and the demand for cheap food means that they need to keep costs down.
What do we not know?
Others argue that there is a delicate balance in the natural world that modern farming disrupts. It ruins not only the soil but the habitats of many wild creatures, threatening the biodiversity on which our survival depends. The quality of food produced in countries like Romania, where traditional methods are still widely used, is much higher than elsewhere, and much better for people’s health.

Word Watch

Gene editing
This involves changing or removing the DNA coding in embryos. Critics argue that it can harm animals, and that the latest technique – developed with mice – may not actually work on cattle.
James Rebanks
A shepherd from Cumbria, Rebanks left school with few qualifications, but he later studied at night school and won a place at Oxford University. His Twitter account @herdyshepherd1 earned a huge following and led to a commission for his first book, The Shepherd’s Life.
Fallow
Unused. The word is also the name of a colour – pale brownish-yellow or reddish-yellow – and a species of deer.
Artificial fertilisers
The most important of these is ammonium nitrate, first used to make explosives.

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